Student-Produced Documentary Wins at Festival

Student-Produced Documentary Wins at Festival

The Buena Vista University student-produced documentary, "Notes: A Noteworthy Story of Music" has won second place at the 2007 Cedar Rapids Independent Film Festival.

Under the instruction of Assistant Professor of Media Studies Jerry Johnson, student producers Adam Thompson and Matt Clark accepted the award at the festival in Cedar Rapids on April 14. One of 42 films included in the festival, the documentary received a Silver Eddy Award in the Student Documentary category.

"Notes: A Noteworthy Story of Music" chronicles the Storm Lake High School Music Department as they prepare for a national competition while getting ready for a year's worth of concerts and contests. The documentary's journey began in August 2005 and ended in May 2006. Johnson, along with student producers Thompson and Clark filmed at the high school twice-a-week, attended all special events and conducted interviews with music professors Frank Hoskins, Jeff Tollefson, Carol Peterson and Lee Thorson and several students in band, orchestra and vocal music.

The idea of chronicling the Storm Lake High School music program was based on several factors, including notable success of the program through the years. Johnson also recalled hearing from various community members (as well as his son, Darren, who was recently in the music program) of the intense attitude of some of the music professors in their relentless persistence of excellence, and of students' sadness of leaving the program upon graduation.

"I've always wanted to make a documentary and I thought this was a very interesting story," says Johnson. "If some of the music teachers are known for being strict, why do they always have so many students participate? And why is there so much emotion from students and teachers alike when the school year ends? I felt this warranted further exploring."

Johnson says roughly one quarter (about 270 people) of the student population of Storm Lake High School is involved in the music program, with over 200 participating in the choir.

The documentary was a dynamic learning tool for the students in Johnson's electronic and advanced electronic media production classes, teaching how to shoot better film and applying what they learned in the classroom to the outside world in order to bring a film to life.

"The students did a great job shooting and putting this together," says Johnson. "I hope their love and appreciation of documentaries has grown and they've learned to shoot better video."

At a running time of 105 minutes, Johnson said "Notes" could've easily been a five-hour documentary. Despite the countless hours of work, Johnson's appreciation for documentaries has rubbed off.

"It was fun, but we found out that documentaries are hard," says junior media studies major and producer Matt Clark. "These are real people in real situations, and you need to think about how to make these real situations interesting to the viewer while keeping the true sense of what is going on. I got a lot better at anticipating where I should be shooting and what I should be looking for."

One of the documentary's major highlights was the band and choir's trip to Florida to compete in a music festival at Epcot, a fitting setting for the culmination of the documentary as the results were indeed a fairy tale ending. All of the competing ensembles received first place. The trip to Florida was intended as the main story, however as Johnson and his students progressed, a new, more compelling story emerged.

"It became more focused on the relationship of the four music instructors with their students," says Johnson. "It was fun to follow them around for a school year, to see how they created this environment of success. I mean, when they put on a concert it fills the gym. Even parents who don't have students in the music program attend."

The documentary was premiered at a red-carpet viewing on Jan. 27, 2007 for members of the Storm Lake High School community as well as sponsors, BVU students and administrators from Storm Lake and Buena Vista University. Repeated showings drew full houses and rave reviews.

Johnson said he would love to teach a documentary class, as the genre is more popular now than ever with the affordability of technology and the regularity of the internet.

"We need to take advantage of this age of documentaries," says Johnson.

According to Johnson, completing this first documentary was both exhausting and inspirational.

"It tells a nice story and captures a moment in time that I felt needed to be captured," says Johnson. It became a labor of love for the students and for me. It was hard to let it go and call it finished. Sometimes I can still hear it calling from the editing room."

"It took a lot of time to shoot and a long time to edit, but that's something that comes with making any good film," adds Clark. "It's only worth what you put into it, and 'Notes' had a lot invested in it."