Q&A with New York Film Academy (NYFA) Broadcast Journalism and Documentary Filmmaking Alum Clyde Gunter

US Navy Veteran and recent New York FIlm Academy (NYFA) Broadcast Journalism and Documentary Filmmaking graduate Clyde Gunter is starting a 13-month paid, full-time Leadership, Exploration and Development Program next month at ESPN. While there, Clyde will spend time assigned to various departments across the company, learning the ins and outs of the sports media giant and, at the conclusion, he will be given an opportunity to join the ESPN staff full time.

New York Film Academy spoke with Clyde about his experience at NYFA, where his inspiration comes from, and what he has planned for his new position and beyond:

Clyde Gunter

NYFA alum Clyde Gunter

New York Film Academy (NYFA): First, can you tell us a bit about yourself, where you’re from, and what brought you to New York Film Academy?

Clyde Gunter (CG): I’m a 27-year-old multimedia journalist with a strong interest in producing content in the documentary format. I was born and raised in Southern Virginia. At the age of 19, I enlisted in the United States Navy where I served five years of active duty, working in operations intelligence and planning and tactics. My first three years were served in Nagasaki, Japan, and my final two years were spent in sunny San Diego, California. 

While enlisted, I developed an interest in still photography which led me to want to study the art form. However, because freelance photography didn’t seem financially viable, I decided to explore another interest of mine, video journalism, which led me to the Broadcast Journalism program at New York Film Academy. 

NYFA: What inspired you to study both Documentary Filmmaking and Broadcast Journalism?

CG: I was initially inspired to study Broadcast Journalism by the personalities and journalists in black media, specifically a journalist who worked in front and behind the camera for Complex networks. I said to myself, “That’s something I want to do with my perspective of my culture and our music,” so I researched their backgrounds and saw that they all studied journalism or communications. So I came to NYFA to gain the skills necessary to do what they do. 

As for Documentary Filmmaking, I was recommended by my editing teacher to consider expanding my abilities and further develop my narrative knowledge through the NYFA Documentary program. This decision really helped me strengthen my sense of storytelling  and understand what it takes to produce truly compelling work. 

NYFA: Can you tell us about your new position at ESPN Next and what the process was like in being selected for the program? 

CG: Through my new position at ESPN, I will be working as a production assistant and will have the opportunity to spend two six-month rotations working in two of six production areas: College Sports, Daytime Entertainment, Sportscenter @ Night, NFL, Live Events, and ESPN International & Deportes. The process consisted of three separate interviews: a phone interview, sports highlight assessment and a “Talent Day” that required me to visit ESPN’s main campus in Bristol, Connecticut and meet with a group of HR managers and ESPN employees. 

NYFA: What are your goals within your next position, and what’s next?

CG: My goals while I’m in this new position include excelling at the basics of my job requirements while diversifying myself as a veteran and employee of color that mentors fellow employees (vets and non-vets). I also plan on helping to organize initiatives within my respective employee resource groups within the company. 

NYFA: What other projects are you working on or do you plan to work on?

CG: I’m working on further developing and producing a feature-length documentary, along with a limited television docuseries that centers on the racial bias and injustice that America’s black veterans have faced, dating back to our country’s first fully integrated war with the Vietnam War.

NYFA: What did you learn at NYFA that you are applying or plan to apply directly to your work at ESPN Next, or your work in general?

CG: My deepened understanding of story and the key components that form a good story is something that NYFA instilled in me that I will continue to grow and take with me as I contribute to storytelling at ESPN. 

NYFA: What advice would you give to students just starting out at NYFA?

CG: A word of advice I have for NYFA students is to remain extremely focused and ambitious during what will undoubtedly be the most jam-packed, year-round educational experience you’ll ever have. Persistence and constant discipline are vital if you want to walk away feeling rewarded by your work at the year’s end.

Q&A with New York Film Academy (NYFA) Documentary Filmmaking Alum Pedro Álvarez Gales

While working in post production for two presidential campaigns in his home country of Venezuela, New York Film Academy (NYFA) Documentary Filmmaking alum Pedro Álvarez Gales realized that his true calling was in documentaries, where he could tell stories rather than just absorb them.

He soon came to New York to attend the 1-Year Documentary Filmmaking conservatory at NYFA in 2013, where he learned the skills to shoot and edit documentaries. He quickly found work as a professional with major names in the industry, including Vice and Netflix.

Pedro Alvares Gales

NYFA alum Pedro Álvarez Gales

New York Film Academy spoke with Documentary Filmmaking alum Pedro Álvarez Gales about his time at NYFA, his work on Netflix hit film FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, and his advice for fellow NYFA students and alumni:

New York Film Academy (NYFA): First, can you tell us a bit about yourself, where you’re from, and what brought you to New York Film Academy?

Pedro Álvarez Gales (PAG): I am from Caracas, Venezuela, originally a sound designer, but I have always been passionate about storytelling.

What brought me to NYFA was really a combination of things but mainly I was looking for a way out of my country’s political crisis. I felt stuck professionally and needed to try something new. My last job before leaving Caracas was as post production coordinator for two presidential campaigns—I believe that was what triggered my interest on making documentaries instead of just consuming them.

NYFA: Why have you decided to focus on documentary filmmaking?

PAG: The thing I like about documentary filmmaking is that you get to “write” during the editing process. You think you know what you are going to get when shooting a documentary but it’s really in the editing room where you start to realize there might be more to the story than you thought there was, or even a completely different one! It’s a magical thing and it can only be achieved by trying new things, failing and trying again, and again, until that “eureka” moment hits.

NYFA: How did you end up working on FYRE?

PAG: I got to FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened through a contact from a previous job. And there I met an incredible team of editors that made that film possible.

NYFA: What were your responsibilities as Assistant Editor on FYRE?

PAG: I was originally brought in as an editor to experiment with the film and try to see if we could build a series out of it. I did that for a little while but the Netflix deadline got tighter as we went, so the team decided to stick to the original film; from that moment on my mission was to support the team on anything they needed to get the film out as soon as we could. It was a very intense production to work on.

NYFA: What other projects are you working on or do you plan to work on?

PAG: Right now I’m back with the FYRE team working on really great documentary series for Netflix. I wish I could tell you about it because I know it’s going to be amazing, but it’s an ongoing story and we can’t really talk much about it for the moment. I’m really happy to be back with this team and I feel I’ve been learning and growing as an editor on this project.

I also just finished cutting and producing a scripted mini webseries called Killing Tigers (which is a Venezuelan expression, nothing to do with killing an animal) that you can check out at www.killingtigerstv.com. This was my first experience with scripted media.

NYFA: What did you learn at NYFA that you applied directly to your work on FYRE, or your work in general?

PAG: Almost everything I do today I learned in NYFA. I had never touched any editing software until I went there. It was through NYFA I got my first job in New York too (Vice and Viceland) where I stayed for three years and went from being an assistant editor to junior editor.

I am really grateful to that school and especially to Andrea Swift, the program chair, who is always on top of her students, current and former. I don’t know how she does it but she tries to help everybody that crosses her path. She’s an amazing lady. Thank you Andrea!

NYFA: What advice would you give to students just starting out at NYFA?

PAG: I’d tell them that, like almost everything in life, you can only take out of the program whatever you put in it. The Documentary program can be a really intense one with long hours and days, but if you apply yourself and choose to absorb everything that’s coming your way you’ll leave that building a documentary filmmaker. Whatever you decide to do next—either camera, production, editing or writing you’ll have a solid set of tools from NYFA that will help you to keep learning and growing and will take you to amazing projects.

