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M.F.A. students debut new documentaries

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As the end of fall quarter fast approaches, the first-year students of Stanford’s M.F.A program in documentary film and video are preparing for their first screening on Stanford campus. Eight students’ polished works, each one produced in black-and-white 16mm film, will be screened on Dec. 7 at 7:30 p.m. in Annenberg Auditorium, followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers and a reception with family and friends. The subjects of the films range from American football players to Polynesian rugby players, from beached blue whales to the secret life of pens.

Stanford’s M.F.A documentary film program is a two-year intensive program that instructs students how to write, direct  and produce documentary films, while providing a historical and aesthetic framework for the art of nonfiction film production.

“We don’t do anything else but documentaries, we breathe, eat, sleep it,” said Jamie Meltzer, an associate professor in the program.

“Because the program is so small, we collaborate all the time,” said Paul Donatelli, one of the first-year students. “It really is like having an eight person family.” Each project involves a high level of collaboration, with classmates offering technical advice and different aesthetic perspectives. “We have learned a great deal from working with each other so far,” he added.

Donatelli’s film evolved from the poetic musings of a retired professional boxer. He had originally wanted to explore the unfamiliar nature of early morning San Francisco bars, but shifted his focus when he met a bartender with an interesting back story.

“Once I found out that he also wrote poetry, I knew that he was a strong enough character to carry a film,” Donatelli said.

Throughout the course of his project, Donatelli developed an appreciation for the sport, and really enjoyed immersing himself entirely in this person’s life, this person’s passion.

“Being a filmmaker is being granted permission to invade these people’s lives for a short time, and you can’t help but learn something,” Donatelli said.

Another first-year student, Anna Moot-Levin, also said that she’s interested in intimately exploring another person’s world.

“I find the process of getting to know the subject or subjects in your documentary extremely rewarding,” she said, stressing the importance of making her subjects feel comfortable in revealing their stories. “After a documentary shoot, I feel exhausted just because of the emotional support you need to provide to someone whose life you are documenting.”

Her documentary revolves around Telemachus Clay, a brave man who, while losing control over his body to Parkinson’s disease, invents new forms of physical exercise to maintain his independence.

For each film, students must construct a storyboard that forces them to question the purpose of the documentary, of each scene, of each moment. This imbues each scene with a sense of purpose, of artistic responsibility. Donatelli admires the fact that their film work “can bring out the inherent poetic nature of everyday life – that these real images can be crafted into a story that is based in reality and yet has your own fingerprint on it.”

The introductory courses, which teach the history of documentaries, narrative approaches and the production of 16mm films, help students conceptualize their work. The coursework also encourages a holistic approach to filmmaking; the graduates master every aspect of filmmaking, including scoring, composition, light, sequencing and narrative development.

See the eight documentaries on Tuesday, Dec. 7 at 7:30 p.m. in Annenberg Auditorium. Admission is free.