January 29, 2023
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Professor’s political short chosen for showcase

As winners of multiple filmmaking and documentary awards, John Scott, assistant professor of television and radio, and wife Karen Rodriguez, assistant professor of cinema, photography and media arts, have developed a talent for telling stories and conveying powerful messages. Their eight-minute short “Notes on Liberty,” directed by Scott and produced by Rodriguez, was one of 30 independent documentaries screened as part of the American Documentary Showcase. Rodriguez travelled to Poland for the screening in Krakow on Aug. 17 and in Wroclaw on Aug. 19.

Staff writer Evan Johnson spoke with Scott about his and Rodriguez’s recent project.

Evan Johnson: Tell me about the American Documentary Showcase.

John Scott: The goal of the American Documentary Showcase is to offer a broad, diversified look at life in the United States and the values of a democratic society as seen by American documentary filmmakers. The filmmakers are deeply engaged in the world, and their films provide some of the best examples of how critical thinking and debate are fostered in a democracy.

EJ: Your film focuses on the Statue of Liberty. Why did you choose this as your subject?

JS: The story is that Sam, our son, when he turned 4 years old, told us that when he turned 5 years old, he wanted to visit the Statue of Liberty. We said, “Yeah, sure,” and thought that he might forget. But he never did. He was very invested in the idea so we decided to go. This was a few years after Sept. 11, and it seemed that we were in a time when there was a lot of curtailing of immigration. The Patriot Act had created a lot of barriers for refugees to come here. So I was feeling a sense of tension between my son’s excitement about the Statue of Liberty and the actual political culture we were in. I recognized the tension, and I thought I could make a movie about it.
EJ: Your documentary, “Scouts are Canceled,” is a feature-length documentary. How does that compare with creating a short film?

JS: It still takes a long time to create a short movie. I only get to work on them in small pockets of time because of my responsibilities as a professor. I try to make movies that aren’t about specific events in time just because I can’t turn things around like someone in a professional news organization can. I like the movies I make to have a certain window of time so the subject is still relevant.
We started shooting this [movie] in August 2007 and started editing it in the summer of 2008. I finished a version of it in the fall of 2008.  Even though it is an eight-minute movie, it is still much more work than it looks.  But it doesn’t compare to a feature. A feature length movie is about eight or nine short movies. Once you make all of these movies, it has to make sense as a whole piece. It is so much more difficult to make something that engaging for that length of time. The editing length is a whole other level of magnitude at the feature length level.

EJ: The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs funds the American Documentary Showcase. Did that affect the issues you could choose?

JS: They didn’t play a role in any of the editorial [decisions]. The concept [of the showcase] is that dissent and opposing points of view are part of a healthy democracy. If one were to look at this piece, it’s really not flattering to some of the policies in place. This piece is a fairly contrasting view of how we should be framing this debate.

EJ: What was Sam’s reaction when he discovered he was part of your next project?

JS: He’s 5 years old — everything is new to him. He doesn’t know what’s normal and he’s in a family where both of his parents are filmmakers so it seems fairly [normal] for him. He seemed fairly [confident] about it, but you’d have to ask him.  He was very excited when the movie was getting out there a little bit, and he was like, “Is this going to be really big like ‘Star Wars?’”