Academics and Research

Film students go behind the camera to shoot their own short documentaries

From left, Courtney Merage, Montana Knapp and Jessica Markowitz are the team behind “Americano.” Photo: Jake Schuus

Each year, students in the University of Denver’s film studies and production program get the chance to put their technical training to the test, dividing into teams to conceptualize, shoot and edit their own short films. Students alternate each year between narrative films — fictional movies with a script — and documentaries. In the winter and spring quarters of 2013, students in Documentary Film and Video Production I and II, team-taught by associate professors Sheila Schroeder and Diane Waldman, made short documentaries on topics including amateur poker, wolf rescue, mortality, and programs that help refugees adjust to life in America. The University of Denver Magazine followed one team through the filmmaking process.

Watch all the student films online at the Media, Film and Journalism Studies website



Like most movie projects, it all starts with the pitch.

A roomful of DU film students, having spent the last three weeks learning about the art and theory of documentaries, is now ready to start making their own films.

Each has been assigned to come up with three ideas, and one by one they stand in front of the class to deliver their pitches. The concepts cover the gamut: ultimate Frisbee. Blind skiers. A profile of a local dubstep DJ. Medical marijuana. Breed-specific dog legislation.

Each pitch is met with thoughtful questions from the class: questions about access, funding, timing and the ethics of making a movie starring your friends. After class, each student will pick his or her top three pitches. Teams will be formed, and the rest of the ideas discarded.

Senior Courtney Merage stands in front of the class and talks about a program she learned about while volunteering at the Emily Griffith Technical College in downtown Denver. The Pathways Program gives job training and English lessons to refugees and immigrants by teaching them to work at an onsite coffee shop. Merage proposes a film about the program and the people it helps.

“I’ve always been so inspired by those refugees because they are so resilient,” Merage says later. “But there have been so many documentaries that already tell an amazing story of the resiliency of refugees. The one component that made [this one] different was this coffee-shop setting. We have a really unique, hyperactive coffee culture in America.”



Three weeks later, the students have made their choices and teams have been assigned. Seniors Jessica Markowitz and Montana Knapp were drawn to Merage’s energy and her idea, and all three are now dedicated to telling the stories of the refugees in the Pathways Program.

“The reason I’m in film is to connect with a larger audience and to focus on more global issues, and it seemed like this one was great for that,” Knapp says later. “I just knew that it could have a huge impact.”

Today, the team is on its way to Kaladi Brothers Coffee near campus to film an “observational sequence” — no narration, just footage of employees working at Kaladi, which is a shadow site for the job-training program. The team is nervous, but excited. It’s their first time, as a group, wrestling with equipment and shooting footage in the field. Before they begin, they tape sheets to Kaladi’s door letting patrons know they consent to be filmed by coming inside. “You guys, we’re going to be expert photographers after this,” Merage tells her teammates. “We have to be.”



Midway through their production cycle, the students are ready to pitch again. DU alumnus and movie producer Roger Birnbaum (attd. 1968–71), co-chairman and chief executive officer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and co-founder of Spyglass Entertainment, is on campus as part of the Masters Program put together by DU’s alumni relations department. After telling the documentary film class about his road to Hollywood, Birnbaum hears a pitch from each group, evaluating them as he would if he were in his Beverly Hills office.

Merage represents the coffee-shop team, pitching a short documentary that is now called “Americano.”

“An Iraqi and a Congolese walk into an American coffee shop,” she begins. “This may sound like the beginning of a very tasteless joke, but in fact it’s the beginning of a flavorful journey in pursuit of the American dream. In ‘Americano,’ the American coffee shop becomes playground and classroom for a group of refugee men and women. In a one-month-long program, they not only learn to become baristas, they learn to become Americans.”

Birnbaum likes the idea, but he has questions about the story. “The world in which you want to set your story is very rich and has lots of ways to convey an emotional journey,” he says. “But I’m not sure what the story is. I know the characters and the setting, but not the story.”

It’s advice the team will take to heart in the weeks to come. “Story” becomes their mantra as they begin to edit their film.

