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November 30, 2023

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An honor to almost be nominated

While it is often difficult to consider something like the Academy Awards on a local scale, the 77th Academy Awards came to Bowling Green. A local filmmaker and doctoral student Denis Mueller received honors as a semifinalist for the Academy’s highest award for documentary filmmakers.

During the year of one of the more controversial elections in recent history, politically-themed documentaries took center stage at film festivals and movie theaters alike. A select handful of these documentaries will be honored on Feb. 27 as nominees for the “Best Documentary” Academy Award.

Mueller — whose 2004 film, “Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train,” was one of 12 semifinalists considered for the Oscar for Best Documentary — teaches a number of telecommunications classes at the University as he pursues his Ph.D. in American Culture Studies.

Mueller’s career as a filmmaker began as an undergraduate, when he saw the Barbara Kopple documentary “Harlan County, U.S.A” in a film class. He considered the idea of filmmaking as a possible method of merging his varying interests.

“I saw [Harlan County, U.S.A.], and I thought, ‘Well, maybe this is one way to combine my interest in history, public affairs and film,’ ” he said.

From there, Mueller has produced numerous historical documentaries and has co-directed such films as “The FBI’s War Against Black America” and “Citizen Soldier: The Story of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.”

“Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train” was the most recent of Mueller’s films co-directed with fellow filmmaker Deb Ellis. The film is an up-close and personal portrait of historian and activist Howard Zinn. It includes commentary by his friends and associates, including Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg and Alice Walker, who was a former student.

The film is narrated by actor and Zinn’s former next-door-neighbor, Matt Damon. Damon narrates passages and quotes from Zinn’s books and anti-war articles.

Over four years into the six-year editing process of the film, the Sept. 11 attacks and war in Iraq caused Mueller and Ellis to reconsider the structure of the documentary. Instead of telling Howard Zinn’s story through Zinn’s ideas in the film, the directors decided on a more chronologically-oriented story of Zinn’s life and activism would prove more pertinent to the current world situation.

“[Zinn] is speaking against the war, he’s warning about brazenly going off to war,” Mueller said. “It also made Howard contemporary, talking about the war — he still does.”

As a teacher and mentor, he has had numerous students come to him with their own endeavors as filmmakers. Many of whom are in for an awakening when they first pursue filmmaking.

“What opens their eyes is that documentaries are not neutral,” Mueller said. “Documentaries are an argument; they come from a point of view, giving voice to the filmmaker. That gives students a whole different outlook of what documentaries are.”

One of Mueller’s former students, Ashley Alper, a junior at the University, agrees.

“There are times when he talks about his experience as a director to help students in the class understand what a documentary filmmaker thinks,” she said. “He has real life experience and is out in his field constantly; therefore he is able to give his students the up-and-up on film.”

Mueller has been making documentaries for years but, right now, he said, is “the golden era of documentaries.”

“It’s a really, really interesting era — but it could not exist without an audience,” Mueller said. “There’s a growing audience of people who are becoming more and more disenchanted by the news they see. So I think there’s a real niche for documentary filmmakers to look at a subject and focus on it.”

Mueller also attributes the boom of documentaries in American pop culture to the expansion of documentaries as an art form. Documentaries have gone beyond the more traditional and evolved into politically-charged pieces, as well as social commentary and even as a form of entertainment, he said.

And much of this is due to Generation Y’s affinity to reality-based entertainment.

“Young people, students, are very open to documentaries as entertainment, as something they’ll go out to see. The most profitable films in documentaries have been things that have been done the most recently,” Mueller said.

In light of this golden age of documentaries, what does the future hold for the documentary, and for Mueller himself?

According to Mueller, the future is unlimited for filmmakers in the years to come.

Mueller predicts documentaries will further address the war in Iraq — more specifically, American soldiers returning home. Mueller himself is considering a documentary addressing the issue, particularly the health of returning veterans.

“The documentary is a really interesting form, because it can do anything,” Mueller said.

Ultimately, the twists and turns in the road of documentary filmmaking are the most rewarding for Mueller.

“It’s about who you meet,” he said. “It’s about the journey itself, it’s about how you grow as a person and what you learn. It’s about how you become involved in peoples’ lives and meet people that you never, ever would have met before…it’s very rewarding.”

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