NYFA: Anything I missed you’d like to speak on?

PAG: I think it’s important to find your own way of working but to always be flexible with other people’s ways. You’ll encounter many different characters in the industry and one big part of it for you to navigate in it is your own ability to adapt to new teams and new ways. There’s always something to be learn from a teammate, even if they are in a position under you. Also, be kind. People will hire you back if you are easy to work with—to me that’s even more valuable than the skills you bring to the mix.

New York Film Academy thanks Documentary alum Pedro Álvarez Gales on taking the time to share his experiences and advice with us, and we look forward to seeing more projects from him in the future!

A Q&A With Conservationist and NYFA Documentary Alum Valentine Rosado

We are excited to share an exclusive email interview with biologist, conservationist, and NYFA Documentary Filmmaking alum Valentine Rosado. Check out his impressive work in Belize, his insights on documentary filmmaking within the context of conservation, and more.

NYFA: First, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your environmental work?

VR: I live in Belize with my wife and daughter. We found out we were expecting a baby only days before I went to NYFA and we had already decided to pass on on the course so that my wife would not go through her first phase of the pregnancy alone. After lots of contemplating we decided to make it work.  

I have worked on a multitude of conservation projects focused on protected areas and their benefits to communities. One of my areas of special interest is mangrove reforestation as a form of ecosystem-based adaptation. The idea is that we are able to reinforce coastlines against erosion and climatic impacts by integrating mangroves with coastal planning. The dialogue between preservation and development is most often a polarizing one, but I believe that scientists play a crucial role in facilitating the integration of sound sustainable practices into private sector development.  

I recently founded Grassroots Belize with my wife. It is a private consulting firm, where we now combine our qualifications and experience to work on conservation projects that instill meaningful change for the environment and the communities that depend on them.

I have done volunteer work throughout my career and pro bono work is still a big priority for us. We work with several community-based organizations throughout Belize by providing technical support where we can. In 2016 and 2017, 30 percent of our time was dedicated to pro bono work and 25 percent of our net revenue was contributed to charitable projects.

NYFA: Can you tell us how the WWF Professional Development Grant came about for you?

VR: We have been supporting a local community-based organization with their education and advocacy program. Fragments of Hope Belize works with volunteer fishers and tour guides in southern Belize and has out-planted more than 90,000 corals since 2006 — and that number grows significantly every year.

Through our work with FoH, I applied for a WWF-EFN professional development grant to participate in the NYFA documentary filmmaking course. I believed that specialized training in documentary filmmaking would greatly enhance our ability to present our stories to the wider public.     

NYFA: Can tell us a bit about your experience studying at the New York Film Academy?

VR: I have participated in countless training courses and workshops throughout my career but attending NYFA was a truly life-changing experience for me. I realized that storytelling and filmography was something I had always wanted to do. I now look back at my earlier years and realize that I did my first photographic story when I was just 10 years old. I was trying to get the local municipality to shut down the slaughterhouse that was located adjacent to our bayside community (even though our family business was a meat shop).

When I was 14 years old I scripted, directed, and shot a short film for a school project about a start-up tour company. My original idea was to produce the trailer of a faux movie involving scenes in the cemetery and a police riot but just getting access to an old VHS camera was enough of a challenge.

There was of course not much hope pursuing a career in the arts at the time, and I knew all too well that my sure bet was to pursue a career in science. The NYFA course made me realize all these things, and that I have always been a person that lives a life worth living. Hence, it enabled me to renew my interest in film and storytelling. It sent me into a phase of extensive reflecting and soul searching.

The experience could only have been possible because of what NYFA is: the location of the school, the facility, the amazing people that I now consider my mentors, and of course such a wide diversity of students. At the expense of my family and our business clients, I neglected every other commitment I had for the entire time I was at NYFA because I wanted to take advantage of every experience and opportunity I had during the course.

I especially enjoyed the hands-on approach of filmmaking that took us to interesting locations across New York and allowed us to really appreciate the fact that everyone has a story tell. Everyone’s story can be pleasantly captivating if we invest the time and creativity to put it together. I think that was my “take home lesson” — we have the ability to capture stories that will inspire others. As storytellers, people seek our storytelling abilities and we owe it to the world to do it right.    

NYFA: How has your time at NYFA impacted and changed your work in Belize?

VR: One of the main effects was that it make me think really carefully about what path my career would take after the course. I wanted to dive into filmmaking but I also knew that it was not realistic to give up my career as a scientist. The scientist in me made me conduct a thorough evaluation of all aspects (self, family, values, etc.) and to refocus our work under our Grassroots Belize banner.

Our mission is to inspire people to improve our world. Once we defined that approach, it cleared the dilemma of scientist or filmmaker or etc. We now take up projects of positivity to promote people living in harmony with nature. Science, business, filmmaking, etc. are various methods in our advantage.     

NYFA: What is Grassroots Belize? What is your role there?

VR: I recently founded Grassroots Belize with my wife. It is a private consulting firm, where we now combine our qualifications and experience to work on conservation projects that instill meaningful change for the environment and the communities that depend on them.

We believe that people can live in harmony with nature and we hope to inspire others through our work. We combine our experience in business, science and the arts to work on projects that enhance the sustainability of communities. Our multidisciplinary approach allows us to make connections across traditional boundaries and to develop a unique worldview for innovation. We work on a wide range of projects that aim to improve the environmental performance of natural resource users and the benefits they provide to communities.

I serves as a biodiversity scientist and my wife, Angie, is the administration and finance director.

NYFA: You were featured in WWF’s Education for Nature Annual Report. Congratulations! How did this come about?

VR: WWF-EFN works diligently at growing and strengthening their network of grantees (alumni). The network consists of over 2,500 experts in different fields of conservation from all corners of the world. I had the opportunity to participate in the first alumni symposium this past year that brought together over 40 current and past grantees from 17 countries.

I even had the opportunity to document the stories of three grantees and capture the portraits of several of the scientists. One of the most interesting aspect of the experience is that I was very much interested in their stories and considered my story not interesting at all.

Ironically, everyone else seemed to feel the same (super interested in the stories of others and considered their own less important). I guess if we all reflect on it, we will realize that perhaps we should all be open about sharing our own stories in the hopes to inspire others.

NYFA: Has anything shifted for you as a result of WWF’s Annual Report?

VR: Indeed. In my readings I came across literature about human personality. It turns out that the better we are at traits that result in great scientists, the less we are at the traits that define our communication with others. It seems like a challenging paradox for conservation where we invest so much effort into sound science aimed to address unsustainable behavior.

Basically, every alumni I heard from [at WWF’s symposium] confirmed in some way that our research is not having the impact we desire at the community and global level. The experience with WWF, post-NYFA, has reenergized my drive to expand my knowledge and efforts in science, and to complement it with my recent training in storytelling.

Someone has to tell the stories. The difference is that I also understand the science.   

NYFA: What do you most want people to understand about environmental conservation in Belize? How can we help?

VR: I believe that in an effort to bring attention to the issues facing our world we focus heavily on issues and challenges. However, it may result in an atmosphere of constant negativity and sense of helplessness. In the process, we tend to overlook or underestimate the good progress and the good stories around us.

I have always believed that we should be highlighting the stories about people doing their part to improve our world. We have many such stories in Belize and I think that this would inspire others at a global level.

If a small group such as Fragments of Hope can replenish reefs with 90,000+ corals in 10 years (with very limited resources), what would this world be if the global financing for conservation gets directed to initiatives that have this level of direct impact on communities?

