Blue Devils who direct

March 6, 2017

Forget Sundance and Cannes. Duke could hold its own film festival using the work of these acclaimed graduate student directors.

Jeremy Lange: When he was working as a magazine photographer in 2006, Lange realized he didn’t know what was going on in the Middle East. “I realized I didn’t know anyone fighting in the wars. And I felt really removed from the whole thing. I felt I had a whole duty as a citizen to figure out what was going on,” Lange says.

For a few years, he used still photography to document veterans returning to civilian life. In 2011, through a friend he met a veteran named Alex Sutton, who was trying to start a farm while battling post-traumatic stress disorder. “I thought we’d work with him six months and make a five-minute film. And that was four and a half years ago,” says Lange, a first-year in the Master’s of Fine Arts in Experimental and Documentary Arts program.

“I think at the beginning, he just wanted to have this farm and have this purpose. He thought this farm would help him heal and be agricultural therapy in a way. But being a farmer is really hard. And so is dealing with post-traumatic stress.”

The final product, a seventy-minute documentary culled from three years of filming, was named Best Documentary Feature at both the Brooklyn and Charlotte film festivals. And this year, it’s scheduled to air on PBS during Memorial Day weekend.

“It’s great. If we had made this film and no one got to see it, I’d be wondering if it was worth it or not,” says Lange, who codirected the documentary with Alix Blair. “We always hope this film can help people, not just people with PTSD but civilians trying to understand what [military] folks are going through.”

Watch the trailer for Farmer/Veteran here. Lange’s upcoming projects include a documentary on North Carolina and the declining tobacco industry and a short film about DIY skateboard building.

Lauren Mueller: While Mueller was living outside Los Angeles, she learned of a nearby conservation center for gibbons. Soon, she became well versed in the issues facing gibbons, a species that’s little covered in the media but is the most endangered of all primates. (Gibbons are known to primatologists as “lesser apes,” but society also views them as “lessers,” Mueller says: They’re poached for medicinal purposes and the pet trade, among other reasons.)

In theory, protecting the species is a good idea; however, Mueller steadily became suspicious of “the umbrella of conservation.”

“The question is, ‘Are they really helping?’ ” says Mueller, in her second year of the M.F.A. Experimental and Documentary Arts program. “I think that there’s good conservation and bad conservation, and there needs to be more conversation around that.”

In helping the conversation, she began this project, which is what she calls a “docu-fiction”: The documentary footage of the gibbons is sequential and sped-up, but the ending hints at some of the more troubling, long-term psychological effects of keeping these gibbons, which are native to forests in Asia, in captivity.

“Gibbons are so close to us, and they’re so easily imprinted upon, that they start to think they’re humans, and they get confused,” says Mueller. The film’s unusual structure encourages viewers to try to inhabit the gibbon’s perspective, rather than just assuming that gibbons think like humans do.

The eleven-minute short recently earned Mueller a KODAK Student Scholarship Gold Award; for her thesis, she has expanded the film to an hour-long feature, layering in different centers in India and Thailand. “People always talk about giving people who are not privileged a voice, and I think that, similarly, animals are projected upon,” she says. “I’m also projecting upon them a little bit, but in a way that gives them empowerment.”

Mueller's feature film will debut on the evening of 8 p.m. March 29 at Durham's Full Frame Theater. There is a reception at 6:30 p.m.

Justin Tierney: A Ph.D. candidate in music composition, Tierney is also a time-lapse filmmaker, which consists of taking a still photo of the same area every few seconds and stacking them such that eight hours of photos becomes twenty seconds of film. The goal, Tierney says, is “to reveal things that we are unable to see in ordinary life.”

Tokyo Aglow, the second portion of Tierney’s dissertation, “At The Conflux,” features a sped-up nighttime in the city set to the backdrop of his original compositions. It recently won Best-in-Show at the LA Time-Lapse Film Festival.

“I wanted to explore the rhythm of urban Japan and its people ,” says Tierney. “I wanted to show that despite a chaotic surface, the movement of machinery and people in the city is ordered and predictable when seen in time-lapse.”

Tierney’s three-part dissertation provides different perspectives on Tokyo, both altitudinal (the first installment is shot from above) and temporal (the final installment documents dawn, rather than night). His fascination with the style began at sixteen when he saw Koyaanisqatsi, and the past decade and a half has seen him studying music composition as well as photography and time-lapse filmmaking.

In Tokyo Aglow, Tierney’s brass, violin, and piano instrumentation underscores the hubbub of the metropolis, the visual and auditory elements playing off one another. “Both arts take place across time,” he says. “Unlike a painting, or a photograph, or sculpture, music and film can’t be grasped at once.”

Tierney is meticulous in crafting every element of the film (which includes hours spent scouting locations in-person and on Google Maps), but it’s a limited art. Any camera adjustment will disrupt the shot and render the film unusable, so the final visual is privy to the strangeness of who or what appears on a given day. For instance, three minutes into Tokyo Aglow, a man in an Ultraman costume is visible. “I can choose the framing, the camera settings, the time of day, the overall subject, but the details are left to chance,” Tierney says. “I never know exactly what will happen while the camera is capturing.”

Tokyo Aglow is available for viewing here. In terms of future time-lapse subjects, Tierney is eyeing both rural Japan and American cities.