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Janitor’s tale gains Hollywood notice

Stanford M.F.A. students Kevin Gordon (left) and Rebekah Meredith (right) won a bronze medal at the 2010 Student Academy Awards for their documentary, "Dreams Awake," a film portrait of a Cantor Arts Center janitor. (Courtesy of Todd Wawrychuk/A.M.P.A.S.)

‘Dreams Awake’ documentary wins a Student Academy Award

While Stanford University is recognized as home to some of the brightest minds in the world, some of the school’s most inspiring intellectual gems can often remain tragically unseen. In some cases, they might even be hidden just behind a paper towel and a half-filled bottle of multi-purpose cleaner.

Doroteo Garcia is a janitor at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford. To first-year M.F.A. students Kevin Gordon and Rebekah Meredith, however, Garcia is far more than his occupation; he is a poet, a historian and an activist. And also the focus of their critically acclaimed documentary, “Dreams Awake,” which earned Gordon and Meredith a bronze medal in the 2010 Student Academy Awards last month.

“[Garcia is] a very humble person,” Meredith said. “He’s very involved in the community. He’s had us over to his house several times for dinner or just to have some coffee.”

Throughout winter quarter, Gordon and Meredith filmed and edited the documentary, following the janitor through his workday and after hours in an attempt to showcase his voice and poetry.

“At heart, it’s a film about really seeing people who are often unnoticed…and have stories that are yet to be heard,” Meredith said.

Dreams Awaken

The project first emerged out of FilmProd 402, a winter quarter course for M.F.A. documentary students where those enrolled pair up to produce films.

“In this case, Kevin and Rebekah co-directed and shared the shooting, sound recording and editing,” said art and art history Professor Jan Krawitz, instructor of the course and also the director of the M.F.A. program in documentary film.

Aside from a length requirement, students were allowed to choose whatever topic interested them upon approval by course faculty. Gordon and Meredith’s initial research involved hours of sifting through articles, bouncing topics off of one another and making lists of potential ideas.

“We both had an idea of doing an observational film,” Gordon said. “We spent several weeks shopping different ideas, and a friend forwarded us an article about Doroteo in The New York Times. We were captivated by his poetry, as well as the space of the art museum.”

Because the article was printed in 2005, both were thrilled to discover that Garcia still worked at Cantor. When they presented their idea for a documentary, the janitor’s initial skepticism soon grew into enthusiasm.

“We had to communicate our vision of what we wanted to do with the film, and he was excited that his poetry would be in the film and get some exposure,” Meredith recalled.

“He was totally game for a movie,” Gordon added.

The filmmakers spent the next few weeks storyboarding their idea before recording the seven-minute documentary in four shoots lasting a few hours each.

“Dreams Awaken” ultimately paints a reflective, emotional portrait of Garcia by focusing on controlled, stylized scenes of the janitor working at the Cantor Arts Center, leading a union activist meeting for Hispanic workers, and learning English with Habla el Dia at Stanford’s El Centro Chicano. Gordon and Meredith enlivened each scene with voiceovers from Garcia himself, using segments from an interview and stanzas read from his original poetry.

“Rebekah and Kevin had to figure out a way to represent Doro’s poetry, and they decided to allow his words to complement the scenes from his life that play out in the film,” Krawitz said. “The voice of his poetry amplifies the more traditional voiceover that provides some of the backstory and exposition of the film.”

When their hours of work finally came to an end, Gordon and Meredith felt the choice for their first viewer was obvious.

“We showed [Garcia] the film before we showed anybody else,” Meredith said. “He saw the film, and he’s had fun with it.”

Lasseter, Lee, Parker…Gordon and Meredith?

While pleased about the final product, both filmmakers were excited and humbled when they were chosen as third-place winners of the 2010 Student Academy Award in the documentary category.

“We knew it was a good movie,” Gordon admitted. “We just thought it was worth a shot. I mean, you just have to put these movies out there and see what happens.”

“I definitely was not expecting it to do as well as it did,” he added.

The student competition of the Academy Awards judges films each year in four categories: animation, documentary, narrative and alternative. Submitted films have to pass various rounds of the competition, with the regional finalists going on to compete for three winning slots in each category.

Because of the multiple rounds, Gordon remembers the initial confusion upon receiving the notification.

“When I first got the letter, I thought it was just repeating something that we knew before,” he said. “Then I was like, ‘Oh my god, we actually [won].’”

Since its inception in 1973, the Stanford Graduate Program in Documentary Film and Video has had 21 films honored at the awards.

Past winners at the awards include John Lasseter from Pixar’s “Toy Story” series, noted director Spike Lee and Trey Parker of “South Park” fame. However, Gordon and Meredith are hesitant to line themselves up in that marquee of names just yet.

“It’s kind of funny,” Meredith said with a hint of embarrassment. “I wouldn’t compare myself to them at this point, but this is the beginning, and the hope is that we will go on to be recognized that way.”

“It’s a great encouragement to get early in your career to know that you’re on the right path and doing something that people like and appreciate,” Gordon said.

Both are now focused on working on their individual theses while eyeing the dream of creating a feature-length documentary in the future. When asked if they would consider working with one another again, the budding filmmakers responded very positively.

“I plan on working and collaborating with [my classmates] for the rest of my life,” Gordon said emphatically. Meredith agreed.