My final message would be to follow our stories. We hope they inspire others to improve our world in their own communities, in their own small way.  

NYFA: What is next for you? Any upcoming projects we can watch out for?

VR: This past year of training, reflection, strategic planning and welcoming my daughter (thankful for good health and all), made me put several projects on the back burner. Now that our business is focused and we have all this training, we have several exciting projects in our work plan for the year.

The following is a synopsis of 3 short films that I have in post-production and expect to complete in the next few months.  

  1. Sandwatch Belize: children from schools in Placencia participate in hands-on program that assesses coastal erosion of coastal communities. The activities serve as a meaningful incentive to inspire greater learning but not everyone gets to participate.
  2. Man O’War in Peril: the island was officially protected in 1977 as a bird colony but in recent years, storms have affected the island’s vegetation. Tour guides are concerned that they are about to lose an important tourist attraction.
  3. Palo Seco Costa Rica: resort owners used mangroves to reinforce their coastline against erosion. In the process, they were able to safeguard their land concession with the government. The success has prompted scaling up of efforts.

Congratulations to Valentine, his family, and Grassroots Belize! Connect with Valentine Rosado on Facebook and follow Grassroots Belize on Facebook.

A Q&A With New York Film Academy Documentary Instructor Denise Hamilton on Creative Circles Forum

New York Film Academy Documentary Instructor Denise Hamilton has made her career by producing incredible films on the history of Broadway. She is a member and Co-Chairperson of the Black Association of Documentary Filmmakers-West, and an expert on documentary filmmaking. Her work includes productions for KCET, WABC, NBC and Discovery. She recently sat on a panel at Burbank Arts for All to discuss the future of documentary filmmaking.

Hamilton took some time out of her busy schedule to discuss why these conversations are important to the community with NYFA Correspondent Joelle Smith.

NYFA: What is the goal of Burbank Arts for All?

Hamilton: Burbank Arts for All, or BAFA, is a foundation that provides funding for arts programs and arts-related materials and equipment to educational institutions located in Burbank. Because the budgets for school arts programs are often limited, BAFA raises funds from corporate donors, then turns around and gives grants that enable dance, music, visual and graphic arts programs to thrive in the Burbank schools. Schools can apply to BAFA and get, for example, musical instruments to replace broken ones, a ballet barre for a dance studio, lighting for theatrical productions, or a 3D graphics printer.  

NYFA: How did you become involved in the project?

Hamilton: I became aware of BAFA because I teach NYFA’s Community Film Project, and I researched local nonprofit organizations that my students could choose from to do pro bono work.  My 2014 MFA class selected BAFA to be the recipient of a promotional video that the students produced, and it was well received.  

As a result of this working relationship with BAFA, I was then invited to participate as a panelist in their annual Creative Circles Forum on Documentary Films, held Nov. 8th.  The panelists included Chief Financial Officer, Rugged Entertainment  Kelly Bevan, Burbank High School Digital Video Production Teacher Amy Winn, Writer-Director at New Filmmakers Los Angeles Varda Bar-Kar, and Academy® and Emmy® Award nominated Director/Producer and President/CEO, Rugged Entertainment Peter Spirer.

NYFA: What topics were you most excited to discuss?

Hamilton: We spoke on the industry from our various perspectives, and I talked about documentaries as a creative art form. There was so much to cover, and not enough time to cover it all, but the most important discussion for me was centered around recognizing that documentaries have become a major source of valuable information. In the last few years, the increasing popularity of documentaries has made them a welcome alternative to news outlets for information that’s trusted.  

NYFA: What was your goal for the evening?

Hamilton: My goal was to show that creating documentaries can be just as interesting as narrative filmmaking, and can lead to job opportunities in entertainment beyond documentary production.  I also mentioned that the international student population at NYFA provides a great forum to network and develop lasting relationships that are helpful in the professional world upon graduation.  The time flew by, and there was plenty of insight provided by the panel.   I certainly enjoyed the evening, and hopefully, the audience took note of the great information that was shared.

The New York Film Academy would like to thank Denise Hamilton for taking the time to speak with us about her endeavors.

A Q&A With NYFA LA’s Chair of Documentary Filmmaking Barbara Multer-Wellin

Chair of Documentary Barbara Multer-Wellin recently sat down with NYFA reporter Joelle Smith to discuss the current state of non-fiction media content, her long love of filmmaking, and why Los Angeles is a great city for doc. Barbara Multer-Wellin has produced two films for the acclaimed PBS documentary series Independent Lens: “Taking The Heat: The First Women Firefighters of New York City,” narrated by Susan Sarandon and “Paul Conrad: Drawing Fire,” about the legendary editorial cartoonist. She won a 2013 Emmy for her work on the series television and web series “Your Turn To Care,” which was also the recipient of the Gracie Award.


Joelle: How did you first get started in doc?

Barbara Multer-Wellin: Good question. I was always a political person. I was always very politically minded. I’ve been politically minded since high school.  I went to school for acting and political theater.

When I got out I happened to realize that political theater had a very limited reach. I happened to get hired as a researcher in HBO at Sheila Nevin’s (producer of “Cobain: Montage of Heck,” “Going Clear: Scientology Prison or Belief,” and “Citzenfour.”) department in my early twenties. That was an amazing experience. I was there for six or seven years.

I began to love documentary not just for its political message but also because documentary is such a wide tent. You can do romantic stories, you can cover history, you can do a portrait of a person or an event. For anyone who is curious about the world, documentary is the ultimate playground.

Joelle: When did you first fall in love with the craft of documentary?

Multer-Wellin: One of the early ones that really shook me was “Hoop Dreams.” There are several scenes in the film following the same families for six or seven years during a very tumultuous time in their lives.

Their kids had been recruited to suburban high schools to play basketball.  These two young men both hoped for careers in the NBA. They were being bussed out to the suburbs to play for these much, much wealthier schools.

It wasn’t easy. Their families were going through great difficulties. One marriage had broken up. The father had developed a drug problem and left the family. There’s a scene in the film where the mother of the family turns to filmmaker Steve James and says, “You don’t know what it’s like to try and raise a family on the amount that I get from public assistance. We don’t have heat and they’ve turned out the lights. How do I do this?”

My blood ran cold because I thought, ‘This is what real documentary is about.”

This is the relationship between a filmmaker and a subject that’s completely honest. That you may not have an answer for but you’re not dealing with an actor here. You’re dealing with someone who is actually struggling in their lives.  How do you portray that honestly? How do you not use that?

“Hoop Dreams” was one that made me realize the responsibility of the documentary filmmaker. Many years later I heard Mr. James speak and it’s true he still has relationships with those families. It goes beyond an actor who comes in for a day’s work and then goes home. You have a moral responsibility and an ethical responsibility not just to your subject but to your audience.

It’s such a multilayered relationship involved. I think it’s fascinating, tough, and beautiful all at the same time.

Joelle: How do you impart the ethical responsibility of the subject to your students here at the New York Film Academy?

Multer-Wellin: One of the first things we talk about in the documentary project is if you’re making a documentary about someone you’re either interviewing someone about the most difficult moment of their life or they’ve experienced history in a way that it’s probably the most important thing that’s ever happened to them.

You have to be first of all aware of that. Second of all, it is almost like the doctor’s oath, “First do no harm.”  Ask yourself, “Is anything in this film going to hurt the person when it gets out there?” Be very transparent about what the film is going to be and what you expect from your subject. You’re really making a film together.   

