Students and faculty call it “running the gauntlet."
It's the challenging work that students have to go through in the documentary production and studies graduate program.
In the first weeks of the three-year program, in which students earn a Master of Fine Arts degree, they are tasked to find a subject for the first film they will produce and direct — and it will be shown publicly.
"They're thrown into it immediately," says Melinda Levin ('92 M.A.), the program's director and professor of media arts.
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.
This rigorous workload has yielded some big results. Graduates go on to be part of productions that have won major national honors, including the DuPont-Columbia Award and the Peabody Award. Their work can be seen on PBS, HBO and top websites.
Now celebrating its 10th year, UNT's program — known for its state-of-the-art sound, editing and camera equipment and a nurturing community of student, faculty and alumni filmmakers — is impacting the creative culture of the North Texas region and beyond. Several alumni have created festivals to spotlight documentaries, including Denton's Thin Line Fest founded in 2007 by Joshua Butler ('06), who came through the bachelor's documentary program, and Dallas' Arab Film Festival Texas, started in 2013 by Tania Khalaf ('07 M.F.A.), associate professor of media arts.
One thread runs deep among the filmmakers — 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," Levin says. "You can get that in fiction, but the immediacy of documentaries really hits the nerve."
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 he 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.
Before coming to UNT, Thurman was working as a cameraman for an Amarillo TV station. He decided that he wanted more control over the footage he shot.
"I wanted to tell my own stories" he says.
Thurman now teaches what he learned at UNT to his students at Gordon College in Boston. And one of the most important lessons was that subjects must be three-dimensional.
For his first film at UNT, Smokey, he focused on "Smokey" Binion Jr., an Elvis Presley impersonator from Stinnett.
"I began to see that the Elvis character had endearing qualities," Thurman says. "When you round out the characters, it makes the story ring true."
That philosophy carried over to The Revisionaries. McElroy thought Thurman's portrayal of him was well-balanced, and he participated in question-and-answer sessions with him at showings of the film.
"That's what I love about documentary," Thurman says. "It's something that teaches and entertains you."
Abbey Hoekzema ('14 M.F.A.) was sleeping in her dorm at Virginia Tech in 2007 when another student began a massive shooting spree on the campus.
Hoekzema was unharmed physically, but she was angry about the media's negative portrayal of the college and community. She expressed that frustration by making a documentary about students' reactions to the shooting for a student-run website.
The experience inspired Hoekzema to change her major from marketing to film at Virginia Tech and then to pursue her master's at UNT.
Now a tenure-track professor at Georgia Southern University, she enjoys watching students go through the creative process.
"I really stress creative problem-solving," she says. "Being confident in your idea is the first step to being an impactful filmmaker and storyteller."
Hoekzema finds ways to be innovative. She's currently working on a film about undocumented youths from Mexico who travel thousands of miles to cross the U.S. border. But since she needs to protect the subjects' identities, she's using stop motion animation to reenact their stories.
Her films featured in festivals across the nation include Photos in the Wind, which she made in her second year at UNT. It depicts how community members around Joplin, Mo., cleaned and returned photos lost after a 2011 tornado.
"The most rewarding part is that the people in the film liked it," she says.
Denny Thomas ('13 M.F.A.) looked at his computer screen in shock.
A Palestinian filmmaker was able to get inside the terrorist group ISIS. Thomas and other members of Vice News watched intently as they saw terrorists recruit children as young as 10 and villagers ignore executions in city squares.
"Most of the stuff we were seeing was blowing our minds," Thomas says.
As an assistant editor for Vice for HBO, the Emmy-winning documentary series, Thomas not only helps make provocative documentaries, he also is winning awards and changing people's lives.
Thomas helped edit the filmmaker's footage for The Islamic State, which won a Peabody Award, the most prestigious prize in electronic news media. Other Vice projects that he's worked on include Killing Cancer, which helped raise $1 million for cancer research. Fixing the System, in which President Barack Obama talked to federal inmates, got presidential candidates talking about justice reform.
"They are very real, very visceral," Thomas says of Vice's documentaries. "They are entertaining, but they are illuminating."
Thomas was making documentaries while working in radio in his native India when a couple of his friends mentioned they were going to UNT. He enrolled in the documentary program and worked at the KNTU radio station.
His first-year film, Black Dog, was about how dark-haired dogs are adopted less often and euthanized more than lighter-haired dogs. For Thomas' final-year project, Rickshaw Man, he followed a rickshaw driver in India and a pedicab driver in Dallas, showing their differences and similarities.
After graduation, he worked for several reality shows, My Crazy Obsession and My Dirty Little Secret. An avid screenwriter, he is developing a drama pilot and hopes to make his own TV show one day. But for now at Vice Media, he feels as though his team is making a difference.
"We can see tangible results," he says. "That definitely feels amazing."
As a child in Italy, Sara Masetti ('13 M.F.A.) lived in Sarzana, where the movie theater was just 30 feet from her house.
"It started out as a pure fan experience," she says. "And I wanted to be part of that industry."
Masetti sought out UNT for its strong documentary film program and has since reached her goal. She works for one of the Internet's hottest websites, Vox Media, and her films have won her several honors.
One of the films she made while at UNT, Undocumented Dreams, won the Rising Star Award at the Canada International Film Fest in Vancouver and an Award of Merit at the Best Shorts Competition online. The film focused on a student who was undocumented while legislation was being considered about the fate of students like him. Her other films made at UNT included Fundamentally Good, which featured Muslim men living in Dallas trying to reconcile Sudanese roots and American dreams, and The Ocean in Between, a personal account about coming to terms with her bicultural identity.
After graduation, she moved to New York City and worked for Hearst Magazines' video department as a production assistant. She then served as an editor for the i-Italy weekly TV program and for shows on Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel. Last January, she landed at Vox Media as an assistant editor for the website.
"Everything I know about documentary I owe to the program at UNT," she says.
"It opened a world to me. I was able to discover what I'm really passionate about."