UNT graduates take on film world

Denton Square (Photo by Stephen Masker)When the Thin Line Fest runs Feb. 17-21 in Denton, it's just one example of how UNT's documentary program is changing the creative culture of the North Texas region and beyond.

The festival, which features documentary films along with photography and music, was founded in 2007 by alumnus Joshua Butler, who came through the bachelor's documentary program.

Graduates from UNT's documentary production and studies graduate program are winning major national honors and their films have been seen on PBS, HBO and top websites. The program is known for its state-of-the-art sound, editing and camera equipment and a nurturing community of student, faculty and alumni filmmakers.

One thread runs deep among the alumni -- the desire to tell stories that can make a huge difference in how viewers see the world.

"Documentaries can be profoundly life-changing for people," says Melinda Levin ('92 M.A.), the program's director and professor of media arts. "You can get that in fiction, but the immediacy of documentaries really hits the nerve."

Intense work

Students and faculty refer to the program's rigorous work as "running the gauntlet."

In the first weeks of the three-year program, in which students earn a Master of Fine Arts degree, students are tasked with finding a subject for the first film they will produce and direct -- and it will be shown publicly.

During their second year, students direct another documentary while serving as camera operator, sound recordist and editor for three classmates' films. At the same time, they are researching the subject for the thesis film they are required to make during their third year. And there are peer reviews, writing assignments and other classes.

When Scott Thurman ('10 M.F.A.) showed clips during a class peer review from his movie The Revisionaries, which highlights controversial figures in American education, one classmate said he was falling asleep during some interviews.

But the classmate also said that he was engaged in the film when Thurman focused on Don McLeroy, a dentist and member of the Texas State Board of Education who tried to rewrite the state's textbooks to reflect his conservative philosophy.

The critique confirmed Thurman's feeling that he should focus more on McLeroy. The Revisionaries, released in 2012, received great acclaim, including the Special Jury Award from the Tribeca Film Festival and the DuPont-Columbia Award. It also appeared on the Independent Lens series on PBS.

"That's what I love about documentary," says Thurman, who now teaches at Gordon College in Boston. "It's something that teaches and entertains you."

Changing lives

Other graduates are making films about important issues that touch people's lives.

Abbey Hoekzema ('14 M.F.A.) is a tenure-track professor at Georgia Southern University who is shooting a film about undocumented youths from Mexico who travel thousands of miles to cross the U.S. border.

Denny Thomas ('13 M.F.A.) works as an assistant editor for Vice for HBO, where he helped edit footage for The Islamic State, which won a Peabody Award, the most prestigious prize in electronic news media.

Sara Masetti ('13 M.F.A.) is an assistant editor for one of the Internet's hottest websites, Vox Media.

"Everything I know about documentary I owe to the program at UNT," Masetti says. "It opened a world to me. I was able to discover what I'm really passionate about."