Now, I’m not talking about investigative films when you’re up again a big corporation or someone with great wealth and power. They have their own means to get to the press and protect themselves.

But if you are focusing on someone who is not a member of the public, is not a famous person, and has allowed you the great honor of sharing their story, you need to take that responsibility seriously.

Joelle: For students wondering how to break into the industry, what makes a great subject? How can students stand out?

Multer-Wellin: I think at this point that non-fiction content of all kind is in many ways, the most happening and most sellable content there is.

There are so many different ways to use the skills you develop in documentary. Whether you’re working for the NY or LA Times to make non-fiction media content or for so many non-profit organizations using non-fiction media. Do I need to mention Vice?  Nonfiction, on so many different platforms, is being watched more than ever before.

You know, when I was coming up people would say don’t use the “D-word.” Don’t call it a documentary.  That prejudice is dying hard but it’s dying fast.

If documentary isn’t the big seller in theaters it certainly is on television. In many ways I think it’s easier to break into documentary than fictional filmmaking.

Joelle: What roads would you encourage students to take as they’re breaking into the industry?

Multer-Wellin: Well, we’ve spent a lot of time talking to students about building social media profiles and about how to use crowd-funding platforms to support their work.

There’s the 1,000 fan theory that says if you can connect with at least a thousand people who will support your career, not just one project, but the entire scope of your career, then you’ll be able to fundraise and do your own projects. That’s not an easy thing to do so there’s got to be a balance between creating your own work and working for others.

Joelle: What advice do you have for people going out there and launching their projects?

Multer-Wellin: First of all, I think these days it’s necessary to have some sort of visual reel. In the old days, you could sell a concept off a piece of paper but those days are in the past.

Even if it is just a Skype interview with a really fascinating character, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the slickest thing.  But you do have to show people what you have in mind.

One good thing I think is really helpful is to try niche marketing. Find people who have a natural interest in your subject.  I have a friend who made a very successful film about mountain bikes and the history of mountain biking.  Mountain bikes were developed by a bunch of hippies in Marin County, California who were just riding around the hills up there. They developed a bike with the broader tire specifically for that purpose, which has really spawned this huge industry.

The filmmakers were able to talk to all the biking magazines, bike shops, and bike meet-up groups and put together a series of screenings across the country just starting with these bike enthusiasts and then it sort of graduated out from there. The film did extremely well and it gave them enough money to start their next project.

It’s enough to start with a niche market and build out. No matter what your subject is, it’s smart to find people who will always be interested in the subject. Reach out to organizations that want to support your topic and build from there.

Joelle: What are you doing here at NYFA that makes our program unique from others?

Multer-Wellin: I want to first say that a lot of people don’t normally think of Los Angeles as a documentary town. They think of us as Hollywood, but the truth is the International Documentary Association is headquartered here in Los Angeles. Many documentary filmmakers live here, Davis Guggenheim, Werner Herzog, Jessica Yu, Rory Kennedy and Penelope Spheeris, to name a few.

So, we have access to all of that. We go to many of the IDA events. We also have documentary filmmakers here at school all the time who come and screen their films. We have access to lawyers who deal with fair use and clearance experts who deal with finding and clearing footage. Not to mention distributors, producers, cinematographers, composers who work primarily in non-fiction.  The list goes on and on. All of that exists here in Los Angeles.

We try to keep a very professional sense of what we’re doing. We have just initiated a class in the second year of the MFA program where students produce pieces for a network or production company so before they leave they’ll have a professional credit along with their thesis films. There’s a lot going on here in LA.

Joelle: Final question: Which films would you suggest future NYFA students watch before they come to school?

Multer-Wellin: That’s a really hard question because there are so many. We have a history of documentary course that shows everything from “Nanook of the North to films that came out this year.

It’s important to understand there are many different ways to make a documentary and there are many different documentaries that can be made about the same subject.

There are things you need to learn about yourself as a filmmaker. There are questions of access. We talk a lot about how to specialize something; how to make it yours. I would come to NYFA with ideas and a sense of how you can explore that idea deeply.  We’ll help you take it from there.  

The New York Film Academy would like to thank Barbara Multer-Wellin for sharing her expertise with our community. If you’re interested in learning more about the documentary filmmaking program at NYFA, click here.

Q&A With NYFA Grad and Documentary Filmmaker Jon Mann

Filmmaker Jon Mann

NYFA: Hi Jon, would you mind giving us a bit about your background and what drew you to NYFA’s screenwriting program?

Jon Mann: Hi! Thanks for having me. I’m from Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada originally, and grew up in a family of readers and movie-goers so I’ve always had an interest in film and have been writing for as far back as I can remember. The NYFA has such a strong presence in the film industry and their list of alumni speaks for itself. It made perfect sense for me.

NYFA: You received your undergraduate degree in Political Science, but half way through your education, you decided that filmmaking might be the career path for you. How do you see your political science training influencing and helping your documentary filmmaking work and vice versa?

JM: It has definitely helped. One of the major lessons I took from my degree in political science that I have been able to use to help me as a documentary filmmaker is to realize that there are usually, at the very least, two sides to every story. It really gave me an open mind to not just accept headlines I’m seeing on TV or in newspapers as the be-all and end-all. It gave me a glimpse into the contemporary state of the world in different economies, different political systems, why they work, why they don’t work. Studying political science was an exposure to issues and stories that I otherwise wouldn’t have had, and that is now something I aim to do with my own documentaries.
I took a course called “Political Argument” which has been very helpful, too (laughs).

NYFA: You studied screenwriting at NYFA, but work in documentary films. How did you find the screenwriting program helped you as a documentary filmmaker?

JM: Well, I think whether it is a documentary or a feature film, the script and the story will always be the most important thing. Maybe one difference with documentaries is that you need to discover the character arcs, and the midpoint, and the climax, etc. as opposed to feature’s where you write those yourself. But the way you tell the story on screen is the same. It’s all the same equation. It’s all filmmaking and it all starts with a story.

NYFA: Is there one lesson in particular that you learned while at NYFA that you find yourself continuing to apply to your work?

JM: In order to have a good script you need to make your character’s motivation believable. It seems simple but it is so true. That goes for all characters, not necessarily just your protagonist. The best villains have believable motivation as welllook at Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. You almost end up feeling bad for him in the end. Brilliant.

NYFA: In your TEDx talk, you discuss how the characters and story structures of the film Jaws parallel the fact that many social movements—like the organic social movement again the sale of New Brunswick Power you document in your film Project Power—are comprised of seemingly ordinary individuals who band together to fight against the great white shark that is corporate power. Do you think that such films like Jaws can be used to galvanize reluctant activists into standing against seemingly insurmountable power? What other films do you consider illustrate this correlation?

JM: I think you can really make that argument for any film as long as the audience is open to being motivated by a film in that way. One thing I focus on in my Ted Talk is that every time I watch Jaws it has different meaning for me. It means something completely different to me now than it did the first time I saw it as a 4 year old. Since my Ted Talk was published I’ve had a lot of people give me their theory on Jaws and that is what makes the movie so great is that not only is it a scary movie about a shark terrorizing a small-town, is it has all of these great elements under the surface and it means different things to different people.

Harlan County U.S.A. is a great documentary from Barbara Kopple that really magnifies my theory on Jaws in a more obvious light. Gladiator could be used under the same umbrellaa man who is stripped of everything through a socially unjust system takes on the Roman Empire the only way he knows how.

I think the films themselves are important but it comes down to the audience and what they may be going through in a particular time in their lives when they watch them.

