The annual DEMAN Arts & Media Weekend, which brings together creative Duke students who aspire to become successful in the media industry, took place last Friday and Saturday. From documentary arts to TV and film production, from the South to L.A. and New York, Duke alums were eager to give back to their alma mater by guiding young and ambitious Blue Devils and encouraging them to pursue their dreams.
Documenting the American South
Filmmaker Ava Lowrey, MFA ’15, studied Experimental & Documentary Arts at Duke and is currently an Instructional Assistant Professor who teaches documentary film at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. She also works for the Southern Foodways Alliance, where she uses food as a medium to explore Southern culture.
Though she grew up in Alexander City, Ala., Ava did not think that she would come back to the South when she set off for college in New York. She soon discovered, though, that she could not help being drawn to Southern food, culture, people and stories — her food, culture, people and stories.
“When you think about Southern food, what comes to your mind?” Lowrey asked the audience. “Barbecue, grits and fried chicken?”
However, the reality of Southern food and culture is much more diverse and interesting than that.
Through her documentary film on Tienda Loma Bonita — a grocery store in Siler City, N.C., which doubles as a butcher shop and taqueria — Ava gives a taste of Latino culture in the South and connects the narrative back to the 1990s, when a large number of Latino people moved to Siler City to work at its two poultry processing plants. A similar story also exists in the few Carolina fish camps that still remain today, where a community of newcomer textile mill workers enjoyed delicious fried fish with their families on pay days. Food, people and culture are always intricately connected.
Lowrey also showed some of her other documentary works. There was one that centered on Fred, the town dog of Rockford, Ala. — a town with a population of about 400 — and another on Dalton Stevens, the “Button King” who developed a hobby of covering objects with buttons and opened a button museum. These stories may seem trivial, but the films were nevertheless extremely fun and touching. With these two films, Lowrey stressed the importance of building personal relationships when making a documentary that depicts people’s unique stories within a community. She also advised her fellow documentary filmmakers in the audience to put work and effort into pre-production, and encouraged them to use their cameras to capture the truth that is often “stranger than fiction.”
There is No Normal Path to ‘Making It’
Brian McGinn, Trinity ‘07, is a film and TV director and producer whose works include the documentary film “Amanda Knox” and TV show “Chef’s Table.” But his path to his current success was nothing like what he imagined it would be 10 years ago, when he had just graduated from Duke. His original plan was to create something immediately after graduation, send it to Sundance, win a big award and retire at the age of 28 as “an acknowledged genius.” However, the reality was that he moved to Los Angeles and couldn’t find any jobs other than filming kid’s soccer games and designing business cards for a dumpster rental company. Once in a while he saw signs of hope but failed again and again. Seven years after graduation, he watched his fellow Duke graduates achieve success in their respective fields while he still jumped between temporary and odd jobs. Nevertheless, each step he took, no matter how small, brought him closer and closer to where he wanted to be, until he “got lucky” and seized an opportunity that came his way.
A career in the media industry is so enticing yet so intimidating, for we all know there is no replicable formula to “make it” in media. You need talent, but your talent is not guaranteed to be discovered and appreciated. You often have to go through years of the hope-failure-disheartenment pattern — seven years of it, in McGinn’s case. New York and L.A. are the cradles of thousands of dreams, but perhaps the deathbed of many more.
“You have to give up the money other Duke people are making in other fields and be okay not satisfying the expectations of your parents and other loved ones,” said McGinn, whose Stanford professor father always wanted him to be a lawyer.
But it is better to try and pursue your dream than not trying at all in the first place. McGinn shared his favorite video, “The Gap,” which is dedicated to everyone in the creative industry who is is struggling to close the gap between their taste and their work, and helped McGinn during his hardest times.
“When you wanna do something and it doesn’t work out, but you still wanna do it,” McGinn said. “That’s when you know that you actually want it. In the end, it’ll be worth it.”