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Student Spotlight: Finding Jeff

Student Spotlight: Finding Jeff
Story of a Documentary Film Project

October 12, 2015

by Emily Rizzo, '18

Finding Documentary

The end of my freshman year was rapidly approaching and my summer plans remained nonexistent. All I had was an urge to study documentary film, a camera, a tripod, and four months of free time. I researched and discovered that Skidmore had an MDOCS summer course entitled Making the Documentary Film which was open to anyone and occurring during the same time as the MDOCS Storytellers’ Institute. I would even be able to participate in the Institute’s public events and workshops. So with great satisfaction, I registered for the course. Now I knew my summer would not be wasted, and I would be using my time to progress as an individual. I would have no distractions and no other responsibilities. I didn’t even coordinate with friends to join me. With one click I devoted my whole self to a month of studying my newly found passion, to delve into documentary film, to live and breathe film within the quiet green stillness of Skidmore in the summer.

After a month off from school, I repacked the bags I had never finished unpacking, and returned to Skidmore. My Making the Documentary Film course, taught by Christopher Dale Moore, a documentary filmmaker and historian, met for four days a week for the five weeks of the session. It was a busy month: within this timeframe, we would choose our topics, envision storylines, film the footage, edit the footage into one cohesive piece, and then premiere our films to the class and members of the MDOCS Storytellers’ Institute. I did not know whom I would be living with, who would be taking the class with me, or who would be teaching the course. I had never mad a documentary film before either. But I was blindly excited for the unknown.

Interviewing Jeff the painter 
Rizzo interviews Jeff the Painter with Reece Robinson, '18,
on second camera.

Finding A Subject

I chose to make a film that drew on my experience as a radio DJ at WSPN, Skidmore’s radio network, focusing on my journey to find and meet the only person who ever called my Skidmore radio show. Since I started in fall 2014, an unnamed man had consistently called to let me know when I made mistakes on the air or to ask questions that had no relevance to what I was saying. To say the least, this man intrigued me. And I knew I wasn’t the only one he called. Over the year I had spoken with many other WSPN radio DJs who told me stories about a guy who called their shows as well. I heard rumors that he was homeless or lived in his pick-up truck, but no one that I spoke could give me concrete answers about who he was or why he called.

Collecting Stories

From the moment I chose my topic, I was off. I spent a week and a half collecting stories from Skidmore radio DJs about their callers. I found that a dining hall worker named George, who has had a radio show for 18 years, knew exactly the person I was looking for. As I described my caller’s voice to George, he recognized my description as a man known as "Jeff the painter." But who was Jeff the Painter?

To find out, I proceeded to call out to Jeff on the airwaves for several days. Miraculously, he responded and agreed to come into the station for an interview. For two hours I spoke to Jeff about why he loves the radio so much, why he calls in, and the human connection he feels while listening.  Turns out Jeff the painter has been listening to the Skidmore radio since the day it started. He was also the first ever caller to the station. From the way he answered, I believe he had been waiting for a long time for someone to ask him these questions.

One idea, amazing stories

Working on the film
Consultation with prof Chris Moore
and Institute fellow Jonna McKone
(seated).

What is so great about documentary filmmaking is that you uncover amazing stories just by following one little good idea. The idea to document my journey finding Jeff, led to the discovery of a truly unique story of a man’s love for radio. With documentary film, you have to fully devote yourself and keep an open mind in order for these greater possibilities to arise. And from this summer I learned that it is okay, maybe better, to not know which way your film is going. We are documenting life, and life is unpredictable.

Finishing a 20-minute documentary film is one of my greatest accomplishments, and I owe it to the MDOCS summer program. I could not be more grateful to the MDOCS professors and fellow students for pushing me to move beyond my known limits and guiding me to produce a piece of art that I am proud of. This summer experience was the catalyst for my love for documentary. I premiered my film to classmates and MDOCS faculty with a beam of delight as I watched them get to know Jeff just as I did. They laughed at his jokes, empathized when he spoke of his loneliness, and smiled when we first met. My film evoked emotion and human connection, which was inspiring and motivating. I am now determined to continue my studies and to keep on telling stories. 

This fall, I’m working in an MDOCS Documentary Projects class led by documentary filmmaker and artist Nicky Tavares to edit the film and add a bit more material.  Stay tuned for news of the final product!

Tags: mdocs, MDOCS, Emily Rizzo, documentary film, Storytellers' Institute, summer, student work
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