NYFA: You worked with a wide network of creative individuals on your Project Power including the New York Times best selling author Raj Patel who also narrated your first film, Drink ‘Em Dry and a number of different musicians and bands from around the world. How do you forge these connections with seemingly disparate collaborators?

JM: I think one thing to remember is that the worst thing someone can say to you is “no.” Which happens a lot. A lot. Some of these requests may seem risky, but they were all calculated. Drink ‘Em Dry is the story of a group of brewery locals who were locked out from work, and during production there were massive protests in Wisconsin opposing legislation which would limit public employee collective bargaining. Dropkick Murphys had played a show in Madison and were right there in the thick of things so we told them about our project and they were excited for the opportunity to be part of the film and be able to lend any help they could to the cause. Steve Earle grew up in a union family, Billy Bragg has been a grassroots political activist punk-rocker for 30 plus years. Raj Patel is the greatest social justice writer on the planet. They all agreed with the subject matter.  Although they may seem like disparate collaborators, they all have the same values. I have nothing but great respect for all of them.

NYFA: What is your process for raising funds and marketing your documentary films? What do you consider the best methods for finding financing in the documentary industry, especially for filmmakers who are relatively new voices?

JM: The support I’ve received for the films I have done has been incredible. Much like the collaborators I’ve used on screen, I’ve been lucky enough to have a team off-screen who share the same values and who wanted to see these particular stories told as much as I did.

NYFA: As someone who seems to see documentary film as a potential catalyst for social change, what are some films in particular that you’ve drawn inspiration from and helped you to see the power of community activism?

JM: The first time I watched Bowling for Columbine I was frozen. I felt like I had just been hit by a truck. Inside Job is another film I always end up coming back to. In two very different ways, on two very different issues, those films peel back layers until you see the root of a problem, and it makes you sick to your stomach. They have a way of making you educated and angry, which is the perfect combination for social change.

You don’t need to look any further than Blackfish to see what an impact films have in a community. SeaWorld is losing an uphill battle.

NYFA: Do you have any parting words of advice for aspiring documentary filmmakers who desire to use the medium as a catalyst for social change?

JM: Find a story you believe in. Like a well-written script, if people believe in you, they will be much more willing to listen. When someone says ‘no,’ use it as a learning experience. Why did they say ‘no’ to you? All you can do is try and get better every day. Learn to love the adversity.

Be Bold, Be You: An Interview With Franck Onouviet

Documentary filmmaker Franck Onouviet

Franck Onouviety pictured on the right.

NYFA: Could you tell us about your background and what drew you to documentary filmmaking?

Franck Onouviet: First I would like to thank you for the opportunity to be part of this Q&A. My background is in graphic design & fine arts. After completing a master degree in Paris and working in advertising I had to go back home (Gabon) due to visa issues. There I was working as a freelance graphic designer. Meanwhile web design was growing and I was getting a lot of specific demand to do some web design I wasn’t really interested in and therefore I was declining all of them. Then came a point where I felt like I had to trade this non skill for another one.

It was quite interesting because our thesis project was done with a photographer from Louis Vuitton (Jean Lariviere). He came to the school to do an animated project as part of a future exhibit about traveling into space at the LV showroom in Paris. Since we were part of the visual communication curriculum, our tasks ranged from designing a DVD box set and visuals such as a poster to doing a behind-the-scenes of the entire project.

Since I was the movie freak of the class, they designated me to do the making-of video. I had no idea of what I was supposed to do. The entire weekend was spent watching something like 10 making-of movies I liked and trying to mimic them. So it went from shooting the people doing the whole animation character design to the meetings about art direction and challenges.

Now thinking about it I probably would do it differently. But hey, we all start somewhere. Long story short, it was my first experience and while I was in Gabon since I wasn’t about to get into the next big thing which was web design, I had to choose something, so I gave a shot to filmmaking. My cousin just completed the screenwriting program at NYFA and as I was too scared of writing I traded screenwriting for documentary filmmaking, which was the first year of the program. And it all started that summer.

NYFA: You define yourself as Afropean. Could you explain what this means and how has this self-identification has shaped your work? How do you see French and African culture influencing your work?

FO: I run my mouth too much sometimes (fake smile ahahah). Well, I was born, raised and lived in Libreville (Gabon). Then I headed to Paris to do a masters in Visual Communication and Fine Arts. Then it was New York. Meanwhile I was fortunate enough to go to many countries in Europe for work. I had the opportunity to really understand cultures and build a keen sense to adapt to a wide array of cultures. It started with France; as a necessity I had no choice, I was there to study and not for the fun part. So since you are put in a box most of the times regardless of how you think of yourself, let’s just say I wasn’t feeling like any boxes were fitting the description. And as I saw it as a strength I made it clear for people to understand in one word that there was more to me than the place we would meet. Hope it makes sense. It influenced my work a great deal, probably not on a conscious level all the time, but it allowed me to never accept one way of doing things but mainly searching for the right way for the project. I hope it doesn’t sound cliché, but for instance depending if I was working in Europe, Africa, or the US I would tap in, I guess without really thinking about it, to a different culture than where I was, just to allow the project to be treated with a different flavor, when needed of course.

I wouldn’t say French but European culture and it gave me the will to find an African voice that is up to the level of established European filmmakers I guess. I’m not there and it’s a constant work in progress. As for the African culture, well it is just who i am and at the same time I’m fighting to make sure people see and feel Africa as a continent and not a country.

NYFA: Your short film The Rhythm of My Life looks at the hip-hop industry in your home country of Gabon. For me, as a rabid music fan, I had no idea Gabon had such a vibrant hip-hop scene. Where did the idea for the film come from and what was your objective in putting the film together?

FO: Hope you will still enjoy the short after the truth behind it… Well, my cousin and fellow director Marco A. Tchicot, called me one day telling me about a recording artist being in town and meeting with local beatmakers. The idea was to make some kind of 5 minute promo to help them raise awareness about their music project. So since I was the one who did documentary at NYFA he felt I could help on the project. Well when I arrived we talked about the promo video to shoot, then we listened to the work they have been doing all along. And from that moment I looked at Marco and told him: “Forget about it man, we doing a documentary.” Since we were not here when they actually met, we agreed based on how they met and other events to use some fictional parts in the doc to open it and close it. It was kind of a metaphor about how they could have met in Gabon.

As for the objective let’s just say we were focusing on the music and how people from different backgrounds can relate and connect through music.

NYFA: How did your time in the documentary program at NYFA shape your approach to filmmaking and what lessons from the program do you find yourself still applying to your current work?

FO: Well this one will be shorter yet relevant; it just made me and shaped my approach by allowing us to be us. With my background in graphic design I always wanted my work to have a certain visual esthetic, and it was clear from the get go I would do anything to make it that way. And Andrea [Swift] supported me in this direction and help me build on that. So up to today I’m trying to apply a strong work ethic on story I go after and give them the visual they need. My approach is organic in a way and I need to trust my guts to craft. It’s not yet ideal but it’s a lifetime commitment.

NYFA: Your creative output also includes rather striking portrait photographs. What is your philosophical and technical approaches to photography and how does it differ from your documentary film work?

FO: Is it the part where the myth goes away…? Okay so I’m not sure which [aspect of my] photography we are talking about. So depending on it I would say this, some of it is solely me, and others are a collaboration with a friend and photographer Cheick Touré.

