SOJC documentary program connects students with Emmy and Oscar-winning filmmakers

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A SOJC student shoots images on the Sheridan Glacier in Alaska. Photo by Haley Justus.

As a photographer and videographer for the University of Oregon, Marin Stuart ’21 understands the challenges of creating impactful video.

But it wasn’t until she attended Oscar and Emmy-winning documentary and film studies professor Mitchell Block’s class as a student at the UO School of Journalism and Communication ( SOJC) that she learned what it really takes to make a compelling documentary.

“It was a great experience for what the real world would be like if you wanted to become a documentary maker,” Stuart said. “You have to go find the story and capture it. If you’re a one-man band, you find out what it is and do it your way.

Stuart’s short documentary focuses on Oregon Enchanted Forest theme park which recently suffered devastating setbacks: the family that owned the park had to temporarily close it due to COVID-19, then lost two family members in the Beachie Creek fire.

One of the challenges Stuart faced was figuring out how to make a closed theme park interesting while telling a compelling story. While working on her film, she turned to Block and Rebecca Cammisa, a two-time Emmy-nominated and Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker who co-taught Block’s course on Zoom from her home in New York City.

“They were very helpful in helping with the emotional element. They would say, I think you should pull this off longer or get rid of this shot, or your edit has to be stronger, ”Stuart said. “Rebecca was really good at being brutally honest with the changes.”

Mitchell Block
Mitchell Block is SOJC Jon Anderson Chair and Professor of Documentary and Film Studies. Photo by Owen Lowe-Rogstad.

The professional supervision of the masters of the trade is the cornerstone of the SOJC documentary program.

“We can have a world-class documentary program in Eugene because of Zoom,” said Block, who joined SOJC in 2020 as the Jon Anderson Chair in Journalism and Communications. “When students edit, they have Oscar-level editors. When working on their films, they involve Oscar-level directors and filmmakers. This makes this program unique, as most programs do not have filmmakers of this caliber.

Since the students were far away and not all had access to their own or SOJC gear, Block encouraged them to use their iPhones.

“I’m not pushing high tech,” Block said. “I don’t care about the cameras. I don’t care about anything except telling stories, and you can tell stories with an iPhone.

Trey Kodman ’21 appreciated Block’s understanding that not all students have the same resources.

“He was very receptive to everyone bringing whatever they could to the table,” Kodman said. “I was inspired by his availability to be open and receptive to each student’s point of view on their project.

While in class, Kodman learned more about how to approach subjects, especially when it comes to working with minor subjects.

“I asked Mitchell what the conditions are for kids to sign their rights to edit pictures with them,” Kodman said. “Mitchell said, ‘Don’t do that,’ because their parental guardians may have a problem with that. They had the insight into the inner workings of how to approach sensitive topics.

Block and Cammisa understood the time constraints students face in creating a short documentary in 10 weeks: they have to find and present the story, put the footage together, and put it all together into a five- to six-minute documentary. Class time was often spent looking at rough edits and discussing how they could improve their work.

“The goal is not necessarily to make a finished piece,” said Cammisa. “In week 10 we ask you: What mistakes are you learning from? “

Block wants to expand the documentary film program by adding courses that complement each other so that students can have more time to develop their films. He is also keen to continue bringing in visiting professors and working filmmakers to help students develop their skills and industry connections that will help them find employment after graduation.

“I want to see everyone grow up and I want to help people find their voice,” Block said. “This, for me, is not academic. It’s artistic, so it’s very exciting.

—By Alli Weseman, Class of ’22, with additional reporting by Shannon Golden

Alli Weseman (she / she) is a second year student at SOJC Masters Program in Multimedia Journalism in Portland. She worked freelance for Portland Monthly Magazine and hope to one day work in an editorial office. You can find more of Alli’s works on alliwesemanphotography.com.


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