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MFA Program Pushes Boundaries in Documentary Filmmaking

Builds on School of Communication’s storied reputation in film and writing for screen

  • Documentary MFA focuses on the interaction between fiction and reality
  • Students will learn from, work alongside active, world-class filmmakers
  • MFA program accepts a cohort of 12 students per year
  • Deadline to submit application for next year’s class is January 15, 2016 

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Deborah Libby always loved to travel and learn about new cultures but was unsure how that passion could ever translate into a career. Feeling unfulfilled by her job, Libby decided to go back to school and pursue her interest in filmmaking as part of Northwestern University’s MFA in Documentary Media. That was a year ago and she hasn’t looked back since.

“It took a long time for me to finally gather the courage to pursue documentary filmmaking as a career,” said Libby. “But the program has far exceeded my expectations.”

Northwestern’s MFA program takes an innovative approach to documentary filmmaking by looking at the interaction between fiction and nonfiction elements in telling a story. Under the direction of industry-proven instructors like its founder and director Debra Tolchinsky, MFA candidates learn to challenge traditional models and discover powerful narratives through interactive and emerging methods. 

“We encourage our students to not just ask ‘What should I make a film about and why,’ but also ‘Should it be a traditional documentary? Should it borrow techniques from narrative filmmaking? Maybe it’s not a linear film, but an interactive installation? Ultimately, how can form underscore content, and how can I use the techniques at my disposal to create a project which wields significant impact?’” said Tolchinsky. 

Northwestern’s MFA program looks to be on the cutting edge as it embraces innovative approaches that blend documentary and narrative techniques that have produced astounding results. Films such as “The Hurt Locker” that uses a shaky handheld camera to create a sense of authenticity and anxiety or the deceptive use of archival footage in “Stories We Tell” are just a few examples of these contemporary methods.

The program is part of the School of Communication and builds on the school’s prestigious tradition as a home not only to Northwestern’s lauded film school but also to the MFA in Writing for Screen and Stage. Both have provided launching pads for renowned directors, screenwriters and development executives.

The two-year program, which launched one year ago, only accepts 12 students a year. During their 24 months, students learn the basics such as story development, interviewing, filming, editing and pitching, but also how to create documentaries that use techniques borrowed from fiction filmmaking and to create fiction films that borrow from documentary--and everything in between. It all leads up to their thesis project: a 12- to 20-minute film or interactive project on a subject they have independently designed, produced and are prepared to market. 

“We want our students to make great films, which win awards and hopefully affect people in a deep way,” Tolchinsky said. “But we also want our students to learn how to navigate an evolving media landscape, understanding where the opportunities are and how to pursue them--whether those opportunities involve new forms of distribution or companies previously not on the media landscape.”

She notes, “One of our students might be put to work for a company like Google, Participant Media or Al Jazeera, but another might invent a new documentary series or platform.”

In addition to directing their thesis project, MFA candidates learn about the media industry from world-class faculty and visiting filmmakers. For example, this past spring  Oscar-nominated director Steve James  (“Hoop Dreams,” “Life Itself” and “The Interrupters”) co-taught a small, pre-thesis seminar to graduates. This fall, J.P. Sniadecki, who was recently profiled in the New York Times in regards to his new film “The Iron Ministry,” will be teaching the first-year students a seminar on documentary techniques.

“Being able to work with Chicago filmmakers, to have professors who are also practicing in the area, Northwestern's fresh outlook on the documentary format, and to create a network with my fellow peers and community members really separated this program,” said Mina Fitzpatrick, an incoming MFA candidate.

Each MFA candidate also will have access to a guaranteed $5,000 grant to help produce their thesis project; first-class technical facilities and equipment; internship opportunities in Chicago, Los Angeles or New York; and a network of colleagues, consisting of the program’s faculty and many visiting artists. Scholarship funding is available for students who qualify to help cover the expenses of participating in the MFA program.

In addition, Northwestern students have the advantage of being in Chicago, a city with an active documentary scene, including film production companies like Kartemquin Films, film festivals like the Chicago International Film Festival and film screening venues like the Gene Siskel Center and Block Cinema, as well as world-class art, colorful neighborhoods and complex characters.

Engineering a Unique Curriculum

The MFA revolves around six core courses, which introduce students to fundamental concepts and techniques. They will build a significant portfolio -- at least one short documentary, one narrative film and one interactive project. Students also get a chance to interact with visiting filmmakers such as Margaret Brown, Darius Clark Monroe, Tan Pin Pin and Athina Rachel Tsangari, who all visited during the program’s first year, and Josh Oppenheimer and Lyric Cabral who will visit this fall. 

And to expand their professional networks further, students are required to complete an internship within the documentary industry. Students interned this past summer for acclaimed filmmakers such as Lucy Walker and Lauren Greenfield and documentary companies like Logo Documentary Films and Kartemquin Films.

“Instinct can only get you so far; that’s where the formal education comes in. And the professors in the MFA program have done such a great job of sharing that knowledge and pushing us beyond our comfort zones,” Libby said.

This past spring, students volunteered at “Good Pitch” hosted by Chicago Media Project. Good Pitch is a multi-city/multi-national recurring event along the lines of a live Kickstarter campaign, that brings together impact documentary filmmakers with donors.

“’[The MFA program] is a wealth of riches for anyone who wants to learn about media and storytelling and filmmaking," said Maria Finitzo, a two-time Peabody Award-winning social-issue documentary filmmaker, a board member of Kartemquin, and current adjunct MFA faculty member.

Creating a Unique, International Community

Students in the program hail from all over the United States as well as from across the globe, bringing a variety of perspectives. Current students come from such states as California, Utah and Kansas, and such countries as Turkey, France, China and Venezuela.

“It’s not a cookie-cutter program. They’re not all going to make the same kind of work, and we don’t want them to,” Tolchinsky said. “We throw students together with vastly different backgrounds, and they inevitably influence and push one another as they form a creative community.”

By workshopping their films in class and working together on projects outside of it, students learn as much from each other as they do the professionals.

“The multicultural, relatively small cohort of 12 students separated NU from other MFA programs,” said João Queiroga, a second-year student originally from Portugal. “It is very exciting to collaborate and learn from a close-knit group of students.”

Through this model of collaboration and under the tutelage of great documentarians, Tolchinsky believes the MFA “will foster important work and filmmakers, who are armed with the skills they need to pursue career opportunities, influence the field, and impact people and communities.”

The application deadline for the Northwestern University MFA in Documentary Media is January 15, 2016.

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