What it takes to be a successful student filmmaker

May 27, 2015
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Vanessa Macedo is changing the world, one documentary at a time.

“My hope is to be able to tell stories that I feel need to be given light to,” she tells Hijacked.

In her final year of a two-year Master of Film and Television at the Victorian College of the Arts after a ten-year study gap, the 32-year-old says her love of documentary filmmaking is driven by her desire to tell important tales that get people talking.

“If I can get people to have conversations around their dinner tables with their families about certain heavy issues that can affect them or their communities … this would [make] me feel like I am a success.”

The passionate social justice advocate left her hometown of New Jersey in the United States to study documentary in Melbourne. The program appealed to her because it was unlike any courses back home – she believes the Masters’ specialist documentary directing stream is unique. She wanted to combine her love of travel and film, so studying abroad appealed to her.

 [The lecturers] want to see that you’re passionate, and that you will be dedicated, and that you can see where there’s an interesting story.

With a Bachelor of Arts under her belt - which she obtained at Rutgers University in New Jersey - she set her sights on further study in order to gain the technical abilities her minor in Cinema Studies hadn’t provided. Although she’s quick to point out it was “a wonderful introduction to cinema appreciation”.

A self-described “perfectionist”, Vanessa meticulously arranged her toys in height order as a child, and sees this inherent trait as apparent in her approach to filmmaking. She applied for the program with a short film that now, with the benefit of experience, she sees as flawed. But, she says, that’s entirely the point.

The selection officers at the prestigious VCA aren’t looking for technically “magnificent” films, Vanessa explains. She says she’s heard some would-be filmmakers shy away from applying because they assume they already need to be auteurs. What the VCA actually looks for are candidates with storytelling potential.

“They want to see that you’re passionate, and that you will be dedicated, and that you can see where there’s an interesting story,” she says.

Vanessa says the lecturers “really, really love documentary”, and she values their feedback - particularly as her family support base is so far away. The staff are a pool of experienced documentary practitioners, equipped with sound knowledge and passion for the genre.

As a mature-aged student, Vanessa sits “somewhere in the middle” of her wide spectrum of classmates. There are the 21-year-olds straight out of undergraduate programs mixed in with older students who have careers behind them in other fields. The full-time intensive filmmaking program requires students to write, direct and edit numerous short films, as well as crew on other students’ projects.

One of Vanessa’s student films, A Face in the Crowd, is screening as one of the top 100 films at this year’s St Kilda Film Festival.

“This is my first festival screening!” Vanessa says.

Excited and honoured to be part of the iconic Melbourne event, she nonetheless missed opening night because she was interstate working on her next documentary – a sign of the busy filmmaker she has already become.

“Doing the Masters has really helped me build my confidence,” says Vanessa, who sees herself making documentaries for an NGO or working in the not-for-profit sector in the future.

“There’s a power of social change through the documentary genre,” she says.

 Don’t underestimate what one voice can do.

And her passion for using the medium to tell important stories is palpable.

“If a film can help bring this dialogue to light, then I will feel like the happiest person in the world.”

Vanessa encourages anyone wanting to delve into the colourful world of documentary to give it a go. Attend the open day and ply the lecturers with questions – they’re approachable and willing to help.

Vanessa offers these parting words of advice to wanna-be documentary filmmakers with a desire to nudge the world: “Don’t underestimate what one voice can do.”

Phoebe Hartley

Phoebe makes films, eats dumplings and studies journalism. She tweets sporadically at @phoebehartley.

Image: Till Krech, Flickr Creative Commons license