Fall 2013

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Below, Roger Brown, right, on location in the Rocky Mountains, east of the town of Fairplay in South Park, Colo., for a PBS documentary, with cameraman Jim Taylor.

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Elizabeth Canning Blackwell (C90) is a freelance writer in Skokie, Ill.

Editor’s note: This story highlights just a handful of alumni documentary filmmakers. Let us know whom we missed at letters@northwestern.edu.

Ever wonder about those strange designations we use throughout Northwestern to identify alumni of the various schools of the University? See the complete list.

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Documentary filmmakers are fueled by passion for their subjects and a commitment to immerse viewers in new worlds that matter.

by Elizabeth Canning Blackwell

For Tracy Droz Keyes Tragos the road to becoming an independent filmmaker began with an Internet search. Looking for information about her father, who had died in Vietnam when she was only 3 months old, she came across an account of the ambush in which he was killed, written by a fellow soldier who was there. The story sparked a compelling desire to find out more about the father she had never known.

Tracy Tragos

Tracy Droz Keyes Tragos

At the time Tragos was working as a computer-game producer for DreamWorks Interactive — a good job with a high-profile Hollywood company. Yet creatively she felt stifled. “Working in traditional film production, you have to rely on someone else to fulfill your vision,” she says. “I finally decided to green-light myself.”

Tragos (WCAS91), 44, of Pacific Palisades, Calif., had always been interested in crafting stories: She majored in fiction writing at Northwestern and later received a master of fine arts in screenwriting from the University of Southern California. Now she had found the story she was meant to tell. She quit her job and spent the following 2½ years filming and editing Be Good, Smile Pretty, its title taken from a signoff her father, Donald Droz, used on letters to her mother. (See “Film Vérité,” Alumni News, summer 2003.)

“It was terrifying,” she remembers of those early days, when she had to charge film expenses to her credit card and even held a garage sale to raise money. “There were times when I wanted to curl up on the bathroom floor and give up. But deep down I knew I needed to make the film. When I met the other men who had never talked about what they experienced, or when I met people like me who had lost their fathers, it only made me more committed.” Be Good, Smile Pretty won the Best Documentary Feature award at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2003, as well as an Emmy for Best Documentary that same year, and was shown nationally on Independent Lens on PBS. Through the process of making that film, Tragos says, “I discovered what I was meant to do.”  

“It used to be that when you said you specialized in documentaries, people’s eyes would glaze over,” says Debra Tolchinsky, a documentary filmmaker and associate professor in Northwestern’s radio/television/film department. “But now documentary is having its day. There are so many great films being made, and there’s a real respect for the form.” Her undergraduate courses in documentary filmmaking regularly have waitlists, and interest is so high that the School of Communication recently approved a new master of fine arts program in documentary media production that Tolchinsky will direct.

“With digital cameras you can shoot a lot of footage relatively cheaply and edit on your laptop,” says Tolchinsky. “You can put clips up on YouTube to get your movie out there. You can use crowd funding sites like Kickstarter or Indiegogo to find investors. There are just a ton of innovative strategies to get your film made and seen.”

But a few online videos can’t sustain a successful, long-term career. The alumni who have thrived within this competitive field all have struggled to get funding for their projects, just as they’ve struggled to stand out in an ever-more-crowded world of entertainment options. They say that the payoff is a fulfillment that goes beyond the satisfaction of creative achievement. They are not simply making movies; they are shining a light on the human experience, and their work can have significant, real-life consequences.




Joanna Rudnick

Filmmaker Joanna Rudnick, right, meets local albinism activist Jayne Waithera in Kenya before a two-week shoot for On Beauty. Photo by Rick Guidotti.

Consider Joanna Rudnick (WCAS96), whose film In the Family documented her own story of what it means to inherit the “breast cancer” gene. The film includes the only on-screen direct challenge — by Rudnick to a co-founder of Myriad Genetics — to that company’s patenting of BRCA genes. Through numerous screenings held with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Public Patent Foundation, Rudnick helped increase public awareness about the dangers of human gene patents at the same time these two organizations were mounting their case against Myriad Genetics.

The issues raised by Rudnick’s film were likely considered in this year’s Supreme Court decision that denied private companies the right to patent human genes. Rudnick, 39, who lives in San Carlos, Calif., underwent a double mastectomy earlier this year after being diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer, just as actress Angelina Jolie revealed her decision to have the same surgery electively.

