Have you ever thought about what North Carolina would be like if there was no tobacco farming? How our unconscious mind communicates with our conscious self through dreams and nightmares? How the Sewol ferry disaster influenced the lives of thousands of South Korean people? From March 16 to April 14, the MFA|EDA 2018 thesis exhibition will answer these and many other questions using film, video, photography, sound and sculpture, all created by the program’s 12 graduating students.

I was lucky to meet three students in the M.F.A. program in Experimental and Documentary Arts to discuss inspiration behind their thesis projects, creative process and plans for the future.

One of the students presenting their work at the MFA|EDA exhibition is Lexi Bass, an experimental filmmaker from Tullahoma, Tenn. Her film “How Bluebirds Are Born” is based on a series of nightmares that Bass had over a period of several months, and it explores the way dreams translate knowledge from the unconscious to the conscious mind.

“I had to navigate some crises in my life at the time and noticed the recurring vision of predatory birds in my dreams,” Bass said. “The birds were symbolic of the predator-prey relationship in which I found myself in life.”

The final dream that Bass had felt like a nature documentary. In this dream, a narrator described a process by which “bluebirds” were born: A white dove emerged from the bloody corpse of a blue bird.

“It was like a gift to a filmmaker,” Bass explained. “I was certain I had to make this vision tangible for others, especially those who might be in a cycle of predation, too.”

To give her works emotional authenticity, Bass developed a very intimate and collaborative approach to directing and filmmaking.

“It took me a while to find my voice as a filmmaker because I’m quiet, introverted and conscientious,” Bass said. “I think I’m most proud of my relationships with my collaborators. I give my bandmates a framework for the scene or action we're going to create and then I listen and improvise with them. They come up with as many good ideas as I do.”

Bass does most of the dramatic magic with editing, music and sound. For her, sound is one of the most important aspects of filmmaking.

“The soundtrack for ‘How Bluebirds Are Born’ is eclectic — all of the music is by independent musicians and composers I know personally,” Bass told me. “I did a lot of my own audio sculpting on this film too, taking the tone and rhythm of natural sounds as the pulse for the aural scene.”

Some of the MFA|EDA exhibitions, however, do not have sound at all. One of them is “After Golden Leaf,” a photography project by Durham-based artist Jeremy Lange that explores how declines in the tobacco industry are changing North Carolina’s landscape and culture.

“I grew up in Durham when tobacco was still a part of the economy here,” Lange said. “North Carolina is in the middle of huge shift away from tobacco and into other types of agriculture, as well as other economic products, and I wanted to investigate that changing landscape and the people affected by it.”

Lange told the story of tobacco farming using the same lighting that he normally uses for magazine work. Lange’s intention was to portray the rich history of tobacco and the people behind it the same way he would portray a high-profile business person or athlete.

“Once I met a man [who] has been auctioning tobacco for over 50 years and got to see him still walk the rows in a daylight-lit warehouse full of tobacco bales,” Lange said. “It was beautiful.”

Lange’s experience working with a documentary project proved to be harder than he expected — it was especially challenging to find farms to photograph.

“Some folks were suspicious of my motives, others just did not have time for me as they needed to make a living,” Lange explained. “But I just kept driving and asking people if I could take their photographs, and eventually things started to come together.”

Lange was not the only student who faced challenges while creating his thesis exhibition. Danny Kim, a documentary filmmaker and a multimedia artist from Seoul, also had to overcome many struggles while working on his film about the Sewol ferry tragedy, “Still Waters.”

“Making a documentary is hard!” Kim said. “At first, most people were claiming that my earlier rough cut footage didn’t seem like a documentary film but rather a news footage off of YouTube. It hurt my feelings a lot, but I did not give up because I knew there was a story to be told — it was just a matter of crafting my film in an artistic way.”

As a graduate student with a limited budget, Kim could not plan out the shots or hire any help to make a Hollywood production. Instead, he had to become the one-man band and piece together his footage after the production. Just like other documentary filmmakers, Kim used the editing room to create the magic of his story.

“I wanted to create an artwork that also engages in a social and political topic,” Kim said. “I was a journalist based in Seoul before coming to graduate school and the Sewol ferry disaster was one of the biggest news I covered. Initially, I didn’t want to make a documentary on this subject but, being home away from home, the story kept coming back to me.”

According to Kim, being surrounded by artists was the main factor that made his story come to life. There were 12 students in his cohort and each one had a unique artistic practice. Prior to entering the program, Kim never got a chance to be in an all-arts environment, and Duke pushed him into a new direction by exposing Kim to experimental films.

“Now I will try my best to keep pursuing the documentary filmmaking as a career and see where it leads,” Kim said. “I think if, after watching ‘Still Waters,’ people walk out of the theater feeling empathy, it will mean that I have achieved success as a filmmaker.” 

The screening of “How Bluebirds Are Born” will take place March 30 at 7 p.m. in the Full Frame Theater with an opening reception at 5:30 p.m. “After Golden Leaf” will be on view at SPECTRE Arts from March 29 to April 20, 2018, with an opening reception March 29 from 6 to 9 p.m. The premiere of “Still Waters” will take place March 24 at 6:30 p.m. in the Full Frame Theater with an opening reception at 5 p.m.