Photography is like a blink, I don’t really like a long set up, unless I have a very strong concept and usually I share it with my friend (Cheick T) but it’s like taking as little as much time to snap it, searching for the right amount of time needed to capture what my eyes caught in a glimpse, and sometimes I can’t even snap anything, here comes the weird part. It’s like out of the whole eye line and vision I see or envision something interesting, but I have to move around the light to catch something I think my eyes saw. The only difference I see is that it takes less time so I take advantage of it. I don’t really like to spend hours behind a computer…it takes me away from the outside. And shooting a doc keeps me out there for longer but out there…ahaha.

NYFA: You go by the pseudonym of “ofa” as well? What meaning does this word have for you and your work?

FO: I guess at that time it was like I needed an alias as I was in graphic design and it was a cool thing. While I was mimicking, it had to be me. So ofa is just me (my initials, I’ll let you guess what the ‘a’ stands for ahahaha). Overall it keeps me grounded and reminds me where I started my creative journey.

NYFA: Music seems to play a central part in your documentary work. What is it about music that draws you to incorporate it—either as the soundtrack or as your subject matter—in your films?

FO: It’s very simple, our parents made sure we all learned music in the family and at that time my brother and sisters were all playing piano, it was kind of mandatory. I have to admit I couldn’t care less about music. I wanted to do sports and martial arts…period. Since there was no way to escape it I made my case about having at least the opportunity to choose the instrument i will learn…it was also a getaway as I was sure there was no saxophone teacher at the conservatory.WROOONG there was one guy. And this is how I ended up doing 6 years of saxophone and 2 [years] of piano. And I guess it never left me, I can’t edit until I find the right track or it will be a lot harder for me to come up with something I’m sure works, and also I always find my start and end point, I struggle a lot with the middle part of my edit. But everything is driven by music, sounds, even images are flowing like music to me. I actually regret I stopped practicing and learning music.

NYFA: Do you have any advice for aspiring documentary filmmakers and artists looking to make a living off their art? Do you think this is even a possibility for the vast majority of visual artists?

FO: I couldn’t speak for the vast majority, depending on where you live and what it is that you do as a filmmaker, but yes it is possible. It requires 2 things among a lot others. You have to do something you love and be focused on it. As there is no one certain way to make it in this industry you have to be open and get out your comfort zone. Know the rules then practice your own voice…your way is the best way to make it.

NYFA: What current projects are you working on and are there any particular themes you find yourself particularly drawn to at the moment?

FOI’m working with other filmmakers from Gabon to organize independent filmmakers, so we can start building strong and valid relationships with filmmakers from around the globe. The goal is to build up workshops and masterclasses to train people in all of the filmmaking departments.

Developing different projects both documentary and fiction. It takes a long time as writing isn’t my medium of expression by heart. And choosing to become better at something I pick cinematography over writing anytime…ahahah.

Themes wise I don’t know: human, consciousness, relationships, taboo, forgiveness….

NYFA: Any parting words of advice you have for NYFA students and aspiring documentary filmmakers?

FO: It might not happen when you decide it but it will eventually, be patient, be you, be bold. And by all means feed the kid you were he is the only reason we are creative folks. And no need to run after industry top dogs, they already coming doing masterclasses at NYFA, so focus on your craft to be up to their level when they show up.

Interview With Karsonya Whitehead, Author Of ‘Notes From A Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis’

Check out our interview with New York Film Academy graduate & author of Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis – Karsonya ‘Kaye’ Whitehead.


NYFA: Hello and welcome film fanatics around the world. My name is Zeke and today I’ve got a very special treat for you. Earlier I had the privilege of talking with Professor Karsonya Whitehead, one of New York Film Academy’s very own. And since graduating with us in documentary filmmaking, she has gone on to receive not one, not two, but three New York Emmy nominations.

Kaye’s story is a fascinating one and I know you’re going to love it.

First of all, tell us a little bit about your background, where you grew up, and how you came to be here.

Karsonya Whitehead: OK! Well, I grew up in Washington, D.C. and I went to undergraduate at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. I did my graduate degree at University of Notre Dame in Indiana and it was there that I decided I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker. I was on the track towards academia and someone asked me to be in a film. I’ve never acted before so I said, “Yes, why not?” And being in this film made me realize that perhaps there’s another way to tell stories. I said I really want to go to film school. I don’t know how. I don’t know how you go about the process of doing that, I just knew I wanted to do it. I heard about this film contest and they were looking for the next emerging black filmmaker. And first place was a full scholarship to attend the New York Film Academy as well as assistance in moving to New York and making a film. Well, I submitted my film idea with these very short, kind of clips I put together, very amateurish, and lo and behold, I won first place!

NYFA: I also think it’s been a really good decade for documentary film. There’s been so many great stories being told, often by amateurs and people with very little budget. How did you feel New York Film Academy helped you kind of tell your stories?

KW: Well, when I got there, at that time at the New York Film Academy you could actually look at a number of different tracks. I knew I wanted to do documentary filmmaking, but they also felt, my professor said you also have to be trained as a narrative filmmaker, you also have to learn the equipment, which was new for me, you have to know how to work the camera, you have to learn how to work the audio. One of the things that I think the New York Film Academy did best, and that they did first, is that they taught you how to be a backpack filmmaker, which meant you knew how to use every piece of equipment. So if you didn’t have anybody else with you, you knew how to fix your audio, you knew how to actually cut film. I remember working on this theme bag and the first time I actually cut through one of my little pieces here, and I was screaming. And my professor said, “But that happens, you won’t do it again. You have learned by experience and that’s what we teach you here. You learn it by doing it.”

NYFA: Yeah, it’s all about taking that knowledge and being ready to cope with any situation out in the field long after you graduate. And on that note, what advice and what lessons did you gain from the New York Film Academy that you are practicing now in your working career?

KW: Well, quite a few things from that time in my life, which I consider to be a very important time and I speak about it all the time. I learned that everybody has a story to tell and that even if the story is not the same story that you have to tell, it’s just as valid, it’s just as important. You can be a jack of all trades and a master of one. I used to believe it was either one or the other and the New York Film Academy taught me you can know how to work the camera and the audio and still be a superb director. That you don’t have to give up the camera just so you can be the director. You should know how to work everything. The New York Film Academy taught me how to work as a team. I had, as you said before, been a lone wolf and I didn’t recognize or realize how important it was to rely and depend upon my camera person and to expect them to know just as much as I do, if not more in some cases.

NYFA: I think in the forge of creativity, there’s a lot of brilliant movies that are made in the spirit of team work and camaraderie and similarly there are plenty of flops and projects that have fallen apart completely because people have wanted to take it all on themselves and, like you say, not trusting your cameraman, not trusting your dolly grip or whoever it might be on set and I think that’s a very important lesson.

KW: It’s interesting because the film that I wrote and I edited and produced and directed was my film Compositions, a thirty-minute film. And it looked at the life of an African-American female and male who were in a relationship where there was domestic violence. And Compositions, it wasn’t an excellent film, it was a good film. It was actually sold to BET films and aired on television quite a few times, but that film is really what helped me get my start in television.

NYFA: What would you say to students who feel that their initial project, like Compositions, is maybe too ambitious, or tackles a topic that is really heavy, or really quite adventurous. What would you say, just get on and do it? Have that grit?

KW: I would say take the grit and get on and do it. What’s interesting is that when I finished Compositions and they had this contest at Cannes at the time, they would have what you call the “dead zone” hour and it would take student film projects at Cannes, so there would be films airing twenty-four hours a day. So my film Compositions got into the dead hour and I would say there were probably, I could be overestimating, five people in the theater at twelve o’clock at night and that’s five including my mom and I. Two women came in and they sat directly behind us and they talked the whole time about how bad my film was.

