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Student documentaries earn national honors

Abi Hoverman | Friday, October 28, 2011

For a few recent graduates, a class project turned into national recognition.

“The Elect” and “Picking Up America,” two documentaries created for a documentary production class in 2010, have been official selections and award winners at film festivals across the country this year.

Film, Television and Theatre (FTT) faculty member Ted Mandell taught the class for which the films were made.

“In the past few years [Notre Dame] has been more successful in terms of getting into national and international film festivals,” Mandell said.

Produced by 2011 graduates Erin Zacek and Dan Moore, “The Elect” was selected for the Los Angeles film festival for its behind-the-scenes look at the Scottsboro Baptist Church.

“When we went to the LA film festival, out of 5,000 films, to be selected and to stand out from that many quality films was really exciting,” Zacek said.

“Picking Up America,” produced by Michael Burke and Marie Wicht of the Class of 2011, tells the story of the environmentalist group Pick Up America, which has been picking up trash across the country since March 2010 to raise awareness about waste and pollution.

In addition to being selected for 12 festivals, the film won the Social Change Award at the Ivy Film Festival and Best Nature Film at the Yosemite Film Festival.

“It was super rewarding to have someone stand up and say, ‘This is the film that can inspire the most change’… Knowing that it worked and people are responding to it is rewarding,” Wicht said. “We’re college kids … We got in competing against non-student films.”

Mandell said Notre Dame’s FTT department offers students unique opportunities that have contributed to such successes.

First, Notre Dame offers filmmakers funding and grants to travel, which is key when making films of national scope and interest, Mandell said.

Both films’ creators took advantage of the Broad Avenue Filmmakers Award, a grant for FTT students created by a 1986 Notre Dame graduate.

“We got funding totaling over $1,000 … That covered all our travel expenses, as well as submission fees for somewhere around 20 film festivals,” Burke said.

The relatively small size small of Notre Dame’s film department gives students the benefit of more faculty attention and more access to equipment, Mandell said.

“Our documentary class had eight people. To get that kind of one-on-one attention from the professor and feedback from the class … was a luxury,” Zacek said.

Because of small classes, film students participate in every aspect of the filmmaking process, including writing, producing, cinematography, directing and editing, Mandell said.

“For [“Picking up America,”] it was me and Dan doing the whole thing,” Zacek said. “At a bigger school I’d just have one job, like editing. But for FTT, here we got to do the whole thing just the two of us, and that versatility was great to have.”

The Arts and Letters and University requirements that FTT majors must take in addition to their film classes also make more well-rounded students, Mandell said.

“Students are more prepared when they get to the real world,” he said. “They are more aware of issues and ways to approach them.”

As these documentaries continue their tour of film festivals, the students are enjoying their success, Burke said.

“I’m still surprised how welcoming all these festivals are to student filmmakers,” he said. “The fact that a college student — and even a high school student in some festivals — can have an opportunity like that is something I was totally unaware of.

“What’s been most surprising is the way you get treated as a filmmaker at festivals.”