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Fade to Black

Ellie Hall | Thursday, September 30, 2010

After eighteen years of teaching and editing in the film loft of O’Shaughnessy Hall, Film, Television and Theatre (FTT) professor and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Jill Godmilow will retire in May 2011. This weekend, “Days and Nights of a Filmmaker” will pay tribute to her profound impact on the Notre Dame community and the filmmaking medium.

Godmilow began teaching at Notre Dame in August of 1992 after what she jokingly referred to as a “freak hire.” A New Yorker and self-described “feisty Jewish girl from Pennsylvania,” she based her teaching method around a style of filmmaking taught by very few universities — working with film itself.

“You need to cut film, touch film, hold it in your hands,” she said in an interview with the Observer on Tuesday, “It’s a completely different experience from working with digital video … All the really interesting films are actually films.”

All of Godmilow’s nine films have been created in this medium, from her Academy Award-nominated documentary “Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman” (1974) to her only feature film, “Waiting for the Moon” (1987), which won first prize at the Sundance Film Festival. The recipient of numerous prestigious national grants and fellowships, Godmilow continued creating films during her teaching years and would sometimes work alongside her students.

“My first year here I bought a ping-pong table, for the loft” she laughed. “You have to be able to get up and look around when you’re working on films.”

In her years of teaching, Godmilow began every semester of her Advanced Film Production class by telling her students that they were going to “make films that could be shown at the Berlin Film Festival.”

“I don’t teach students to make films that aren’t going after something,” she said. “They need to fight with their life for it.  I’ve fought with students for scenes at three in the morning.”

“She’s remarkable at being very aggressive with students, forcing them to develop a vision and a voice,” said FTT Department Chair Donald Crafton, “It’s not her voice — it’s theirs.”

Now, most of the massive film editing machines that helped countless students find their voices have already been removed from O’Shaughnessy Hall. With Godmilow’s retirement, Notre Dame students will be limited to work with digital film and documentary production.

“It’s a big loss to the department,” she said.

The eight former students who will be screening their student films at “Days and Nights of a Filmmaker” on Friday night demonstrate the impact of Professor Godmilow’s legacy.  One student, Kirsten Kease, was a script supervisor for “Flight of the Conchords” and the movie “I Am Legend.” Another, Andy Kris, was the sound editor for all five seasons of “The Wire” and just finished production work on the upcoming gender-bending film version of “The Tempest,” starring Helen Mirren as Prospera.

The Notre Dame community will have the rare opportunity to view and discuss Godmilow’s work with the filmmaker — she will introduce and screen “Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman,” which was added to the National Film Registry in 2003, and her final film, “What Farocki Taught” on Saturday night. Despite her repertoire of over three decades of film production, when asked about her legacy, the retiring professor named her students as her most important contribution.

“My legacy doesn’t stay here in these walls,” she said. “It goes out with them. What more can you ask for?”