NYFA: Oh no!

KW: (Laughs) And they were like, “Oh, this is just horrible,” the filmmaker, and it was horrible and the woman kept saying “This filmmaker has talent. She has, she’s obviously been to film school, she needs some real world experience.” And that’s what she kept saying. So when the film ended, all thirty minutes, the lights go on and she leaned over her chair and said “That was horrible! What did you think of it?” And I said, “You know, when I made it I really liked it when I made it.” And she was like, “Oh, you need some real world experience. You really have talent. Where did you go to film school?” And I said I went to the New York Film Academy, I said I was well-trained, but you know, I haven’t worked in the business. And Compositions was my first exercise. And she said, “Well obviously you’ve been well trained. Take this phone number, call my best friend, and she’ll give you a job.”

NYFA: Oh fantastic!

KW: And I’m like, OK, that’s interesting. I got back to America and my mom said, “Well, are you going to call?” I said, “Well, why don’t I try? I have no idea who this is, but as my professor said you won’t even know until you try, you might as well jump out there and see what happens.” I did call the number and the woman’s best friend happened to be Judith McGrath who was the president of MTV at the time and I started as an associate producer at MTV less than a week later. And the woman says “I know New York Film Academy, I know you’re trained, we’re going to start you as an associate producer.” Not as a PA, I started as an associate producer.

NYFA: Wow.

NYFA: Thank you Kaye. And once again, you can check out all of Kaye’s fantastic work down in the description box below and do remember to subscribe to this channel so that you can hear more featured interviews like this. It’s always a pleasure to chat to our alumni, especially to people who are doing such amazing work as Kaye, so do hit that subscribe button, give this a thumbs up if you found this advice useful, and drop us a comment in the box below. Ciao!

KW: Ciao!

This was just a snippet of our interview with Karsonya Whitehead. To view the full interview please visit here.

The Effect Of The Camera: An Interview With Documentary Filmmaker Paul Gallasch

Documentary filmmaker Paul Gallasch filming with camera

NYFA: What is your background and what attracted you to the field of documentary filmmaking?

Paul Gallasch: I have always had quite a short attention span. I studied sports management and outdoor education at university but never really intended to go forward in that field. I also started a master’s in anthropology, but realized quite early on that I needed to spend more time out of the library. It was actually my ex-girlfriend who suggested documentary filmmaking as a way of combining my erratic interests, my love of travel and the outdoors and my interest in understanding people. It took a little while but I eventually listened to her, and now here I am.

NYFA: What lesson did you learn at NYFA that you’ve continued to apply to your work?

PG: Apart from all of the practical and technical knowledge, Andrea Swift’s focus on storytelling was very helpful. The course encouraged me to discuss and workshop rough-cuts of my films as often as possible, which I’ve tried to continue to do. And I still remember a bunch of Andrea’s little wise, counter-intuitive anecdotes.

NYFA: Your documentary Killing Anna has a rather radical premise in that it uses the documentary format to capture you, the subject’s fictional, revisionist history in dealing with a break-up. While this would undoubtedly be a fantastic story for a feature film, the fantasy in the film is elevated and disrupted by the presence of the camera in real life. What films or traditions did you draw upon when conceiving the film, not to mention your own personal inspiration? Was this your way of dealing with or working through the trauma or heartbreak that results from a break-up?

PG: The conception of Killing Anna was actually quite simple. It was initially based on an idea to perform Anna’s funeral as a ‘performance-art’ piece (based on a fear/fantasy I had), but then my sister suggested that I film and document the making of the piece. I had had such little experience in filmmaking that I didn’t really know the impact the camera would have on my plans and my life. Saying that, I had watched most of Ross McElwee’s films and had noticed the way the camera played a role in his life and storytelling. I am also very interested in Lars Von Trier’s work and the dogma 95 movement and had also recently watched The Five Obstructions. So I was very much thinking about film as a mode of experiment; especially with reality. In the end I think the camera and the film became an integral part of the grieving process/experiment. Firstly, without the expectation of the film I’m not sure I would have gone through with the funeral service in the end, and secondly, and what I came to discover about first-person documentary filmmaking is that it is essentially an indulgence in mindfulness. It forces you to pay attention to everything that you are doing, whether you are filming it or not, whether you decide to film it or not. And that’s not to mention the editing process. So yes, as I say at the end of the film, the whole endeavor was most importantly an excuse to allow me to focus on myself for a while, an external justification that gave me that space.

NYFA: And to follow up, what effect did the presence of the camera have in your fictional staging of Anna’s funeral?

PG: It was only once I started setting up for the day that I realized how much of an impact the filming was going to have. It was an early lesson for me on one of the central paradoxes of documentary filmmaking: the effect of the camera vs the possibility of broadcasting the story. I think the funeral itself would have been much more intimate and ultimately impactful without the cameras and lights but then no one else would have seen it. And as I said earlier, without the film to encourage me I’m not sure I would have put the funeral on in the end.

NYFA: Where do you turn to for inspiration? Your films range from personal tales to examinations of the world and people around us, ranging from introverted to extroverted subject matter. How do you balance this dynamic in your work and do you tend to have an idea beforehand or does inspiration just come from the aether?

PG: I’m the kind of person that pretty much always says yes to an invitation. So in a sense subject matter and the film’s direction finds me more than the other way around. Obviously I am making decisions in my work all the time but it doesn’t feel that way. I’m a fan of verité filmmaking (but of course these days that includes the great effect of the camera and the subjects’ awareness of editing and distribution) so I try to keep my expectations of a film to a minimum while I’m shooting and just focus on whatever it is that interests me, and let the writing of the story happen in the edit suite.

NYFA: Do you work full-time as a documentary filmmaker or do you supplement your work with other projects? What other fields and jobs are available to documentary filmmakers?

PG: I’ve been lucky enough to receive a couple grants recently for my own projects, which means that I have been able to focus more of my time toward them. Additionally I do some freelance cinematography, editing, sound and every now and then I teach.

It all depends on what type of ‘documentary filmmaker’ you want to be. The basic skills of a documentary filmmaker are broadly applied across a bunch of applications in media and storytelling.

NYFA: What about the way NYFA’s documentary program is structured—especially the Academy’s overriding philosophy of learning by doing—has shaped how you approach your work as a documentary filmmaker?

PG: NYFA’s doc program didn’t so much shape my approach as much as I chose the program because of its practical emphasis. The hands-on philosophy worked well for me because I was able to compliment it with my own theoretical research and musing. The course doesn’t try to do too much. It is essentially a dense, hectic, non-stop, more expensive alternative to growing up with a camera in your hand and making little experimental films. But it doesn’t do the work for you. You still need a passion for it.

NYFA: What role does photography play in your development and interests as a documentary filmmaker. Obviously, both disciplines are concerned with capturing the world around us, but do they require different skill sets or impact how you approach the other?

PG: Photography was my first foray into visual media and I can see the impact it has had on my work. If anything the lessons I learned when shooting stills (composition, lighting, mood, story, etc.) have allowed me to experiment more in the moving picture. For me there is no point capturing something with a video camera that can be expressed in a still (or the other way around). There are times that I wished I only shot stills (there is a simplicity to the medium that attracts me), but in the end documentary filmmaking is just another string to the bow of storytelling and allows a different range of communication.

NYFA: Any parting words of advice to aspiring documentary filmmakers?

PG: Don’t take my advice, take Werner Herzog’s.

