Alum Jigar Mehta keeps his eye on the viewfinder all the way from UC Berkeley to the Sundance Film Festival
"It was a no-brainer. But there was one catch," recalls Mehta. "I had to leave tomorrow."
Mehta managed to get his affairs in order just in time to join the small documentary crew that followed Susan Tom, a Fairfield, California, single mother and her 11 adopted special-needs children as they traveled the United States in an RV and a cargo van. During the road trip and in the following months at the family's home, Mehta worked with Director of Photography Amanda Micheli to shoot roughly 120 hours of digital video footage of Tom and her children. In age, the children range from grade school to early 20s and, in disability, from cystic fibrosis to epidermolysis bullosa, a rare degenerative disease that causes the victim's skin to peel off at the slightest touch.
The 120 hours of footage would be pared down to a mere 86 minutes for "My Flesh and Blood," which won both the Documentary Audience and Documentary Directing awards at the Sundance Film Festival this January.
Many Voices, one camera
Mehta was never a very enthusiastic mechanical engineering student, despite having a scholarship. "It was like a job," he shrugs. What he liked best about his major was that it introduced him to the Berkeley Human Powered Vehicle team, "which has been the No. 1 collegiate team for the last several years, holds several world records and won the invitation-only international Human Powered Vehicle Speed Challenge," he rattles off proudly.
Mehta, who graduated from Berkeley in December 2001, does not in the least regret his engineering training. "My mechanical engineering background gave me a very practical base of logical reasoning that I really value," he says. "And these days, people see engineering as the new liberal arts degree - engineers can do consulting or business or anything they want. Engineering has really changed, it's all about networking and sharing information, breaking down problems to solve them collaboratively."
But the Sundance double victory validated his true passion: filmmaking. In fact, when Karsh reached him at Etcheverry Hall, Mehta was in the middle of editing another video project - one with which some readers may be familiar. Called "The Many Voices of Cal," it's a 17-minute introduction to UC Berkeley that thousands of new Berkeley students received in August 2002 to familiarize them with the school.
Mehta and his friends Brook Schaaf (B.A. in German, '00) and Michael Lin (B.A. in Architecture, '02) got the idea for "Many Voices" back in Spring 2000, when the three were working as UC Berkeley campus tour guides. As part of their jobs, they had to show a video made in 1992 to prospective students. "It just didn't seem very current or very relevant," says Mehta diplomatically. "We thought we could do better, and do it a lot cheaper with the new digital technology available."
Mehta had interned earlier that year at Evening Magazine, where he picked up basic shooting and editing skills. He had also shot and produced a 5-minute segment about the Green Tortoise, the popular West Coast adventure-travel bus, that then-host Karsh had aired. The three students proceeded to plan, shoot, produce, and edit "Many Voices" themselves — with no funding until the video was completed. The California Alumni Association, ASUC, and the Office of the Chancellor eventually all agreed to help sponsor the production.
Want to watch the Many Voices video? Visit the California Alumni Association's Web site.
"It was a very organic process," says Mehta. "Everyone involved was related to Cal in some way. Our narrator was Ariana Waynes, the National Poetry slam champion and a Cal graduate; and the music was entirely by Cal students. In the end, our job was just managing the chaos." The result of that chaos is a fast-paced, very professional-looking overview of the kaleidoscope of Berkeley student life, featuring popular professors, student leaders, international students, athletes, community volunteers, musical groups, "Go Bears!" boosters, and student researchers. Those interviewed include English professor and prize-winning author Maxine Hong Kingston, economics professor and 2001 Nobel laureate George Akerlof, student champion swimmer Natalie Coughlin, and integrative biology professor Tyrone Hayes, winner of a Distinguished Teaching Award.
'Blood' on the tracks to success
Mehta had to take a hiatus from editing "Many Voices" in order to hit the road with Karsh, Micheli, and the sound engineer. They followed the Tom family to Utah, met up with them again in Minnesota, and then tailed them all the way to Connecticut through RV camp sites and the occasional hotel (accommodating Anthony, the sufferer of the rare skin disease, who periodically requires painful four-hour baths). In addition to the terrific career training he received, Mehta says he was "paid as a professional, plus I got to eat out all the time. It was great."
But once the road trip was over, it became clear to director Karsh and the film's producer, Jennifer Chaiken, that much of the Tom family's story remained untold - that the vacation footage, while both moving and entertaining, failed to show the everyday challenges of going to school, doing chores, and just getting along that the children faced at home. The crew, Mehta in tow, headed back to California where the experience of filming the family was made a comfortable process by Tom, who joked frequently that "at the very least she'd have some nice-looking home videos." To negate the one-sided intimacy that the film crew had with the family, Mehta said Tom took every person who worked on the film aside as soon as she met them, requesting that they share a deep, dark secret with her.
The result is a deeply affecting portrait of a family that "is difficult at times to watch, but strangely more difficult not to," said the Contra Costa Times. Although HBO has bought the television rights to "My Flesh and Blood" and will show it next year, the producers are still looking for a U.S. distributor. The film has been accepted to several more showcases, including the Florida Film Festival, Austin's South by Southwest festival, and the Texas festival (all in March), plus Hot Docs in Montreal in May.
Bumping into Bob
For Mehta, the experience at Sundance will likely always loom larger than any future screening. Not only did "My Flesh and Blood" walk off with two prestigious awards, but Mehta got to meet independent film-making's most powerful deity, "Bob" -known to the un-cognoscenti as Robert Redford.
It was a chance meeting: Mehta had snuck into a private reception at the House of Documentaries, and Redford happened to be there. Mehta boldly started talking to him about what could be done to bring documentaries' recognition level up to that of feature films. "The Sundance Institute has started a high school documentary program, so I asked him about introducing a K-12 program," he recalls. "If we teach kids early on the difference between documentaries and action movies or cartoons - maybe give them a cheap camera and show them how to edit film - they would be more likely to watch them when they got older. Of course, they also might put me out of a job," Mehta laughs. Apparently, "Bob" was receptive to the K-12 idea.
Having finished up "Many Voices" and graduated from Berkeley in December 2001, Mehta has since joined with his friends Lin and Schaaf to form SEB Media (for Shoot Edit Burn, www.sebmedia.com), a video production company based in Berkeley. It's the successor to Bigar Maaf productions, their first production company. He's also applied to UC Berkeley's Graduate school of Journalism, to study documentary film-making. In the meantime, the Cal alums are back shooting what they know best. They're working on a video of former Regent William Bagley for a Charter Day banquet, a video portrait of the Alumnus of the Year, and on new videos for the Residential and Student Services Programs.
The three would like to do projects similar to "Many Voices of Cal" for other California universities - with one caveat. "Not Stanford. No way," says Mehta. "There's some moral issues there."