Salt Lake Film Festival
Director: Josh Melrod and Tera Wray
Following a group of aspiring artists who make their way through the intense MFA program at The Center For Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont, filmmakers Josh Melrod and Tera Wray spent three years shooting the failure and success of these students in an interesting and emotion-driven documentary. The two-year program at this exclusive college only takes on 20 students a year, pushing them through a rigorous schedule involving courses taught by published cartoonists and graphic novelists such as James Sturm and Charles Burns, weekly deadlines and an eight-month thesis project which decides whether or not they receive a Master in Fine Arts from the school. The documentary also delves into the changing world of comics, providing insight on how the industry is changing through DIY publishing, and how varied the medium and subject matter of comics has become.
For me, the success of a documentary film depends on its ability to connect its audience with its subject, and Cartoon College hit it out of the park in this particular aspect. The students are presented as human––vulnerable and susceptible to the same challenges that face any serious grad student––and I found myself silently cheering them on as they faced everything from the stress of meeting deadlines, to deciding whether or not a career in comics was right for them. One of the highlights of the film cut through each student discussing what they hoped to get out of their experience, and where they saw themselves once graduated. Every single interviewee was completely confident they could make a more-than-modest living out of their comics, believing themselves to be "The next new greatest thing," as one student remarked. The film then moves on to the professors, who admit that this "ego" is necessary for many aspiring comics in order to motivate them to continue on, but advise that, although drawing comics may seem like a fun-filled past time, a career can be difficult to develop, and emotionally taxing.
Perhaps the student who struggles the most with the emotion behind his comics is Salt Lake's own BC Sterrett, who was also present for an intriguing Q&A after the film. A practicing member of the LDS religion, Sterrett struggled with his thesis project, which he had chosen to theme around his time as a ward missionary. Not long enough removed from the subject matter, and dealing with some physical ailments (which he discussed in the Q&A as the film didn't disclose this), he ends up failing the thesis, and moving back to Utah. Two years later, he returns with a new project idea, Simeon, based on his childhood relationship with his bullying older brother, and continues on in hopes of finally graduating from the program.
The documentary is very well made, and whether or not you're a comic enthusiast, the idea behind this niche school is fascinating, and its students are even more interesting. Check it out if you get the chance.