by Britt Chester


In Karachi, Pakistan, the electricity in certain parts of the grid is cut off for hours at a time every day. It could happen at any hour of the day or night. Residents don’t know when it will happen, and they don’t know how long it will last.

Under a small flashlight, a young Safyah Usmani would spend hours at night studying her schoolbooks. Being a night person, especially in a city as large as Karachi, didn’t fair well when the power would be off.

Straining to focus on the words, dripping sweat on the pages of her academic books due to lack of air conditioning, Usmani studied. She studied because she was pressured to do so. She studied because she wanted to make good grades. She studied because her father, who supported her unconditionally, would still inquire as to where the remaining points of near-perfect test scores were.

Although this was everyday life for Usmani and her three siblings, one older and two younger, she still felt the need to say something to the powers that be: She had to share her side of the story.

“When she was in class-five, she wrote her first story in the newspaper here in Karachi,” her father said over a video Skype phone call. His vowel pronunciations deliberate, owed in part to his native Urdu tongue, and the rest an obvious twinkle of the pride he has in his second daughter.

That first published story from an eager mind yearning to voice its thoughts would become the foundation that brought Safyah Usmani, one of four siblings coming from a humble Pakistani family, to America to pursue her dream.

Usmani is a 26-year-old graduate student at Wake Forest University. She is earning her Masters of Fine Arts degree through the Documentary Film Program. Coming to America wasn’t always the plan for her, but once she learned of the option, there was no stopping her.

“My father made a lot of sacrifices for us when I was growing up,” Usmani says, recalling her younger years when her father was a banker in Karachi. He now owns a garment and textile business in the city.

“I felt like he did so much for us that I didn’t want to burden him with my college tuition, so I did the best I could,” she added.

She finished her undergraduate studies at SZABIST, a university in Karachi. Earning her degree in media science with a production major, she knew going into it that storytelling and documentaries would be her path.

“The great thing about SZABIST was that if you achieved 3.5 GPA or better, your tuition would be paid for the next year. I did that every single year except my last,” she said.

While finishing at SZABIST, she began researching scholarships and programs for a master’s degree. The Fulbright Scholarship, a comfortable, all-bills-paid program that would bring her to America for her continued education, seemed like an obvious choice.

She remembers interviewing for the program and waiting a few months “” a few nerve-wracking months “” to find out if she was accepted.

Usmani applied to three schools throughout the process and ended up being accepted to Wake Forest’s emerging film program.

The Documentary Film Program at Wake Forest is young at just 4 years old, but the group of professors leading it has been working together since the program started at the University of Florida almost 20 years ago Cara Pilson, co-director of the DFP as well an associate teaching professor, beams with pride in the conference room in Carswell Hall on Wake Forest’s campus as she explains how the program came to North Carolina.

“We were originally a 2-year program at the University of Florida,” she said. “But when we moved to (Wake Forest) we decided that we had an opportunity to offer an MFA. It’s a terminal degree in the field, which means they are in a position to teach documentary film and visual storytelling at a college level.”

Pilson has been with her staff and professors for over 20 years. She recalls moving up from Florida saying that it was “something like the Beverly Hillbillies coming up here.”

“When we became the MFA program, graduate students from past classes came back and wanted to finish the MFA program,” Pilson explained. “It provides more options in the work force moving forward with the degree.” Wake Forest offered a prorated tuition package to students who had already finished the MA program at the University of Florida. The growth they have experienced upon expanding the degree options is obvious with the consistent number of students that are applying and graduating the program.

Pilson also recalls watching the industry for visual storytelling and documentary filmmaking expand. Thinking back to her time at Florida, she recalls “there were only a few kids on the block that offered it “¦ Stanford, NYU, American, and us in Florida. Now you see if offered everywhere. Northwestern just mounted a program, and Syracuse did, too.”

Pilson believes that her experience, and the team of professors and professionals that came up to Wake with her from Florida, already has the proven success to show that they offer one of the top programs.

In recent years, the playing field for filmmaking, especially documentaries, has flattened. Camera technology has allowed more amateurs to become professionals behind the lens, and the free-market of YouTube viral videos has turned every smartphone wielding owner into the next potential Spielberg.

Award-winning filmmaker Peter Gilbert is a professor of practice in the DFP, and although his experience in teaching comes strictly from life experience, he believes the program provides a solid foundation for moving forward with the career.

“It’s so inexpensive now to buy equipment and tell stories electronically with digital media,” he said. “What this program does, really, is that (students) come out as a storyteller.”

“I believe this to be a renaissance era for filmmaking, both narrative and documentary, and the way you tell stories,” he said.

