The documentary program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, a two-year program with an unmatched record of producing award-winning, in-depth reporting in the public interest, has launched a $700,000 fundraising drive to create the first endowed fellowships in documentary filmmaking in its history.
The fellowships are made possible by a $100,000 matching grant from Oakland-based production company Signifyin’ Works, and named in honor of J-School alumnus and Professor Marlon T. Riggs (1957 - 1994). Riggs, the pioneering black gay filmmaker of “Tongues Untied,” “Ethnic Notions,” and “Je Ne Regrette Rien (No Regrets),” was known for making penetrating documentary films confronting racism and homophobia that thrust him onto center stage in America's "culture wars" of the early 1990s. Born in Ft. Worth, Texas, Riggs graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and received his master’s degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, where he became the youngest tenured professor at the Graduate School of Journalism.
His life and career were tragically cut short by AIDS complications at 37.
Our goal is to invigorate documentary filmmaking in the great tradition of Henry Hampton, Alain Raisnais, Les Blank, Lourdes Portillo, John Grierson, and Marlon Riggs himself, to report on subjects of social and cultural import to the American people by funding the education of promising students.
The documentary faculty will select students to receive the fellowships annually through the endowment, to which further contributions can be made in perpetuity. Our long-term goal is to raise at least $1,000,000 with an estimated 4% endowment payout rate.
When the documentary program was founded by Andrew Stern in the 1970s, the State of California was paying nearly 78% of the total cost of education per student. Today, state support has fallen to 39%. The shrinkage of what was traditionally our most important revenue stream gives this proposal special urgency.
The decline in public funding has done particular harm to our financial aid capacities which greatly impacts our ability to keep young journalists-to-be from defecting to peer institutions. Our competitive advantage as a public university has already been blunted by a 150 percent rise in tuition costs over the past decade. The result is students we very much want to nurture as reporters and documentary makers have gone on to get their education elsewhere, purely for financial reasons. To us, that is unacceptable. If we are to continue to be the place where the stars of documentary are born, we can’t afford to lose bright prospects over financial aid packages.
UC Berkeley’s documentary program is widely considered one of the strongest and most important graduate documentary programs in the U.S. Carrying on the work begun by Marlon in 1987, Professors Jon Else and Orlando Bagwell have trained more than 200 young nonfiction filmmakers of astonishing talent, diversity, and accomplishment.
Grounded in the values of professional journalism – accuracy, eloquent clarity, aggressive research and reporting, fine writing, ethics and analysis – combined with fundamentals of solid filmmaking, documentary production here emphasizes visual imagery and a wide range of storytelling styles – investigative, historical, biography, personal essay, and cinéma vérité.
The quality of work has led our alums to jobs working at HBO, PBS, and Discovery, and executive and production positions at the BBC, Ken Burns' and Alex Gibney's production companies, the Pixar documentary unit and numerous production houses around the world. We are particularly well-represented at PBS “Frontline”, the New York Times video unit, and Al Jazeera America.
And the industry has taken notice. Our graduate students often win more national student Emmys for documentary than those of any other university program in the country. They’ve also won many student Oscars, and alongside alumni, have routinely had premiere screenings at the top film festivals in the world: Sundance, Cannes, SXSW, and Tribeca.
Years of hard work by students, faculty and staff have catapulted us to national prominence. But the documentary program does not have the long-term financial resources it needs to ensure that its students get the financial support their training demands.