“It’s been a tremendous experience to see this issue that I set out to help normalize go mainstream,” says Rudnick (see “In the Family,” fall 2008). “I believe the film’s ability to humanize these issues is just as relevant and vital as ever.”

Rudnick, who was the supervising producer on the recent Rolling Stones documentary Crossfire Hurricane, is currently finishing up her next directorial project, On Beauty, which follows a former fashion photographer who redefines the meaning of “beautiful” in his pictures of people with genetic abnormalities. (You can watch the trailer at www.kartemquin.com/films/on-beauty/video.)

Heather Courtney

Director Heather Courtney films Where Soldiers Come From in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Photo by Justin Hennard.

For Heather Courtney (J89), 46, making documentaries is a logical outgrowth of her longtime interest in “giving a voice to the voiceless.” (Before earning a master’s degree in film from the University of Texas at Austin, she worked with resettled Ethiopian refugees in the Washington, D.C., area, as a public information officer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and in the Rwandan refugee camps in Tanzania after the 1994 Rwandan genocide.) Her first two films, Los Trabajadores and Letters from the Other Side, examined the life of immigrant day laborers and the families they left behind in Mexico; for her next project, she decided to return to her rural hometown in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and find a story that was closer to her own experience.

Scanning the local paper, she saw a notice about a local National Guard unit, met up with some recent recruits and discovered the focus of her next film: “I decided to follow these teenagers as they tried to decide what to do next with their lives.” While the threat of deployment loomed in the background, the first year and a half of filming focused on their lives as normal teenagers, telling a coming-of-age story about kids from a small town. But when they found out their National Guard unit was being deployed to Afghanistan, they changed from typical teenagers to soldiers overnight, and the focus changed to how a faraway war affects these young men and their whole community. Courtney and her camera followed them to Afghanistan for their nine-month deployment, and she kept filming for nearly a year after the soldiers came home, chronicling the physical and psychological effects of their service. “Once you commit to a story,” she says, “you have to follow life as it happens.”

The resulting film, Where Soldiers Come From, won an Emmy Award, as well as numerous film festival prizes, and was broadcast nationally on POV, the PBS documentary series. As the movie made the film festival circuit, Courtney and the three main subjects in her film — Dominic, Bodi and Cole — participated in post-screening question-and-answer sessions and panel discussions. “It was great for them and their confidence,” she says. “In a way, it was easier for them to talk to audiences who had seen the film than to talk with their own families and friends, so the screening experience was something positive for them.”

Such bonds between documentarians and their subjects are not unusual; filmmakers must be able to establish trust if they are to tell a story as truthfully as possible. “It’s not a job, really,” says Courtney of her career. “It’s an extension of my life. Half of documentary filmmaking is about getting to know people, hanging out with them, even when the cameras aren’t on. And then, after I’m done filming, and I’m editing at home, I’ll show rough cuts to all my friends and peers. They become part of my work too.” (One of those peers is the film’s co-editor, Northwestern RTVF assistant professor Kyle Henry.)

Other alumni have built long-term careers by alternating work created for clients with their own, more personal projects. Roger Brown (C75), 60, started his own production company, Trillium Productions, in 1985; today he and his wife, Gaylon Emerzian, run the business from their Victorian home in Evanston, a mile away from the Northwestern campus. Trillium got its start making educational films for Encyclopaedia Britannica and the National Safety Council. “If you got a speeding ticket and had to go sit through a movie, it was probably ours,” he says with a laugh. “That was our bread and butter for years.”

In the nearly 30 years they’ve been in business, Brown and Emerzian have produced 18 films for the National Geographic Society, the Discovery Channel and the History Channel, among others. (You can see clips at www.trillfilm.com.) Brown’s most recent project, Most Unlikely Heroes, was filmed in Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey. It is the third episode in a series for PBS centered on the work of Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, who has shown the crucial role that property rights and business law play in economic development. Yet Brown and Emerzian have also been able to squeeze in the occasional self-financed, labor-of-love project; Living on the Wedge, a tribute to Wisconsin’s artisanal cheesemakers, was nominated for a James Beard Award, the highest honor in culinary journalism.

Though Brown admits that running your own business makes it harder to save for retirement — advising would-be documentarians to take business classes in addition to film courses — the job comes with its own intangible rewards. “My wife and I are cultural travelers,” he says. “We have friends literally all over the world. Every day is different, and I’m always learning something new. You’ve got to stay flexible.”