“At that point, we really hadn’t solidified our character and our story, and so — as he mentioned — we didn’t really display that story arc that he was looking for, and that was so key,” Merage says later. “We know from now on that when it comes to pitching and when it comes to creating your story, the main thing that you want to hold onto is that arc.”



Over the past few months, all five teams have logged dozens of hours behind the camera and in the editing bay. Merage, Knapp and Markowitz have been all over Denver, it seems: at the Emily Griffith school, filming refugees learning in the classroom and training at the coffee shop; at the home of Kim Hosp, the woman who teaches the refugees about customer service and American customs; and back at Kaladi Brothers, filming one of the refugees as he trains on the job. For the DU students, this is learning without a net — outside the classroom, in the real world.

“They’ve had the classes that laid the foundation,” Schroeder says later, “but [Diane and I] are not making calls to participants, we aren’t there setting up the dolly track, we’re not there saying, ‘Check your sound’ or in the edit bay saying, ‘This is how you connect the sound with the video.’” In the field, the students are totally on their own.

Today, the teams are ready to screen their rough cuts for the class. Generally longer than the finished film, the rough cut sets up the film’s structure and basic format.

The “Americano” team’s 10-minute rough cut — assembled from more than 30 hours of footage — makes it clear that their film is morphing into a story about Naseer Al Hammal, one of the Iraqi refugees the team has been following. There’s a dilemma, though: The film crew has become good friends with two other refugees, brothers Matti and Majd Matti, and they feel bad about the idea of leaving their stories on the cutting-room floor.

“Part of our ethical dilemma here, outside of the film itself, is that we’re all close now,” Merage says of the brothers. “We’re not like besties or anything, but we text, we’re getting coffee — so we would feel awful not including them. And they’re really expecting to be part of it. The stories all work; it’s just a matter of truncating it.”

After the screening, the other students offer their critiques of “Americano.” Is the montage too fast? Should they put the classroom scenes first? Is there too much focus on Hosp?

Schroeder emphasizes it’s important to know your story first, then figure out how to tell it.

“I think that speaks to what you did really well with Naseer in introducing him,” Schroeder tells the “Americano” team. “Immediately, we have a very compelling story as to why he is here. He is here because obviously he has had this very traumatic experience in Iraq, so his refugee status hinges on this moment. Where with Matti and Majd, we don’t get that story.

“You really need to think about this film for an audience who knows nothing about it,” she tells them. “I don’t really get the connection between class and what they’re doing in the coffee shops. There are some great things going on here; this is appropriate for a rough cut, working out these issues. I think you’ve got it all, save for the end. It just needs a little more work.”



It’s a rainy night on the University of Denver campus, and Merage, Markowitz and Knapp are in an editing bay in the journalism building, putting the finishing touches on their documentary. Schroeder has told the class about the small miracles that can happen when you’re making a documentary, and the “Americano” team is about to experience one of them firsthand.

While perusing YouTube for archival footage to use in their documentary, they come across amateur video of a bus bombing in Mosul, Iraq, in May 2010. The video shows the immediate aftermath of the attack, and amid the bloodied victims, harried doctors and worried family members, the filmmakers pick out one lone figure walking to the front of the frame.

“Oh my god, that’s him!” Merage cries. Improbably, from amateur video three years and half a world away, the DU filmmakers have found Naseer, their subject, in the chaos surrounding a terrorist attack. He’s wearing the same clothes he wears in one of their interview segments.



Two days from premiering “Americano” at the documentary film showcase on campus, Merage, Knapp and Markowitz sit down to talk about the project and what it’s meant to them.

“I’ve never been prouder of anything in my entire life,” says Merage, an international business major with a film minor. “I feel like as filmmakers we have a stake in Naseer’s life, and just as human beings we have a stake in his life, which is really cool. We talk to him all the time, and we are also working on making sure he gets a job. That’s why I’m in film. I want to be able to have that kind of impact.”

All three agree that “Americano” was the highlight of their DU experience, not least because it got them out of the classroom and into the real world.

“I think what we did best was the story,” Markowitz says. “When we were filming we were always focused on the story, and I think that comes out in our final piece. Even though when we were editing it was very choppy and it wasn’t clear, now I think we got it.”

Another positive aspect of the class, they say, was the community they formed with their teachers and fellow students.

