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Oscar Plays Berkeley: UC Grad School Dominates Documentary Student Academy Awards--Again

By Mitchell Block

From Xiaoli Zhou's 'The Women's Kingdom.'

The Student Academy Awards, now in its 33rd year, continues to be the best-run student film competition in the US and one of the few constants in film education. Providing four $5,000 first prizes, an additional $20,000 in awards to the second and third place winners, travel to Los Angeles, considerable press coverage, workshops and industry tours, the Student Academy Awards program is the benchmark for all other student awards. By adjudicating the cinematic production output and, by implication, the quality of the training of America's film and video programs, the Academy's program provides the only long-term yardstick to evaluate student films in a competitive manner from an "industry" perspective.

The Student Academy Awards do not just celebrate student work; they celebrate excellence in teaching. All of the faculty advisors and mentors of the student finalists and winners should be honored for their work. The awards do not honor production value, big budgets or technical excellence; rather, they honor the films' content and form. The playing field is level, one can study in any of the hundreds of film programs in the US and be a winner.

The Academy juries have constantly reflected an industry sensibility and taste. The selection process has two steps. First, films are judged in three regions: the West, East and the rest of the US. Region One includes Alaska, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming; Region Three, New York State and Puerto Rico; and Region Two is everywhere else in the US. This arrangement pits the West Coast and New York-based East Coast schools against each other. The regional screenings are done at film art centers with local jurists of educators, Academy members and others selected by the local hosts.

In each of the four categories--documentary, animation, narrative and alternative--a region can submit up to three films. These finalists are screened at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills for the Student Films Award Committee and any voting member of the Academy who wishes to attend these screenings. Members from all Academy branches participate in these screenings.

With the Academy now permitting video to be submitted, the range of work being considered has improved and students are not burdened with the cost of making film prints.

The 2006 results in the documentary category reflect a repeat of the 2005 results, with Student Academy Awards continuing to go to films from University of California Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, which just might be America's best documentary production program. The program's students, under the leadership of award-winning filmmaker and MacArthur Award recipient Jon Else, won the top two documentary awards this year, after winning six of the 12 documentary awards given in the last four years. Clearly, the school is doing something right.

Berkeley shut out Stanford, University of Southern California, University of Texas Austin, New York University and the other leaders in the field. In addition, Berkeley is the only program to win two of the three awards in a given year, and it has done so twice. Ironically, while New York University seems to have a lock on its judging region's documentary award finalists (having had all three of regional finalists in both 2005 and 2006), it did not take home any of the prizes.

How is it possible for such a small, under-funded program like UC Berkeley's to win top documentary student film awards four years in a row? On paper, all of the programs have strong academic standards for admission, professional faculty, similar access to equipment and a wide range of courses. This would make the top documentary programs appear more or less the same. The only thing that changes from year to year are the student films being considered and the students who make them. If all things were equal, awards logically would go to different schools each year. But this is not the case.

How does UC Berkeley, with minimal facilities and little financial support for its students, have its film and video projects regularly beat student projects from well-funded, highly exclusive, mostly private colleges? A public university, with its limited facilities (six Avid suites and two staffers) and three faculty members (Else and Teaching Fellows Deborah Hoffmann and Karen Everett) is tiny compared to the other programs. Something in the classroom and with its mentoring and support of students is very right at Berkeley. This rise to student documentary powerhouse parallels Else's shift from teaching at Stanford to heading the program at UC Berkeley.

While one might argue that there are other factors, the record of UC Berkeley's students in the documentary awards is pretty demonstrative of outstanding training and an outstanding program. While all of the films exhibit a base level of technical expertise, it's the content, the storytelling and the selection of the stories told. It's evident from this year's selections that the students at Berkeley are picking extremely interesting and moving stories that resonate with the jury (see sidebar).

To further inquire about the UC Berkeley program, I asked Else to share some insights about its formula for success. His response, via e-mail, follows:

"We are, first, part of a journalism grad school. So concepts and projects tend to be pretty meaty, and we work hard to focus thesis films so that they are about something that matters. By the time I get second-year students, they have a hell of a solid grounding in reporting, researching, fact-checking, working on deadline--all of the disciplines that go into professional nonfiction. We are very small, only about 10 grad students, and I am the only full-time faculty; Debbie Hoffmann and Karen Everett teach editing part-time, and Kean Sakata does the technical training, and that's about it.

"If one characteristic of our films has emerged over the years, it is that they tend to be both complex and clear at the same time. In my own work I've found myself doing films that try to work on more than one level, and I guess that rubs off. For instance, Carrie Lozano's film Reporter Zero is at the same time a fine, straight-ahead portrait of Randy Shilts as a gay newspaper reporter, while at the same time a very weighty exploration of the first emergence of HIV/AIDS in America, and of bitter internal debates within the community over the issue of bath houses. Kim Bassford's Cheerleader is at once a boisterous portrait of pre-teen cheerleaders and a much deeper and sometimes unsettling look at how girls become women in America.   

"What else? Absolute steel discipline; in the past ten years, no student has ever missed a screening deadline. No style restrictions. We are very strong on ethics, truth-telling, fact-checking. We aim our films for the largest possible general audience. We teach only practice and no theory; even our History of Documentary course is taught entirely from the perspective of the working filmmaker who must get up every morning and actually make films."

As for the school representing the Bronze Medal-winning film--Purdue University--according to filmmaker Mak Hossain, Purdue does not have a documentary program, although it will be introducing a documentary filmmaking course next semester. The Film/Video Studies Program is part of the Office of Interdisciplinary Studies in Purdue's College of Liberal Arts. The program draws on over 20 faculty and numerous courses from the Departments of Foreign Languages and Literatures, English, Communication, Creative Arts and Computer Graphics Technology.

As Professor Ben Lawton, the chair of the Film/Video Studies Program, describes it, "For whatever it's worth, our program is a bit like the Internet; it's very interdisciplinary. Students can take courses across the campus in everything from academic film courses in the foreign languages and literatures department, to sound design in visual and performing arts, to real-life experience through our Hall of Music, to courses in computer graphics technology, etc. As chair of the program, somehow I help them cobble together a major or a minor that insures that they are ‘educated' human beings and that satisfies their needs and wants and that, so far, seems to get them jobs in the real world.

"This may seem strange," Lawton continues, "but in a weird sort of way, our very weaknesses are our major strengths. Our students have to be flexible and persistent, and they have to improvise and overcome institutional inertia. As a result, they get to discover if this really is their bliss."

Oddly enough, Hossain is a business major, with an obvious passion for film, since he took two courses in Lawton's program. Says Lawton, "I hope that Mak will serve as inspiration to other students by showing them what can be done with very limited resources if one has an intelligent idea, a sense of what others have done, and the determination to make it happen. The bottom line is that all the credit for Mak's success must go to Mak. All I did was show him some films and encourage him to pursue his dream."

Purdue may be on to something: You have the top two prizes going to students from a first-rate program with a definite focus on documentary, and the third prize going to someone who's not even a film major and takes two courses within a program that, at that time, didn't even have a documentary production course. Perhaps this is a new model in documentary education: Get a business degree, get a job and make docs on the side.

Mitchell Block is president of Direct Cinema Ltd. ( He is currently executive producing Icon Production's CARRIER, a 10-hour cinema vérité documentary series he conceived, and producing its companion documentary feature. Since 1979, Block has been an adjunct production faculty member at the USC School of Cinema Television, where he is currently teaching non-theatrical independent producing in the Peter Stark Producing Program.

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