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Pioneering film future built on groundwork of the past

February 22, 2017

It may not have been an Oscar, but the DSU film program is award-winning in its own right.

In 2016, the DSU film club “Lights, Film, Action” won the Best of Category in the college division at Dordt College’s Prairie Grass Film Challenge with the short film “Feel My Desire.” The films for this contest are made over a 48-hour period, including script writing, shooting, editing, and production. 

This trophy was earned less than a year after the Digital Arts and Design’s specialization’s name was changed from digital storytelling to film and cinematic arts. “Out of the gates it was an award-winning program,” said Dakota State University associate professor Joe Staudenbaur.

The club’s 2017 short film, “One More Session,” is on the Prairie Grass festival’s website for People’s Choice award. Voting is open until Feb. 27 at www.dordt.edu/events/prairie-grass-film-challenge/peoples-choice.

Despite the name change, the program specialization still emphasizes stories telling, either as narrative or documentaries, Staudenbaur said. Coursework introduces students to essential techniques with software and equipment, but also teaches professional development, such as intellectual property protection, a task that is “daunting to say the least,” he added. Students are taught a range of skills, from basic good habits like keeping batteries charged, to working with non-compete agreements.

DSU’s is the only film program in the state offered as a major field of study, so students in the program are pioneers, Staudenbaur said.

This pioneering work is built on foundational film work done by previous students on the Madison campus. In 1929, a student at what was then called Eastern State Teachers College wrote and directed a movie called “Dakotah.” While an outside film production company did provide some funding and equipment for the film, student Richard Barrett Lowe had control over the whole production, making it the first film of its kind entirely produced by a college, said Ryan Burdge, DSU archivist at the Mundt Library.

The script follows South Dakota history from prehistoric times to pioneer days, through the life of a fictitious pioneer family settling a homestead. Historical events such as the 1857 Spirit Lake Massacre are included, and General Beadle’s 1869 arrival to the territory.

The cast was made up entirely of staff and students of the college. Beadle was played by college professor L.N. Pease. Florence Newcomb was a student actress who went on to study theatre at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, and later acted on Broadway. Lowe, a Madison native, became the 42nd governor of American Samoa, and the eighth American governor of Guam in the 1950s.

Burdge said the six-reel film was shown all over the region, Fargo, Pipestone, and Minneapolis. It’s also rumored that it was screened for Pres. Herbert Hoover, but Burdge can’t confirm that.

“There are no extant copies of the film left that we know of,” Burdge said, but the Mundt Library Archives have “complete scripts and lists of supplies for sets and costumes, and still shots from the film and its production.”

DSU archivist Ryan Burdge and DSU Associate Professor Stacey Berry are pictured with some of the archives from a 1929 film shot by a student. Students in the current film and cinematic arts specialization continue with pioneering film work on the Madison campus. 

The film caught the attention of a South Dakota Public Broadcasting producer, and was featured as part of a special “Images of the Past” segment, looking at film history throughout the state of South Dakota. That program aired on January 30, 2017, but is still available for viewing on the SDPB website, at http://www.sdpb.org/blogs/images-of-the-past/. The five-minute DSU section airs 17:48 into the film.

Two non-film majors from Stacey Berry’s ENG351 course, Digital Collection & Curation also got involved in the SDPB project. This “gave the chance to have the students help with something with real-work implications,” said Burdge. Berry said the collaboration helps students develop the skills they need to work as an archivist.

For film majors in the 21st century, there are a lot of career opportunities, Staudenbaur said. TV stations are really receptive, as are video production companies. Work in this field does not always take place during normal business hours, he said, as production team work can sometimes mean that work starts at 4 a.m.

“This is not a problem as long as the students are passionate and connected to the discipline,” Staudenbaur said. “That’s the key.”

The film club members seem to have that passion. Lights, Camera, Action president Joel Carmona-Rojas said those involved in the 2017 film took time away from sleep to put out the production in the 48-hour time frame. Carmona-Rojas is an audio production major from St. Paul, Minn.

“I am proud of the film, as well as the people who were involved in the film,” adding, “it was a fun experience and I can't wait until next year.”