They don’t offer basic moviemaking courses like cinematography or editing. Professors don’t help students perfect their elevatorpitches to studio bigs. The word “film” isn’t even part of the program’s title.
And yet, when the Academy Awards ceremony takes place Sunday, the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University will get the kind of close-up that is sure to raise its profile. Three films by former VES classmates — Joshua Oppenheimer, Jehane Noujaim, and Richard Rowley — are among the five nominated for an Oscar for best documentary feature.
It’s an unprecedented triumph for a small program that takes an unorthodox approach to the world of film. Instead of focusing on the practical skills needed to start a Hollywood career, the department’s theorists, experimental filmmakers, and documentarians aim to train students how to think about the world outside the editing bay, and to translate those insights into the syntax of film.
The VES program is considered “the gold standard in the US for nonfiction filmmaking,” said Cara Mertes, director of JustFilms, a Ford Foundation initiative. Mertes helped provide grants for each of the Oscar-nominated documentaries by Harvard-trained filmmakers, in her previous post as director of the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program.
“It’s not a typical film program,” she said of the VES department. “They’re saying cinema is one form of understanding the world visually, one anchored by an understanding of visual culture.”
Alfred Guzzetti, a filmmaker and VES professor, describes that philosophy in straightforward terms.
“If you want professional training, do it after college,” said Guzzetti. “In college, try to learn about the world.”
That’s exactly the approach taken by the three Oscar nominees, who were all undergraduate VES students in the mid- to late 1990s. They went on to spend years on their films, immersing themselves in the cultures they were documenting, compiling mounds of footage.
Jehane Noujaim’s “The Square” captures the Egyptian uprisings that began in 2011 in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Noujaim takes viewers inside the lives of demonstrators calling for democracy in Egypt, documenting everything from flashes of bloody violence to moments of breathtaking idealism.
Noujaim, now 39, arrived at Harvard in 1992 intending to study medicine. She abandoned that plan as she fell in love with photography. She had spent much of her teens exploring her own complicated cultural and family dynamic; her father was born in Egypt, her mother in Connecticut. Before long, she was drawn to filmmaking, working with fellow VES students on a documentary called “Blue Hill Avenue” that chronicled gang life in Roxbury.
Richard Rowley, 39, is nominated for “Dirty Wars,” a film that questions the actions of the US military in the Middle East. He tells the story through the eyes of investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill, including interviews with government officials and horrific images of locals killed in the crossfire. Instead of embedding themselves with the US military, Rowley and Scahill drove around Afghanistan in a beat-up Toyota, always making sure to get back to Kabul before the sun went down. After dark, the Taliban took over the roads.
A Michigan native, Rowley is the son of an auto mechanic turned high school teacher. Before starting college in 1995, Rowley and friends spent a year abroad, rambling through Central America in a van, working on a farm and becoming immersed in the Zapatista protests in Mexico.
At Harvard, he met Oppenheimer, a political activist who would become well known on campus for his gay activism, at one point dressing in drag to stage an in-class protest of government professor and noted conservative Harvey Mansfield.
Oppenheimer’s Oscar-nominated film, “The Act of Killing,” revisits the massacre of hundreds of thousands of alleged communists, ethnic Chinese, and others nearly 40 years ago. In the documentary, the aging leaders of the country’s death squads not only speak candidly about their killings but also reenact them in jaw-dropping fashion, complete with sets and costumes of their choice, inspired by film styles ranging from musicals to film noir. Oppenheimer’s former VES classmate Christine Cynn is credited as a codirector.
All three directors had to scramble for every penny in their budgets.It took Oppenheimer, for example, nearly eight years to complete “Killing,” which he funded himself until a series of grants and public money from European agencies filled out the film’s nearly $1 million budget. Noujaim’s desire to continue filming the turmoil in Egypt well after her originally planned wrap date led her to raise money through Kickstarter. Her successful $126,020 campaign finished last March.
The list of decorated VES graduates is considerable, including Damien Chazelle, whose movie “Whiplash” won top prizes for dramatic film at the Sundance Film Festival in January; and Maxim Pozdorovkin, who codirected the 2013 documentary “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer,” about the Russian protest band, which was short-listed for a documentary Oscar.
Even among the talented ranks of VES students, the group that included Noujiam, Rowley, and Oppenheimer stood out, Guzzetti said.
“That generation was extraordinary, and we knew that when they were coming through,” Guzzetti recalled. “Just to have a substantial group of very talented students present at the same time — their energy fed one another and created a time of excitement.”
“Josh is wildly imaginative and unmoored by convention,” said Robb Moss, the department’s chairman and a mentor to all three nominees. “Of the three, Rick is probably the most activist. He started with a strong bedrock of sensibility. Jehane has this quality . . . that people open up to. She’s very curious about the world and has this incredible nose for what kinds of subjects in this world are her subjects.”
The VES program, which emerged in the late 1960s, includes such subjects as visual arts, design, and the natural and built environment. The department benefits not only from its faculty, which includes acclaimed filmmaker Ross McElwee, but from Cambridge’s rich documentary culture. The LEF Foundation, which provides support for films, is based in Cambridge. So are Frederick Wiseman, considered by many to be the greatest documentarian of all time, and Oscar winner Errol Morris (“The Fog of War,” “The Thin Blue Line”), a friend of Guzzetti who regularly plays chamber music with him.
“I can tell you one of the first things that I do when I’m working on a film, I show them to Robb Moss’s class, to Alfred’s class, to Ross McElwee’s class, and sometimes to their combined classes,” said Morris, an executive producer for Oppenheimer’s film. “It’s been a great resource.”
The students were also influenced by Dušan Makavejev (“WR: Mysteries of the Organism”), the acclaimed Serbian filmmaker who was a visiting VES professor.
“The program encouraged us to be mavericks,” explained Oppenheimer, 39. “They didn’t spend any time, if I recall, about the business side. [Guzzetti] taught me real patience and steadfastness. [Moss] was incredibly practical. I remember one simple piece of advice, but it was useful again and again: ‘Let your best material speak in the best possible way.’ And then Dušan Makavejev is the person who inspired my wildness. He inspired us to sleep with cameras under our pillows so we could wake up and record our nightmares.”
While larger film programs like those at Boston University and Emerson College offer students direct access to the mainstream entertainment industry in Hollywood and New York, that’s not what all student filmmakers — especially those thinking about making documentaries — are looking for, said Charles Merzbacher, associate film professor at Boston University.
“Documentaries, more than dramatic filmmaking, require you to live by your wits,” he said. “Instead of using your social skills to enchant producers who will help finance your projects and schmoozing your way to the right contact to pull together the right crew to collaborate with, documentaries are much more about the individual effort and going out there and coming up with a strong idea and sticking with it.”
While at Harvard, Rowley and Oppenheimer lived with about 30 other students at a Dudley Co-Operative Society house off campus, sharing group meals and debating how they might inspire political change through art.
Noujaim didn’t know Rowley and Oppenheimer well when they were students, but she says they shared something at Harvard that links them.
“The practicality of actually making films, I don’t know if those classes exist at Harvard,” she said. “I certainly didn’t take any of them. I always joke with [Moss] that ‘You inspired me to go into this crazy field and I can’t imagine a better world to be living in, but this will make me destitute forever.’ ”