“We got so much guidance and resources and tools and knowledge,” Merage says. “I’m really, really proud of our work, and I know how much work we put into it, but I don’t think it would have been as awesome as it is without the class. Without Sheila and Diane and the knowledge that they gave us, and the feedback from our peers.”

The seniors are now fast friends with plans to work together again someday — perhaps on a longer version of “Americano” that has room for Matti and Majd — but today they’re focused on Commencement, which is less than a week away, and on their postgraduation plans. Markowitz, an environmental science major with a film minor, is headed to Alaska to be a sea-kayaking guide for the summer.

“They’re excited I have all this experience in film,” she says. “I’m planning on making a documentary there, and I also think they want me to make a marketing video for their company.”

Knapp, meanwhile, is planning to spend part of her summer working on a movie in Iowa. After that, massage therapy school.

“The reason I wanted to apply in the first place was because if I did go and travel making documentaries, I could bring massage therapy with me and make money while I was doing documentaries,” she says. “You don’t make money off of them when you’re making them.”

Merage says she is taking the summer to write a novel and submit “Americano” to film festivals. “Then I’ll become a grownup and get a job,” she says — hopefully as a producer’s assistant.



It all comes down to this: screening night in Davis Auditorium on campus. Many of the students are dressed up; family members are there; there’s a preshow reception — the feel is a cross between a high school choir concert and a Hollywood opening. Naseer couldn’t come because he had to work, but Matti and Majd, the brothers whose stories ended up on the cutting-room floor, are there, as is Kim Hosp, the teacher at the Pathways program.

Subjects of some of the other student films are in the audience as well, delighted to have their stories told. Knapp later describes it as a “magical night.”

Before the screenings begin, Schroeder has an announcement: Wade Gardner, founder of the annual DocuWest festival in Golden, Colo., is so impressed with the students’ work that he’s decided to program all five films into this year’s festival, running Sept. 11–15.

“For him to come to us to suggest, ‘I’d like to make a whole program of the DU films,’ that’s a real honor for the program,” Schroeder says later. “If there was a [bad film] in there, he wouldn’t have said that.”

The lights go down, and “Americano” begins. The finished film is not that different from the rough cut, but it is much more refined and focused. The found footage from YouTube adds emotional heft to Naseer’s story. After the credits roll, the applause is loud and long.

“It was pretty amazing; it got really emotional,” Knapp says later. “It was like we were watching it for the first time, which was weird since we watched it so many times. To have all that reassurance was kind of overwhelming, but in a really good way.”

Merage agrees. “It was pretty miraculous,” she says. “It was one of the most exciting and proudest nights of all our lives, at least mine. We were all very excited and nervous, very sentimental — we were all clutching each other’s hands right before our screening started. We had some people who were involved who ended up crying afterwards just because they were so proud and moved. I think everybody who was involved with it, they were all pretty proud.”

It’s not just “Americano” that’s a hit at the showcase; after each of the five films, the audience is enthusiastic in its response and thoughtful in the questions asked of the filmmakers in the short Q&A session that follows each screening.

“Across the faculty, not just Diane and myself, I think there’s a strong sentiment that this was our strongest program of films that the students have ever done,” Schroeder says later. She attributes that in part to the fact that film studies has only been a major for four years, making the class of 2013 the first to have it as an option since they started at DU.

“They had the chance to be a major from the get-go, so they’ve built this community,” Schroeder says. “This class was really outstanding in the way that they were supportive of each other. The critique that they give each other, not only in the classroom, but sitting in the editing bay and saying, ‘Hey, come take a look at this scene’ — that sort of growth and trust in each other, and the filmmaking community that I think we have here, I’m particularly proud of that.”

And she is proud of the “Americano” team, the only all-female team in the class, which had to negotiate a world of refugees and red tape to get its documentary made.

“The road is very steep in filmmaking for women, so to have this group develop the kind of trust and excitement and camaraderie that they did is a wholly unique experience in the filmmaking world,” Schroeder says. “This is a really intelligent group of filmmakers, but for them to have that experience as their last experience in college, I think, is going to really enhance their confidence in what they can do because they were able to do it and do it very, very well. I think it’s a really tight film.”



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