Department Dossier: Maro Chermayeff

February 24, 2011

The latest in a series of one-on-one conversations with SVA department chairs.

Much of what you need to know about the MFA Social Documentary Film Department is right in its title—the students create documentaries about noteworthy topics ranging from sulfur miners in Java to the life of an immigrant watchmaker in Grand Central Station. Department Chair Maro Chermayeff is well-versed in the breadth of issues that can fall under the rubric of “social documentary,” having created celebrated documentary series about life aboard a military aircraft carrier and in the circus. Chermayeff sat down with the Briefs to discuss her students and the films they’ve been making in the program.

Your program is now in its second year. How has it changed from the first year?
We designed and built our own space, so our first year we were living in luxury with just 22 people occupying the space instead of 44. ‘Gosh, how is our space going to work at full capacity?’ But it’s been fantastic. Otherwise, we thought, ‘Will we ever love again after our first group?’ [laughs] And of course we love the second class, too.

What differentiates a ‘social’ documentary from other kinds?
It’s a loose term. I think the word ‘social’ means that we’re not having you come here and learn in a technical way. Everyone becomes proficient at camera, sound and editing on the most modern equipment available, but we’re really about ideas. We’re not teaching you to make Jersey Shore. We’re about character, issues and storytelling.

How has running the department affected your professional practice?
Other than now that I want everyone who goes to SVA to come work at my company? [laughs] When you’ve been in the business for a long time—and we’re still in this business, the best of the best working professionals are teaching in our department—juggling is always an issue. But we’ve all felt revitalized in our own careers by rethinking all the ideas that made us want to be documentary filmmakers in the first place.

Where are your students showing or selling their films?
In our program, everything in the first year is class work, and the entire second year is the thesis film, a single film that’s a minimum of 30 minutes in length that can be submitted to festivals and markets. However, several of our students sent some of their classroom films to festivals. One of our students has won several ‘best of festival’ awards [Mark Kendall, for Time Machine]. Now the other students are sending their films, too.

You’re about to graduate your first class.
I’m sad to see them go. I feel they’re not going far away—we want our students to be in our professional orbits. Whether they do internships with colleagues or take advantage of introductions we offer to the industry, I don’t think anyone’s going too far away. I do worry about missing them, though!

What impresses you most about your students?
Just the sheer originality of their ideas. Really interesting ideas, really in touch with the emotional world within their content. Over the course of the two years, they’re learning how to realize their ideas in this idiom. It’s not just, ‘I came in with an idea and you’re going to show me how to make it into a film.’ Showing them how to take their ideas and share that idea with the viewer—I’m seeing that happen, and that’s what we want to see happen.

Image: ©2011 Visual Arts Press, Ltd.

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