His belief as a documentarian is that he is not a journalist “” a journalist provides a check and balance for society “” but documentaries allow for more leeway in the storytelling. He recognizes that anyone can put digital content onto the Internet nowadays, but he is trying to bestow upon his students the skills to tell a great story.

“What separates you from the 12-year-old who is uploading videos to the Internet? It’s the gravitas, the resume, and industry knowledge,” said Cindy Hill, codirector and associate teaching professor at DFP.

The program at Wake Forest is in sort of a testing phase right now. Tuition for each year of the DFP runs upwards of $14,000, totaling out at around $42,000 for the terminal 3-year degree. Taking that degree directly into the chosen workforce, in this case, documentary filmmaking and visual storytelling, does not exactly present a lucrative return on investment.

During their time at Wake Forest, Pilson said that students have the opportunity to gain real-world experience by working at Wrought Iron Productions. WIP was started by three graduate students four years ago, and it remains a private entity within the school. Students must apply to work for WIP, and in doing so, are able to make money from film production while taking courses on the same topic.

“We don’t allow WIP to take on clients outside of Wake Forest, the reason being is that it’s not fair to the freelance community. It’s merely a production house that serves Wake entities. Our students will be freelancers one day, and this is our community and we want to support that,” Hill said.

Although WIP has the constraints of being a service to the college, Pilson thinks it’s a great way to show teamwork, production skills and real world experience on a resume.

“(WIP) serves two roles: it’s a way to make money working in production, and it’s also something valuable to put on a resume,” Pilson said.

Something that both Hill and Pilson emphasize to their students is that they must be versatile in their skill sets when they leave Wake Forest. To further support this, they encourage students to learn as much as possible about all facets of film production, work with the school’s network of alums and know that there are many possibilities in the job market upon graduation.

“You have to learn to be fluid, and to be a generalist, but also a specialist,” Pilson added.

It is in that word “” generalist “” that Pilson thinks more students need to focus. Having worked in the classroom and behind the lens herself on various projects, she knows that production houses of all sizes often have to work on other projects in order to fund documentaries.

“That’s a conversation we have from day one. You have to know how to survive and thrive in the various situations,” Pilson said.

Alums from Wake have historically matriculated into the field in some way or another, whether it’s the big box production houses cranking out documentary films alongside commercial projects or straight into the academic field with teaching and assisting.

Several of Wake’s DFP alums are already working at the academic level. Annie Danzi, a recent graduate, has just accepted an assistant professor’s position of Mass Communications at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and Peter Carolla, class of 2013, has started at Davidson College. Three former students of the DFP from Florida have also screened films at Tribeca Film Festival in 2013.

Something the directors at the DFP are experiencing with interested students is that more and more are struggling with the idea of committing to a three-year program when other institutions are offering the same MFA degree in two-years.

“You have people leaving with a bachelor’s degree and $40,000 in debt, so are they going to take on another $40,000 for graduate level work?” Hill asks.

According to Hill, the DFP was the first sustainable graduate program at Wake Forest. It originally received startup funding, but the idea is to move to a tuitionfunded model.

“I think the jury is still out on whether or not it’s a sustainable formula,” she said. “Regardless, we want to be able to show that our students are getting jobs upon graduating.”

For Usmani, the graduation date is coming quite soon.

Her Fulbright Scholarship program is finished in June of 2015, and after graduating, she’ll have 30 days to return to Pakistan.

Part of the contract under Fulbright is that however long students spend studying abroad, which for Usmani will be three years in 2015, they are required to return to their country of origin and work that same amount of time.

“I can leave and go back to Pakistan, and if I get enrolled in a PhD program, I can come back to America for work. At some point I have to go back to Pakistan, but I can fulfill that work in episodes rather than in one threeyear stretch,” Usmani said.

Since she’s been at Wake Forest, she has already completed one film, Soldier Butterfly. The focus of the story revolves around a Muslim-American teenage girl who is interested in joining the U.S. Army. Usmani worked with another Fulbright Scholarship student, Tetiana Kharchenko, on the film, which has yet to be released.

“I am currently seeking funding for sound sweetening and color correction,” Usmani revealed. She is hesitant to screen her film for the general public until it’s completely finished.

Usmani is like so many other students, though, and still unsure of exactly what she wants to do upon graduating. She receives support from the staff at Wake Forest, but the ultimate goal still seems hazy. She is currently working on her thesis, which has proved to be somewhat difficult as certain subjects keep falling through.

Either way, once graduated, Usmani will be back in Pakistan with her family. She will have the skills to tell the stories she wished to tell so many years ago when she first started writing for the newspaper. She will possess the professional prowess to teach others how to tell stories, whether she chooses to do that at the academic level is up to her.

“I love teaching, and I have taught once before when I was younger, but not immediately after graduating. I want to build my portfolio before I enter into that field,” she said. !