UF is building a reputation for quality documentary films

"Negroes with Guns'' follows Robert Williams' journey from North Carolina community leader to exile in Cuba and China a journey that brought the issue of armed self-defense to the forefront of the Black Power and civil rights movements. Here, Robert and Mabel Williams target practice in Havana, Cuba.

Special to The Sun
Published: Friday, January 13, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 13, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
Often overshadowed by Florida State University's much-lauded film school (it's one of the top feature-film schools in the country), the University of Florida is building a stellar reputation in documentary film circles.
UF's production of "Negroes with Guns," the story of Robert Williams, the forefather of the Black Power movement, makes its national debut Feb. 7 on PBS. "Freedom Never Dies: The Legacy of Harry T. Moore" - the Documentary Film Institute's first major production - aired nationally on PBS in 2001.
The films garnered praise from critics even as the institute's students began to win awards for their own efforts.
"Miss Lil's Camp," which explores a Georgia girl's camp in the Jim Crow South, boasts six awards and won a much-coveted invitation to screen at the opening of President Bill Clinton's Library in Arkansas in 2004.
All this from a documentary film school that was put together formally less than a decade ago.
"It all just sort of blossomed," said Churchill Roberts, co-director of the institute. "It's been fabulous to see what's happened."
For years before the formation of the institute, Roberts, in conjunction with Sandra Dickson, Cynthia Hill and Cara Pilson, had produced various documentaries, but none earned the accolades of the most recent ones.
The Documentary Institute got its start at UF as part of the College of Journalism and Communications in 1998. In addition to producing documentaries, the institute also offers a two-year master's program in documentary production, for which all four members of the institute serve as professors.
"By us basically doing the same thing, making films, it sort of puts us in the same boat, if you will, with the students," Churchill said. He also said it "keeps them sharp" on the subject matter they're teaching.
He said the development of the institute and the master's program has "been like a dream come true."
Documentary Institute-made films have been well received on the film festival circuit.
"Negroes with Guns," for example, was the winner of the Best Feature Audience Award at Detroit Docs, as well as the documentary feature winner of the eighth annual UrbanWorld Film Festival in New York.
When Lois Vossen, series producer for Independent Lens, saw the historical documentary "Negroes with Guns" about a year ago, she said she knew it had to be aired on the weekly PBS show.
"From the moment I put it in my VCR, I knew I wanted it on Independent Lens," she said. "It was told with a great deal of what I like to call honesty and integrity. They were not afraid to reveal who this man really was."
The institute's current project, "Angels of Ahlem," follows Vernon Tott, a World War II soldier, as he tracks down and reunites with people he took pictures of the day they were released from a slave labor camp in Hanover, Germany.
Dickson said this project is different stylistically to other documentaries they've done - one notable difference being that the subject of the film was alive.
"The story's changing every day," she said.
However, during much of the filming, Tott was ill. He died in February.
"It's been a heart-wrenching process," Churchill said. "I'm sorry he won't be around to see the final film."
For more information on the institute and its documentaries go to www.jou.ufl. edu/documentary.

National debut

UF's production of "Negroes with Guns," the story of Robert Williams, the forefather of the Black Power movement, makes its national debut Feb. 7 on PBS.

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