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Northwestern Now a School of Docs: University Offers New MFA Program in Nonfiction

By Katie Murphy

Northwestern MFA in Documentary Media program director Debra Tolchinsky shares a laugh with her students. Photo: Justin Barbin

In 2014, Northwestern University announced the launch of a new Master of Fine Arts in Documentary Media, to be housed in the School of Communications and helmed by Debra Tolchinsky, a documentary filmmaker and artist whose breadth of experience in the arts is well suited to the program's emphasis on working across disciplines and embracing innovation. Now, in the middle of the inaugural cohort's first year, Tolchinsky acknowledges that launching a new program "is a bit like Whac-A-Mole—lots of things to design and figure out," but she is also already seeing the range of students drawn to the program's approach. "If the present class is any indication, I think a wide range of students will thrive here," she says. "What ties all our students together is a passion for documentary, an interest in stories that impact people, and a desire to push the form and experiment with a variety of approaches."

Tolchinsky spoke with Documentary Magazine about the educators that inspire her, her background in fine art, and the surprises that come during the first year of an academic program.


What brought you to Chicago?

It wasn't a "what," it was a "who." My spouse was offered a job at Northwestern as an assistant professor in Radio/TV/Film. He's a screenwriter and currently directs the MFA program in Writing for the Screen and Stage. We're actually a USC film school couple, and frequently bounce off each other on creative projects—and I definitely see building an MFA as a creative project!


You hold an MFA in painting and you studied film and video production as an undergraduate student. Did you ever consider pursuing a graduate degree in film? How does your educational background guide your direction of the Documentary Media program?

I was trained at USC at the undergrad level in film and then went on to work in the film industry in editorial, but I was simultaneously interested in painting and fine arts. I received my MFA in painting from the Art Institute of Chicago, but because SAIC's program is pretty fluid, I worked across disciplines. In the end, I made a body of work encompassing video installation, large-scale digital prints and mini-Polaroids, all inspired by nonfiction characters.

My latest documentary, Fast Talk, delves into the world of high-speed debate, but I also curate gallery shows and film series and make other types of art. The MFA program may partly flow out of my personality and my background; I believe that subject matter should dictate form, and I believe that exposure to a range of approaches can help foster more layered, relevant work. Professionally and creatively, I try to think expansively about media and pursue opportunities wherever they may be—from traditional documentaries to combining reality and fiction to exploring new distribution platforms and techniques—and I encourage my students to do likewise.


What was the impetus for creating an MFA program specifically for Documentary Media?

Our school has created a number of professional programs that cross disciplines, like the MFA in Writing for Screen and Stage or our MS in Leadership for Creative Enterprises. With the rise in documentary viewership and the increasing number of filmmakers who are pushing the form, it seemed like the right time for a similarly cross-disciplinary program in production. The MFA in Documentary Media centers on documentary, but also looks at the interaction between fiction and nonfiction. We believe there is a growing need and market for media-makers who are more broadly trained, and also think it is relevant to teach students how to create documentaries that use techniques borrowed from fiction filmmaking and to create fiction films that borrow from documentary—and everything in between.

Northwestern MFA in Documentary Media students Miasarah Lai and João Pedro Queriroga review their footage. Photo: Justin Barbin

What makes Chicago a unique location for students interested in pursuing a graduate degree in Documentary Media?

Chicago is a vibrant, complicated city in which to work, study and make films: great art, great food, great theater; lots of eccentric characters, diversity, politics; an enormous lake that looks like an ocean; and, oh, yes: constantly changing weather that sparks much conversation. Bring a good coat and mittens!

Additionally, we have a rich history of documentary media that includes numerous film festivals, like Chicago International and Stranger Than Fiction [a curated series at the Gene Siskel Film Center]. We've also been home to Kartemquin Films since the '60s, and have recently attracted Good Pitch. Perhaps because our film scene is small compared to LA or New York, we tend to be tight-knit, and consequently our students have lots of interaction with local filmmakers. Steve James, the director of Hoop Dreams and Life Itself, will be teaching for us in the spring, and our MFA students will have the opportunity to attend Good Pitch.


What programs or faculty, at Northwestern or other universities, inspire you in your work as an educator and director of the Documentary Media program?

At USC, I studied with Mark Jonathan Harris. He absolutely inspired me as a filmmaker and as an educator. He modeled how to be encouraging, open, personal and intellectual, and how to allow one's work to unfold organically.

I've also been inspired by my spouse, Dave Tolchinsky, who started the Writing for Screen and Stage MFA at Northwestern. The writing program has been highly successful, and we've patterned many aspects of our MFA, like the two-year, community-centric cohort system, after the writing MFA.


What were some of the surprises you've seen with this new program?

I was surprised that we've not only had strong US candidates, but candidates from a number of other countries, including Venezuela, China, Bulgaria and Portugal. I love how students are exposed not just to different media techniques and styles, but also to different perspectives on the world; it's pushing the cohort to think outside her or his comfort zone and ultimately make better work. And although I knew that by tapping into the intersection of fiction and nonfiction, our program would have a unique angle, I've been surprised by just how in tune this seems with changes in the field. There is just so much new exciting work that walks this line.


What production and post-production resources does Northwestern offer to students in the program?

We have great facilities and support from the university. Students receive a scholarship of $2,000 each quarter of their first year, so a total of $6,000 per year. They also receive an assistantship position for at least one quarter of their second year, as well as a $5,000 grant to help them produce their thesis project. Frequently, we can provide additional scholarships to particularly strong candidates.

In terms of specific equipment, we just purchased Canon C100s for the program and put together some lightweight lighting backpacks specifically designed for a one- or two-man-band documentary. Our equipment cage has all kinds of other goodies, including REDs, and we also have sound stages, greenscreen facilities and high-end editing suites.

I'd say our faculty—production, writing and studies—are an enormous resource. Plus, NU is a top research institution. Students don't just get film; they get exposure and access to experts in science, law, philosophy, etc.


What are your goals for the future of the Documentary Media program? What are you looking forward to as the program grows and evolves?

I'm looking forward to new stories told in innovative and unforeseen ways, and I'm looking forward to all the students I'll get to know and work with. I'm hopeful that our program will foster leaders in the field and projects that positively impact people and communities.


Katie Bieze earned her bachelor's degree in Literature, Documentary Studies and Film/Video/Digital from Duke University and her master's degree in Film and Video from American University. She currently resides in Los Angeles, where she works for the School of the Arts and Architecture at UCLA.