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The 2014 Student Academy Awards: Documentary Winners

By Mitchell Block

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored three student documentary winners at the 41st Student Academy Awards ceremony, held June 7 at the Directors Guild of America Theater in West Hollywood.

The Gold Medal went to Helen Hood Scheer of Stanford University for The Apothecary; the Silver Medal, to J. Christian Jensen, also from Stanford University, for White Earth; and the Bronze Medal, to Zijian Mu from the New York University School of Journalism, for One Child. With the top two honors, Stanford's MFA program in Documentary Film continues to dominate these awards. Since 2000, students from Stanford have won awards in nine of the last 15 years. The runner-up programs in terms of representation over the same time frame are UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, having won awards in five of the last 15 years; and USC School of Cinematic Arts and Columbia University's MFA program in film, with four appearances each. The three runner-up programs in number of honors are UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, with five; and USC School of Cinematic Arts and Columbia University's MFA program in film, with four each. Counting the years when Stanford won two of the three awards, its students represent 11 of the 45 possible winners. This is an extraordinary achievement.  (UC Berkeley has a total of six winners.) Since 2000, four programs have produced 26 of the 45 winners.

These annual awards offer a good reality check on film training programs. With 73 films submitted to the Documentary category from 45 different schools, the results should be evenly distributed among the schools from year to year. Since the production of films is no longer a function of having giant sound stages and expensive cameras, editing and audio facilities, I think the top films are a function of the training, since all other elements (students and facilities) are more or less equal. All three of this year's winners praised the process and their mentor-teachers for support and structure. The key faculty members at Stanford have been there for this entire 15-year period, although Kristine Samuelson retired as professor and director of the Film and Media Studies Program at the end of this past academic year. The other suburb Stanford faculty member, Jan Krawitz, the director of the MFA program in Documentary Film and Video, continues there. In the last few years, the relatively new documentary program at the New York City-based School of Visual Arts is also coming on strong, with multiple Oscar nominee Deborah Dixon among the  faculty, along with a strong group of industry-savvy teachers. The SVA program was been well-represented in the Student Academy Awards over the last several years as a regional finalist, and has won one award.

The Winners:

Gold Medal: Helen Hood Scheer, Stanford University, for The Apothecary





The Apothecary is a moving, character-driven work about shop owner Don Colcord's struggle to both stay in business and support his community, and have a personal life. The film, set in Nucla, Colorado, just an hour's drive from Telluride, has seen hard times since the US uranium industry collapsed in the late 1970s. It's a hardscrabble town, where the folks who haven't fled barely eke out a living. The one oasis of activity is The Apothecary Shoppe, the sole pharmacy within 4,000 square miles. Colcord gamely juggles multiple roles as druggist, surrogate doctor, life counselor and community benefactor. Colcord's sanguine public persona, however, belies a long-suffered private pain for which there is no drug, no cure and no relief.

Prior to making her own films, Scheer worked on documentaries for HBO, PBS, A&E, National Geographic and other networks. Her documentaries tend to be about emotionally complex individuals who subvert expectations and embody intriguing contradictions. Using a cinéma vérité approach, she makes intimate and provocative films. Scheer made her directorial debut with JUMP!, an upbeat, award-winning documentary feature film about competitive jump rope that premiered at the 2007 Los Angeles Film Festival and was acquired by Showtime. Subsequently, she directed/produced/shot/edited four short documentary films that have screened at numerous festivals, including Hot Docs, True/False and Full Frame. The Apothecary premiered at the 2013 DOC NYC, and it won both Special Jury and Special Audience Recognition at Aspen ShortsFest. In addition to developing new documentary projects, Scheer is teaches film and TV studio production at Diablo Valley College and documentary production at Chapman University. 

Silver Medal: J. Christian Jensen, Stanford University, for White Earth





White Earth is a stunning portrait of the desolate landscape of North Dakota's oil fields in the middle of a brutal winter. Working 24/7, the residents there are dwarfed by giant machines, and they live in flimsy mobile homes. The young people in the film seem lost in this wild west-like boomtown. The adults focus on their work and making money, and one gets the impression that as soon as they make enough, they'll leave. Unlike the community of Nucla, Colorado, this place has no sense of  community.

The process of making this film was a challenge; Jensen slept many nights in cars, on floors or in camps. Most oil activities had to be filmed clandestinely, under cover of darkness and fog. Some of the pivotal moments of the film were shot on Christmas Day in 2012, and much of the landscapes were filmed alone or with the assistance of a Stanford classmate. The film would have never come to fruition without the aid of countless individuals in North Dakota who generously opened their homes, restaurants, bars and trailers to Jensen, who describes himself as "a wandering stranger with a camera in his hand."

Jensen has been doing film and media work for over ten years. He began in the broad­cast realm, working on productions for National Geographic, FRONT­LINE and American Experience. His first film, Sou da Bahia, was shot in Brazil; it explores art and Afro-Brazilian identity. This film received support from the University Film and Video Association.

Bronze Medal: Zijian Mu, New York University School of Journalism for One Child





Zijian Mu's One Child follows the journey of three families as they try to restore a sense of normalcy and struggle to move past the loss of their children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, China's deadliest disaster in three decades; 90,000 people lost their lives, including 5,000 children. This powerful film looks at both its characters and the devastation of the earthquake-destroyed city. The film is well directed and produced. The viewer connects on an emotional level with the characters, who were clearly devastated themselves by this natural disaster.

The title of the film, One Child, refers China's policy of limited families to one child. Among the 90,000 lost in the Sichuan earthquake included 5,000 children. In response to that massive loss of life, China's government allowed for those who had lost their children to conceive another.

A native of Beichuan Qiang Autonomous County in China, Zijian Mu is now based in New York. One Child, his first documentary, also earned  the 2013 Sidney Gross Memorial Prize for Investigative Journalism. Mu has also contributed video works to The Economist, Vice and CNN. Free Advice Girl, another short documentary he produced, was a finalist for the 2013 Hot Docs International Documentary Challenge and premiered at the festival.  He hopes to pursue making documentaries in the US and in China.

Mitchell Block is the producer of Diana Whitten's Vessel, which won a Special  Jury Recognition and an Audience Award at South by Southwest, as well as the Peter Wintonick Award at Sheffield Doc/Fest. He was also a producer of the Academy Award-winning documentary Big Mama and the Academy Award-nominated documentary Poster Girl (both for HBO). He is also executive director of programming for the Internet channel Raw Science; an adjunct professor at the Peter Stark Producing Program at USC's School of Cinematic Arts; a member of AMPAS and the Television Academy; and a  life member of the IDA. Contact:  ©mwblock 2014 All Rights Reserved