Gita Pullapilly (GJ01), 35, of Bar Harbor, Maine, is emblematic of a new breed of filmmakers who embrace the idea of flexibility by shifting between documentary and narrative (fictional) film. Pullapilly and her husband, Aron Gaudet, were working as television journalists in Grand Rapids, Mich., when they decided to make a movie about three senior citizens in Bangor, Maine, who greet U.S. troops at the airport on their way to and from Iraq and Afghanistan. “We were naive enough to think we could jump in and be done in a year,” remembers Pullapilly. What followed was a five-year journey that became the couple’s equivalent to film school. “All the skills we had developed in television news had to be used differently,” she says. “It was a lesson in how to tell a story in real detail.” (See “Plot Points Toward Peace,” summer 2007.)

Gita Pullapilly

Documentary filmmaker Gita Pullapilly (GJ01) on location in in Aroostook County, Maine, for her feature film Beneath the Harvest Sky. Photo by Ryan Alexander Kahm.

The Way We Get By won numerous film festival prizes, and Pullapilly and Gaudet were soon inundated with offers to direct other senior-focused film projects. They said no, opting instead to film a fictional script they had written, Beneath the Harvest Sky, which is expected to premiere at a major film festival this fall. “A film is all about the story and the best way to tell it,” she says. “Our mantra was to make our new film feel as real and authentic as a documentary.” (Pullapilly and Gaudet also kept their hands in the documentary world by executive producing a multiplatform PBS program, Lifecasters, which paired high-profile filmmakers and inspirational Americans who discovered creative ways of realizing their dreams a bit later in life.)

Television offers a huge potential market for filmmakers who want to explore nonfiction storytelling, but the line between a documentary and reality TV isn’t as clear-cut as many think, says Daniel Laikind (C96), 39, co-founder of Stick Figure Productions in New York City.

“In any art form there are high-quality works and there are those that are mindless, and I think having that choice is a great thing,” he says. “All I can do is strive to make good shows.” At Stick Figure he has produced programs for more than 30 television channels, ranging from traditional feature-length documentaries to multiepisode series. He points to Amish: Out of Order, a series about a community of young people who come together in rural Missouri after being shunned by their Amish families, as an example of a show that defied the dismissive “reality” label. “It was respectful and thought-provoking and deep,” he says. “It took on hard questions, and I’m unbelievably proud of it.” It also was one of the highest-rated shows ever aired on the National Geographic Channel.  

As a producer Laikind represents a critical piece of the documentary-filmmaking process, coming up with ideas, pitching them, selling them and overseeing the day-to-day process of making them — even though he admits he barely knows how to operate a camera. He says he got started in the business, despite his lack of technical skills, because “I was able to talk and convince people to do what they might not otherwise do on camera.”

Just as new technology has democratized the filmmaking process, it will ultimately erase the distinction between theatrical documentaries and those made for television, Laikind believes.

“If you’re watching a movie on your iPad, you might as well be watching TV,” he says. “The outlet is becoming unimportant. As long as the content is high end, that’s all that matters.”

Marc Schiller (C86) is the founder and CEO of New York’s BOND Strategy and Influence, one of the leading independent-film marketing firms. In the 16 years since he started the company, he says he has never been as enthusiastic about promoting documentaries as he is now. “There are fantastic films being made, and we have a greater ability to share those films through digital distribution,” he says. The challenge is getting directors and producers to embrace new promotional strategies: “Filmmakers need to know who their audience is and how to make those people into champions of their work. It’s about creating a community around a film.”

You don’t go into documentary filmmaking for the money or the fame or the low-stress lifestyle. Tracy Tragos admits that it has become even harder now that she has two daughters. “It’s a very demanding job, and when you’re making a film, you need to be driven,” she says. “But I do think being a mother has given me insights I didn’t have before, especially when I’m talking to children.”

That life experience wove its way into her next film, Rich Hill (co-produced with Andrew Droz Palermo, her first cousin), a chronicle of the Missouri town where her father grew up, seen through the eyes of children who live there. (You can see clips at www.richhillfilm.com.) “It’s a place that has become increasingly impoverished, like many small towns across America,” she says. “But it is also a film about family and connection and belonging. I want to approach a social issue through the heart, not the head.”

“The people I know who have done well in documentary filmmaking bring a distinct voice and a sense of authenticity to their work,” says documentary film professor Tolchinsky. “They have something important to say, and they’re tenacious about going after it.” Ultimately, it is this sense of mission that urges Tragos and others on, despite the many financial and logistical hurdles. Thinking of her young subjects in rural Missouri, Tragos explains her ultimate motivation in words any fellow filmmaker can relate to: “I feel like the world would be a better place if I told their stories.”