Every Person Has A Story: An Interview With Documentary Filmmaker Susanne Dollnig

Documentary filmmaker Susanne Dollnig

NYFA: Hello Susanne, to get started, would you mind telling us a little bit about your background and what drew you to documentary filmmaking?

Susanne Dollnig: I was born and raised in a small city in Salzburg, Austria. I got interested in filmmaking during high school, when we were allowed to do a short film project with professional guidance. From then on, I knew that filmmaking is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

I studied at the University of Applied Sciences in Salzburg, where I received my Bachelor’s Degree in Digital Television. During my studies, I discovered my love for documentary filmmaking. My thesis film Vestiges of a Language was a documentary about Ladins, a linguistic minority in South Tirol, Italy trying to keep their culture alive.

NYFA: What attracted you to NYFA’s documentary program and inspired you to make the move from Austria to New York City?

SD: After my studies in Austria, I worked for different production companies and TV stations in Munich, Germany and Salzburg, Austria. My studies at the University of Applied Sciences provided me with a great basic knowledge of film and television production and post production, but I had a feeling that my education was not complete just yet.

After one month traveling through the United States, I was also visiting New York City and saw the New York Film Academy advertisements. Something told me I had to look into this. When I got back home to Austria, I started researching the school and the different programs it had. I was very pleased to find out that they offered a documentary program, since that was what I wanted to specialize in. That the program was a 1-year intensive program was also very appealing to me. Since I already had a basic knowledge of the filmmaking business I felt a further education, which was one year, would be a great fit for me. When I applied and got accepted I was thrilled, there was no hesitation on making the move and I was very excited to start a new chapter of my life in New York City.

NYFA: What was the most important lesson you learned while at NYFA that you continue to apply to your current work and career goals?

SD: There are so many lessons I learned at NYFA, which I apply daily at my work.

If I have to pick one I would say, one of my favorite things about the documentary program was the variety of teachers, with different backgrounds, different expertise, different teaching methods and different storytelling approaches. Getting to know this variety is helping me greatly in my job as an editor today. At the post production studio, House of Trim, we work on many different types of projects, the range goes from commercials to documentaries. With every new project you have to switch up your creative thinking fitting to the clients/directors vision. Having learned at NYFA how people approach the creative process in different ways, I can utilize this and apply it on a variety of projects.

NYFA: How has NYFA’s philosophy of “learning by doing” influenced both your education and current work?

SD: At NYFA in the documentary program you work on your own project in so many different roles; you produce, you direct, sometimes you do camera and/or sound, you edit…and you also work on your classmates’ projects as a cinematographer, doing sound, being a production assistant, etc.

The amount of work experience you gain in just one year of studying at NYFA is enormous. The fact that NYFA is so “hands-on” in every possible aspect of film production is one of the most valuable characteristics of the program. With this much experience during one year, I had my successes in what I wanted to achieve, but I also made a lot of mistakes, which is a very important part in learning a craft. This is the best preparation for your future work environment. You were able to make those mistakes already, which you would not want to happen on your job. At NYFA I learned how to deal with making mistakes, accepting them and most importantly learning from them.

NYFA: What is your personal philosophy regarding documentary filmmaking and what do you aim to achieve in the medium. How has this philosophy manifested itself in your thesis film Just Passing By?

SD: My personal philosophy regarding documentary filmmaking is that every person has a story to tell. Ordinary people have the most extraordinary lives. I believe that you just need to turn around and talk to the person who sits right next to you on the subway and you will find the most interesting story.

This was exactly the premise for my thesis film Just Passing By. You don’t have to be a famous actor, singer, activist, or politician to be recognized. With my documentary work I want to show how every single person is a valuable part of society with sorrows and wisdom living ordinary life.

NYFA: Just Passing By utilizes a unique premise—placing a table with two chairs and a coffee table in various locations around NYC to engage in conversation with people you might not otherwise engage with. What was your goal in creating the film and do you feel that goal was achieved?

SD: As I believe that everyone has a story to tell, my goal with making this film was to demonstrate the variety of incredible stories in ordinary people. I needed to set up an environment were people can get comfortable. I decided on an Austrian coffee table, since I am Austrian and a big part of my culture is the “coffee house culture” where you sit for hours over a cup of coffee and philosophize about life.

By setting up the table I did not have to wait long until people were willing to sit down with me and have a conversation. I got told the most fascinating stories of people from all walks of life, young and old from all corners of the world.

Right now Just Passing By is participating in an Online Film Festival “We Speak, Here”.

You can watch it here: http://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/51044/Just-Passing-By

NYFA: Were there any films, directors, or other inspirations that helped influence the concept behind Just Passing By?

SD: There are many films and directors that inspired and influenced me in doing this project. One of the first documentary series that I was very fond of was a series called Wir sind Österreich (We are Austria). It was a series of portraits on Austrian artists, athletes and musicians, these four- to five- minutes portraits were so sincerely done on how they portrayed these individuals, that I was inspired to do my documentaries in similar manner.

One part of documentary filmmaking is doing your research; what films are out there, what has been done before and how? During the production of Just Passing By I was researching many films about interviewing ordinary people and every film was very valuable for understanding what I wanted to achieve with my film. These were films from Chronicle of a Summer, by Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch, Talking Heads by Krzysztof Kieslowski to The Interview Project by David Lynch.

NYFA: One of the first films you completed after graduating is called ASEXUALLIFE about a female dancer who does not experience sexual desire, a condition that 1% of the human population has. What drew you to such an original and fascinating topic? What did the process teach you about the collaborative process of documentary filmmaking?

SD: The short documentary ASEXUALLIFE was a collaboration of NYFA documentary graduates. We got together to participate in the 2014 International Documentary Film Challenge, where you make a documentary within five days. The DocChallenge gives you a theme and a genre that you have to make your documentary in. We were assigned a Character Study with the theme “Behind the Curtain.” After many different ideas, our director Bianca Zanini suggested the topic of asexuality, which is not commonly known. Within half a day we found our character Caroline “Bauer” McClave, who was so kind to let us shed some light on what asexuality is.

This challenge was a very intense experience because making a documentary in five days puts you under a lot of pressure. One of the things I learned in this collaborative process was to trust my colleagues with their part of the work, so I can focus on my part of the work. I like to have control over productions and always have to have an overview on what is going on. We chose our team beforehand and I knew I was going to work with very talented people, so during this project I was actually able to let go of some of the things I wanted to manage, because I knew they were in good hands. And it paid off: ASEXUALLIFE was one of 12 finalists from over 100 entries and got to be screened at HotDocs Canadian International Documentary Festival, which is one of the most important documentary film festivals.

NYFA: As you are originally from Salzburg, Austria, would you ever consider making the move back to Austria to pursue your passion for documentary filmmaking?

SD: I have a great job at the Postproduction Studio House of Trim and I get to work on so many interesting projects. I can see myself staying there for a long time. Also through studying at the NYFA documentary program I have a solid network of other documentary filmmakers to work on different documentary projects as well. But, you never know what the future holds; four years ago I could not have imagined that I would be living and working in New York City. Austria is where my roots are and if the opportunity presents itself I can definitely see myself going back home one day, but at the moment my life is here in New York City.

NYFA: Any parting words of advice that you would care to impart to individuals considering a career in documentary filmmaking?

SD: Documentary filmmaking is a wonderful profession, you get to meet many different people, travel the world and experience different ways of living. Always be honest and sincere about your intentions and your work. Be open-minded and listen to your subjects with care and respect and you can find true beauty in individuals telling their stories.