Storytellers: Documentary Institute produces PBS-caliber programs and budding filmmakers
University of Florida's alumni magazine | Fall 2006
By Alisson Clark


Isaac Brown (BSJ '03, MAMC '06) is just one of the award-winning filmmakers produced by UF's Documentary Institute. Brown and Eric Flagg (not pictured) co-directed the documentary GIMME GREEN.

How do you capture redemption, horror and hope on film? Vernon Tott faced that question during World War II when he walked into a German labor camp with a secondhand camera and photographed the survivors he saw.

The filmmakers of UF's Documentary Institute faced the same question more than 50 years later when they filmed “Angel of Ahlem,” which follows the 80-year-old Tott's race to reunite with those he photographed before he died.

The film is the ninth collaboration for co-directors Churchill Roberts and Sandra Dickson and associate directors Cindy Hill and Cara Pilson, a team that has won two Erik Barnouw Awards from the Organization of American Historians. The only other two-time recipient is a name even most non-documentarians recognize: Ken Burns.

It's not every day you hear a story like Tott's. But fascinating stories abound in the student-produced films in progress at the institute, from an all-Muslim Girl Scout troop in Minneapolis to inner-city kids traveling to Africa to trace their DNA .

Some ideas come from the students' life experiences, such as a film about the private lives of emergency medical technicians being made by a former EMT . Others are stories that students discover from news reports and the Internet, such as an engineer who spends part of each year hitchhiking across the country.

One of a handful of graduate-level documentary programs in the country, the institute and its far-flung films have racked up an impressive list of awards at international film festivals. The faculty team also continues to earn accolades. For instance, the film “Negroes with Guns,” which chronicles the struggles of North Carolina civil rights activist Rob Williams, was featured in The New York Times before premiering nationally on PBS's Emmy-winning series “Independent Lens” last year.

Lois Vossen, series producer of “Independent Lens,” praised the way the faculty brought the late Williams' story to life.

“We were honored to premiere the film,” Vossen says. “It was a really, really well made documentary — they made it current and vital. We really felt that it was a story that needed to be told.”

Vossen says the institute's unique educational offerings are a boon to budding filmmakers.

“The program is really about mentoring new talent,” she says. “The way the program is set up, the way the students are mentored, is pretty rare.”

Documentarians in the Making

Students entering the two-year program aren't necessarily broadcast journalists or filmmakers. There's no requirement for previous telecommunications experience.

“We're looking for people who, through their academic work or life experiences, have an intellectual curiosity about the world, who demonstrate a sense of social responsibility,” Dickson says.

Roberts says his ideal candidate is “someone who has finished college, gone out and worked some, then had the light bulb go off that they have a passion for film.”

“We want people who believe that, with filmmaking, they can make a real contribution to society,” he says.

The 10 to 12 students admitted each year learn field production, documentary history, writing and research strategies. Ultimately, they divide into teams to produce the documentary that will serve as their thesis. Working in two- to threeperson teams gives them experience in defending their ideas, offering constructive criticism and sharing creative control, all useful skills for realworld filmmaking, the instructors say.

“It makes them more marketable — they not only have the technical skills, but they have shown they can get along with other people,” Hill says.

Not that it's always easy. Dueling visions of the final product can lead to friction between team members.

“We double as marriage counselors,” Pilson says.

In the second year, students develop scripts, then shoot and edit their documentaries. The faculty mentor the filmmakers throughout the process, which culminates in a screening at the Reitz Union. It's a high-pressure event with an audience of 250 people: faculty, students, family, the community, even the subjects of the documentaries themselves, who often travel to Gainesville for the screening.

“That's a great motivator — as a filmmaker, you know you have to meet that standard. It brings the best out,” Hill says.

For alumna Donna Pazdera ( MAMC 2003), the scariest moment wasn't her screening, but rather 10 days before when she met with the faculty for what she anticipated would be a final approval of her completed film. Instead, she and her team wound up spending hours with Roberts, Dickson, Pilson and Hill dissecting and reassembling the film to solve its organizational problems.

“It was harrowing. But in the end it was legitimate, and we needed it, and I'm very, very grateful,” Pazdera says.

Her film, “Sid Vision,” which traces the life of filmmaker, mountain-climber and Hollywood stand-in Sid Davis, went on screen in New York and won awards at several film festivals.

Pazdera was one of the non-traditional students that the institute courts. After 18 years as a newspaper reporter, she decided her next step would be a degree in filmmaking. After considering programs around the nation, she decided to attend Florida's program.

“I was glad that Florida's program takes people with interesting backgrounds, not necessarily ‘film people,'” she says.

Eric Flagg ( BANRE 1998, MAMC 2006) was just such a student. An environmental science major at UF, Flagg, 30, spent several years working in the field before he realized that his interest in documentaries extended beyond watching them. In fact, he wanted to make them so badly, he didn't enjoy watching them anymore.

“When a documentary came on, I cringed. I couldn't watch The Discovery Channel any more because I wanted to do it so much,” he says.

Flagg entered the program in 2004, making the film “Gimme Green,” about America's obsession with lawns, with fellow student Isaac Brown (JM 2003, MAMC 2006). In September the film was named a finalist in the International Documentary Association's student film competition, the third institute film to receive that honor.

A Personal Touch

In making “Angel of Ahlem,” the faculty crossed new borders with their filmmaking. Rather than remaining impartial observers, they helped in Tott's efforts to find the people he photographed.

“We definitely discussed whether we should get involved,” Pilson says. “We debated the typical role of observers: How far can you remove yourself from the story? And how can you tell a personal story if you're not involved? We came to terms with it and what our role would be,” she says.

“It would have been hard to hear him say, ‘If I only had more time,' and just stand back.”

Pilson says their personal involvement led to a deeper understanding of their subject, one she hopes will come through to the audience when the film premieres.

“Because of the close relationship we had with him, we could empathize with his desire to find these people and how frustrated he was that he was running out of time,” Pilson says. “It allowed us to give the audience a much more personal view.”

Tott's quest ended with his death in 2005, but thanks to the Documentary Institute, his story is just beginning to be told.