Wake Forest documentary film program fulfills school’s mission

by Keith Barber

Good things come to those who wait. Mary Dalton, an associate professor of communication at Wake Forest University, and her colleague, Sandy Dickson, are living proof of that universal axiom.

Dalton taught her first class at the school in 1986 and 24 years later, she was named co-director of the Wake Forest Documentary Film Program.

Dickson, the co-founder of the Documentary Institute at the University of Florida, lived apart from her husband for more than 15 years for purely professional reasons, but was able to reunite with him last summer when Wake Forest gave her and Dalton the green light to start the program.

Dickson and Dalton conceived the idea of essentially moving the Documentary Institute more than 500 miles north to Winston-Salem in the summer of 2008.

“Mary and I spent a good part of the fall and the spring semester meeting with faculty, meeting with administrators, pitching the idea of a documentary film program that was a graduate program,” Dickson said.

Over the course of more than 30 meetings, Dalton and Dickson were consistently encouraged by university officials to forge ahead with their plans to build the school’s first Master of Fine Arts program from the ground up.

“Everybody thought it was a great idea but really we needed that person who would take it on and have some kind of enthusiasm and ownership in the idea,” Dalton said.

Enter Jacquelyn Fetrow, the Dean of College of Arts and Sciences.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Dalton and Dickson’s idea is that it incorporated key objectives of the university’s overall mission. Dalton credited Fetrow’s advocacy with making the program a reality.

“The motto at Wake Forest is pro humanitate [for humanity] and when we think about what we do as documentary filmmakers and the work that our students do, that is really putting pro humanitate into practice,” Dalton said. “So we feel that the stories that we tell are important in advancing different causes and just making people aware of things that they didn’t know before.”

Wake Forest is committed to interdisciplinary studies, mentoring, diversity, public engagement and leadership development, and the MFA documentary film program fulfills all those initiatives, Dalton said. Documentary film also offers the unique ability to create multimedia tie-ins with university programs and symposiums.

Twenty-four students, including 9 members of the Florida program, will compose the first class this fall. Dalton said the one common thread running through the first class of students is a deep intellectual curiosity.

“They are people who reach out for life rather than being passive,” she said.

Sam Smartt, a 2009 graduate of Wake Forest, is a member of the inaugural class.

“I’m excited about working with a lot of different people from different backgrounds whose priority is making films that matter, that are socially conscious,” Smartt said. “I really hope to hone my skills and have the mentorship of Sandy and everyone there, because they’re very highly respected in the field.”

University of Florida professors Cara Pilson and Cindy Hill will join Dalton and Dickson in teaching the core courses in the program.

In addition to offering the MFA degree, the program will offer the Master of Arts degree will require two years of study. Considering the growing popularity and commercial success of such films as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me, this is a good time to be in the documentary field, Dalton said.

“It really has been an explosion,” Dalton said. “I do think there is a great awareness and appreciation of documentary in various forms that there was not in the popular sense 10 or 15 years ago.”

Smartt said he’s just thrilled that he doesn’t have to move to New York or Los Angeles to pursue a graduate degree in documentary film.

“At Wake Forest in general, you have small class size and the ability to work closely with both students and professors,” he said. “That’s something I’m really looking forward to.”