Filmmaker Nailah Morgan Awarded Marlon T. Riggs Fellowship

February 24, 2017

These days, Nailah “Nai” Morgan (’17) practically lives in an editing suite. Flanked by two large monitors and two large speakers, she’s reviewing and cutting footage from multiple trips to Mexico. Morgan is on deadline, working to produce a 25-minute documentary for the J-School’s annual Showcase in May.


For doc students at the J-School, the pressure is on. Two short documentaries coming out of the School one by an alum and one by a lecturer are up for Academy Awards in 2017. But Morgan isn’t intimidated. She says the feeling among doc students is one of excitement, pride and anticipation.


In 2016, Morgan was awarded the second annual Marlon T. Riggs Fellowship, named after the pioneering African-American filmmaking alum who helped found the Journalism School’s renowned documentary program.


Morgan’s documentary trains its eye on the struggles of Haitian immigrants in Tijuana, Mexico. Thousands of Haitians left their country after the devastating 2010 earthquake, many finding work in Brazil. But when that country’s economy slowed, many of the Haitian refugees began to head north, hoping to reach the United States. Many are now instead residing in Tijuana.


Taking multiple trips to the border city with classmate Angelica Casas (’17) has allowed Morgan to form close relationships with her subjects. She said she’s interested in telling a more personal, nuanced story than the news reports she’s seen.


“The media has generalized refugees as being very one-dimensional, but that could be you or I, if something bad were to happen in this country,” she said.


Morgan is a native Californian, and studied broadcasting at San Francisco State, but she fell in love with filmmaking while studying abroad”Óat the Danish School of Media and Journalism.


For her first short film there, she embedded with an all-girls skateboarding team. Morgan recalls sleeping at the skate park and sharing meals with the skaters. By the end of the process, she was hooked.


“I hadn’t really picked up a camera before I went overseas,” she said. “But it was there where I thought, ‘Video is for me. This is how I’m able to express myself.'”


Embedding with subjects and delving into their lives is a key part of Morgan’s style.


“She really thinks the human story is important. She wants to learn about people and she wants to understand their reasoning,” said Casas, her colleague on the Tijuana shoots. “She doesn’t just report what people are doing, but why they are doing it.”


If the Danish School of Media and Journalism forged Morgan’s visual storytelling edge, the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism has honed it. She said the J-School has been an ideal environment for a young journalist.


“I feel that we’ve created a really safe place here, to figure out who we are, not only professionally, but who we are as women, as men, as people of color,” Morgan said. “So I’ve found myself in this program.  I’ve found my mission.”


Morgan has worked with video instructors Bob Calo and Linda Schacht, who she says made her a more efficient storyteller and helped connect her with opportunities. She has since interned at AJ+ and KQED.


Indeed, mentors have played important roles throughout her career, Morgan said. In high school, positive feedback on school newspaper stories propelled her forward. At the Danish School of Media and Journalism, Professor Inger Knude Larsen taught her the foundations of video journalism.


At KQED News, Morgan found a teacher and guide in J-School alum Adam Grossberg (’13), a web video producer. She said Grossberg helped her create a post-production process and pushed her to pitch and produce videos on a regular basis. Grossberg called Morgan “a natural,” who quickly matched her shooting and editing talents with the KQED newsroom.


Morgan credits the practice she got with making her into “a ten-times better shooter, a ten-times better storyteller.”


For both Morgan and Grossberg, one piece she produced at KQED stands out, a video piece on a Bay Area program that educates and empowers young African-American men.


‘It was super moving” Morgan said. “These young men I was able to give voices to “_ it was amazing. I’m going to cry, thinking about their stories.”


According to Bob Calo, a veteran television producer and J-School video teacher, Nailah Morgan shows enormous potential.


“With Nailah what you get is energy, curiosity, and the perfect mix of ambition and humbleness,” he said. “And a huge sense of the stories to come.”


By Sam-Omar Hall (’17)



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