Photo: UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism

By Javaria Khan (‘19)

Documentary filmmaker and 2018 J-School graduate, Lauren Schwartzman, was on her way to meet a sound recordist for coffee when she got the call. She was excited and humbled but had to keep her focus on microphones and mixers. On any other day, that would be normal for a documentary filmmaker. But Schwartzman had just learned that her thesis film, “Dust Rising,” had been declared one of three winners of this year’s Student Academy Awards.

“It’s a humbling honor. I want to represent the Documentary Class of 2018 well because I’m incredibly proud of the work we all produced,” said Schwartzman.

The 2018 thesis films of four graduates—Grace Oyenubi, Lauren Schwartzman, Alan Toth and Nani Sahra Walker—accounted for three of seven finalist spots in the documentary category for U.S. film schools, a historical record for Berkeley Journalism. Schwartzman is now one of three student filmmakers vying for the top spot.

In the visually lyrical “Dust Rising,” Schwartzman explores the vast power mere dust can have over everything from human health to the planet’s climate and the growing phenomenon of deadly dust storms in the American Southwest.

“I wanted to reveal the amazing power and complexity behind something we take for granted and think of as mundane. I want the audience to see the interconnectedness of the planet in a speck of dust,” said Schwartzman.

The idea of combining art and science was something that Schwartzman had always toyed with. In college, she was an environmental science and creative writing major, and in graduate school, she took a class titled, Earth Journalism. It was there that she heard a guest speaker talk about dust from the Sahara Desert fertilizing the Amazon rainforest.

“I got chills—it was one of the most amazing and beautiful things I’d ever heard. After that, I couldn’t shake the desire to make a film about dust,” she said.

The film took nearly five months to film, and Schwartzman says that she could not have done it without the crewing assistance from her classmates.

Lauren Schwartzman and Rafael Roy filming in the Sierra Nevada with dust researchers from UC Merced. Photo: Erin Stacy.

“The excellence of my classmates motivated me to push myself further. And I couldn’t have made this film without funding from the Fine Cut Fund and a travel grant,” she added.  

Schwartzman applied to join the School after she returned from two years in the Peace Corps. Her interest in documentary and filmmaking dated back to 2012, and she says that the School’s documentary program took her filmmaking skills from amateur to professional.

Producer and Berkeley Journalism alum Carrie Lozano—who co-teaches documentary filmmaking—was deeply impressed by Schwartzman’s film when it screened during the annual Showcase in May.  “Schwartzman weaved an unexpectedly gripping tale about dust and its complex environmental impacts through emotionally compelling storytelling and a stunning visual language,” Lozano said.

This year’s Oscar win follows a run of success for Berkeley student filmmakers in the last three years. Last year, grads Brad Bailey (’17) and Jason Hanasik (’17) were named finalists for Student Academy Awards for their respective films “Hale” and “How to Make a Pearl.” Bailey went on to win the gold for documentary. In 2016 producers Melina Tupa (’16) and Daphne Matziaraki (’16) were nominated. Matziaraki took home the top prize.

The Student Academy Awards were established in 1972 to provide a platform for emerging global talent by creating opportunities within the industry to showcase student work. The Academy voted 19 students as winners in all categories out of a total of 1,582 entries from 278 domestic and 122 international colleges and universities.

The 45th Student Academy Awards will be presented on Oct. 11 in Beverly Hills, where the students are invited for a week of industry activities. The medal placements–gold, silver and bronze–will be announced at the ceremony. All Student Academy Award-winning films automatically compete for 2018 Oscars in the Documentary Short Subject category.

A gold for Schwartzman would mark the third year in a row that a Berkeley Journalism grad has won the prestigious competition.

About the Documentary Program at UC Berkeley
UC Berkeley’s documentary program is widely considered one of the most important graduate nonfiction film programs in the country. Carrying on the work begun in the 1980s by producer Andrew Stern and pioneering filmmaker Marlon T. Riggs, instructors Jon Else, Orlando Bagwell and more recently Dawn Porter and Carrie Lozano have trained hundreds of filmmakers of talent, diversity, and accomplishment.

Grounded in the values of professional journalism–accuracy, eloquence, aggressive research and reporting, strong writing, ethics and analysis— combined with the fundamentals of filmmaking craft— documentary at UC Berkeley emphasizes visual storytelling in a wide range of styles: investigative, historical, biography, essay and
cinéma vérité. Alumni routinely have premiere screenings at the top film festivals in the world, including Sundance, Telluride, Cannes, SXSW, and Tribeca; produce original films for documentary strands ranging from PBS to Netflix to the New York Times; and become leaders in the field.

Help the next generation achieve accomplishments like these by making a tax-deductible donation to our Fine Cut Fund today.