Last fall, a group of 11 African American students at the University of Missouri linked arms and stopped University President Tim Wolfe’s car in the middle of the annual homecoming parade. They proceeded to quote statistics and share anecdotes of what it meant to be a black student on a campus where a number of racially charged events had happened in the last year. Wolfe ignored the students, as he had the concerns of African American students for most of his tenure, and failed to even get out of his car.
Adam Dietrich, Varun Bajaj and Kellan Marvin – three undergraduate journalism students, all studying with an emphasis on documentary filmmaking – weren’t aware of the homecoming demonstration until the head programmer for the True/False Film Fest Chris Boeckmann visited their class and showed them video footage taken by the The Missourian, a local newspaper.
"Chris told us we could be doing work like this and that immediately put a spark in our mind and turned on our radar," recalled Dietrich.
Nothing stemmed from the homecoming incident for two weeks, until Monday, November 2, when graduate student Jonathan Butler went on a hunger strike demanding Wolfe’s resignation, and a group of students, calling themselves Concerned Student 1950 (1950 was the first year the University admitted an African American student), started camping out in middle of the school’s quad in protest.
"The following day, we’d seen a news article about it and Bill Ross [co-director of "Western" and "Contemporary Color," which will premiere at Tribeca Film Festival next month] was here guest lecturing," recalled Dietrich. "Our professor Stacey [Woelfel] pulled up the article and posed the question to Bill, ‘How would you go about shooting a protest like this?’ Bill said, ‘I’d grab a camera, leave class right now and start shooting.’"
Ross’s reply sent another shock wave through Dietrich: "The only reason I stayed through the end of class is I idolize Bill, but immediately after that day Varun and I went down the campsite with a camera and started asking for access."
At first the student documentarians had a hard time gaining such access, as the student protesters had made a conscience choice to shut out all media and were equally suspicious of the student journalists. "I spent the next 24 hours reading and researching about the movement and looking for names I could try to contact to get permission to start filming, looking for any crack in the wall to get into this thing," explained Dietrich.
Eventually Dietrich found a friend of friend who knew Butler personally and was willing to vouch for him: "He emailed me back and said we could get full access to everything and start filming from the inside."
The students started filming the next morning. Over the next week, the story began to gain national media attention, especially when players from the Missouri football team lent support to the protesters, while Wolfe continued to stonewall and Butler refused to eat. It was around this time that Field of Vision co-founder AJ Schnack contacted filmmaker Robert Greene ("Kate Plays Christine"), who teaches at the University, looking to see if Greene would be interested in starting a film about the protests.
"When Robert told AJ he had students who had been filming the protests for a week AJ said, ‘that’s even better, I want to see what they are getting, let’s see if we can get something out of this,’" recalled Dietrich.
"From there, [Field of Vision] became our production company, our distributor, a little bit of everything," said Bajaj, who told Indiewire that all three of the Field of Vision co-founders Schnack, Charlotte Cook and Oscar winner Laura Poitras ("Citizenfour") got creatively involved. "One of the biggest things they did for the film was hire our final editor Erin Casper, who was able to take everything to the next level."
"In a way they’ve become pseudo-professors," recalled Dietrich. "We were learning from every conversation we had with them and Erin. As we were making decisions, Erin was asking me questions I didn’t entirely understand because I had only been a filmmaker for six months really, so I’d have to ask her to take a step back and explain the larger technical aspect of her question."
The three students are well aware of how fortunate, and to a degree how bizarre it was, that their first attempt at filmmaking was being guided and supported by the leading documentarians in world. "I’m twenty years old and I’m getting notes from Laura Poitras," laughed Marvin, who was the student who took the lead on editing the film. "And what do you do if you get a note you disagree with? How do you tell one of your idols you disagree?"
Bajaj jokingly added, "Luckily, it’s a lot easier over email."
All three student filmmakers fully agree their final project is of professional quality they never could have achieved on their own and are completely in awe of what Casper was able to do in shaping their footage. The other remarkable part for the young filmmakers was how quickly they were able to turn the film around – "Concerned Student 1950" premiered at True/False at the beginning of March, only four months after the protests started.
"These issues didn’t end with the protests," explained Marvin. "This semester there’s already been one other protest we’ve filmed. The University is already trying to shut down any more conversation and has released statements telling Concerned Student 1950 to stop making demands. It’s amazing and important to us that our film can be part of this conversation and help people understand what it means to be an African American student on this campus. That couldn’t have happened without the support we received."
Another unique aspect of the film stems from the students’ unique education. For the first two years they studied the "science" of journalism, but in the second part of their education they were introduced to the "art" of nonfiction by Greene, whose own work has focused on exploring the nature of performance in nonfiction filmmaking and embracing the use of cinematic language.
"Literally the first two months we spent with Robert flipped our understanding of being a documentarian on its head and introduced us to how you can have a relationship with your subject," said Bajaj. "Once a week he would bring up that Albert Maylses said, ‘He’s not a fly on the wall because a fly is unthinking and unfeeling.’ We took that to heart and we learned we have a role in documenting real events."
All three students credit Greene’s teaching in shaping how they documented their fellow students. "We knew early we weren’t doing scientific type news coverage. We were spending 20 hours a day with these students. I wanted to know them and feel a connection to them, learn something about them, and then to tell their story. I wanted people the have empathy and know their experience," stated Bajaj.
Dietrich agrees, "To go broader, my goal with the film specifically, was to go beyond the football team and the Wolfe’s resignation, which is what became the big news, and to get at the whole point of the movement – what it is like to be a black student on this campus – which is no longer part of the story and I hope that our film brings that back to the forefront of the conversation."