Alum Pete Nicks Wins Prestigious Sundance Director Award

February 21, 2017

If you ask Pete Nicks (’99) about his recent Sundance win, he’ll acknowledge that accepting the Directing Award for U.S. Documentary was a seminal moment in his career, but he’ll also be the first to tell you he didn’t do it alone.

“It was a profound realization of everything I’ve worked for, but also it reminded me of how important it is to really have that support,” said Nicks. “The collective support is what allowed me to get there.”

Nicks’ newest film,”The Force,” is the second installment in a documentary trilogy on the city of Oakland. The first film in the series, “The Waiting Room,” focused on the patients and staff of Highland Hospital in East Oakland. “The Force” hones in on the Oakland Police Department during a time of turmoil for police departments across the nation.

Nicks says his experience making “The Force” differed greatly from “The Waiting Room,” in large part due to differing public perception of the institutions involved–hospitals and law enforcement.

“‘The Waiting Room’ was about a broken institution populated by people that many saw as heroes,” said Nicks. But from the beginning, Nicks knew audiences would view “The Force”differently. “Humanizing those people, those police officers, we knew was going to be a completely different reality and a much more difficult path,” said Nicks. But the need to do so was urgent, since the public had become increasingly divided.

“I want the African-American community to understand on a deeper level what police face on the day-to-day, and I want the police to understand on a deeper level the narratives that African- Americans have been carrying with them for generations that lead to them being distrustful and angry and upset,” said Nicks. “We all carry bias with us, none of us are truly objective. But as a value proposition, we felt that there was something damaging happening in this dialogue, around this relationship between the police and the community, and we were hoping that the film could help reframe that discussion.”

Nicks’ approach to “The Force” is informed by a distinct perspective. “My personal relationship with law enforcement is unique for a young black man,” he says. “They basically saved my life.” As a young man, Nicks spent a year in federal prison on drug charges. (He recounted this experience in his script “Escaping Morgantown.”) Nicks remembers flipping through his high school yearbook with one federal agent on the day of his arrest, as the others searched his apartment.

“I was trying to show him who I was,” Nicks says. “It was my effort to retain a small amount of dignity in that moment. He sat patiently as I talked about my past. Was this because he was a federal agent? I don’t know. I’ll never know. But this was the most intimate experience I had with law enforcement growing up, so in that sense I came into the project with an openness to cops as human beings.”

Nicks now joins a long line of Sundance winners and nominees who got their start at the Berkeley J-School, including Marlon Riggs (’81) who won the Filmmakers’ Trophy in 1995 for “Black Is…Black Ain’t”, and Shilpi Gupta (’03), who tied for the Grand Jury Prize in Short-Filmmaking in 2004 for “When the Storm Came,” on a mass rape in Kashmir.

Along with the winners, many celebrated films by alums also premiered at the festival. Jason Spingarn-Koff’s (’01) feature-length documentary, “Life 2.0,focusing on people who look to virtual worlds to fill voids in their everyday lives, premiered at Sundance in 2010. Carrie Lozano (’05) had two films premiere at Sundance, “The Weather Underground” and “Utopia in Four Movements.” Jessie Deeter (’01), produced the acclaimed picture “Who Killed the Electric Car,” which premiered at Sundance in 2006, the same year as Brent Huffman (’05), assistant editor for the film “A Lion in the House,” which follows five children fighting cancer. Cassandra Herrman’s (’01) master’s thesis “American Exile,” about a former Black Panther living in exile in East Africa, screened at Sundance in 2002.

But the former winner who made the biggest impression on Nicks was Jon Else. J-School professor and Nicks’ mentor, Else worked on “The Force” as executive producer. That connection made the moment Nicks accepted the award even more meaningful. “Jon really took me under his wing, and he changed my life,” said Nicks.

Nicks came to the J-School to learn from Else after watching the documentary series “Eyes on the Prize,” about the American Civil Rights Movement, which Else helped make. The first time Nicks went to Sundance was in 1998 when Else won the prestigious Filmmaker’s Trophy for his documentary “Sing Faster: The Stagehands’ Ring Cycle.” 19 years later, Nicks stood on the same stage accepting the same award for “The Force.”

“He’s got a sensational eye for visual storytelling,” Else said of Nicks. “You can see it when Peter makes a decision to stay shooting wide because he knows something expansive is about to happen. And you can notice it when he knows it’s the right time to go in for a closeup on a detail in a scene.”

Else would know. The acclaimed producer and cinematographer himself won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 1980 for “The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb,” and in addition to “Sing Faster,” his films “Yosemite: The Fate of Heaven” and “Wonders Are Many: The Making of Doctor Atomic” also premiered at Sundance.

Nicks credits the efforts of his team for the film’s success, rather than his own “tenacity in the field,” as Else calls it. Among them, Nicks credits Linda Davis, Lawrence Lerew and associate producer Sean Havey (’14), another J-School alum. In fact, in the world of documentary film, Else said, many alums are duly being recognized for their quality work.

“We’ve planted all these seeds over the last 20 years, and I think that they’re growing up into a big old forest of documentary-makers that are getting noticed out in the world, and they’re doing really important work.”

By Katherine Rose (’17)

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