Stronger Than Fiction, an annual film festival showcasing the work of students from the Documentary Journalism Program at the Missouri School of Journalism, returns Saturday.

Screenings and Q&A sessions, typically conducted at the historic Missouri Theater, will be held online this year.

The festival will screen 16 films by budding documentary journalists from the graduate and undergraduate program. The subjects range from Missouri's HIV criminalization laws to beekeeping in central Texas to the upended lives of high school seniors who didn't get to have a normal last semester because of COVID-19.

The film synopses and directors’ profiles can be found on the website. The festival includes live Q&A with eight directors each at 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The links to the online sessions can be found on the website.

Students spent two years working on these films. This year the festival showcases the highest number of international films, with countries including Canada, China, Morocco, Spain, Sweden and twelve different states of the U.S. represented in the films.

Sarah Sabatke, a graduate student in the program, has chosen to focus on the topic of mass shootings for her documentary, Thoughts and Prayers.

“I was frustrated with hearing this phrase, 'thoughts and prayers,' every time that there was a mass shooting,” Sabatke said.

Sabatke’s film explores the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting, through the lives affected by it, including the journalists who covered the story. She hopes the film will encourage people to be more empathetic and realize that journalists are also affected by the traumatic events they cover. She views her own self as an observer, simply documenting history in the film.

“I try not to include myself at all because the story is not about me,” Sabatke said.

While Sabatke had finished filming for her documentary before the pandemic restrictions began, Myles Murdock, an undergraduate student, had been planning on filming more and was unable to. Luckily, he had enough footage to work with.

Murdock’s film, First Holiday, focuses on how his family coped with the death of his grandfather, with a focus on his grandma.

“It wasn't until later on that I realized I was making it as a way to process my own grief,” Murdock said.

Documenting this personal experience was challenging, but Murdock has tried to capture the mood of a home movie in his film, and hopes people will find it relatable.

On his role as a filmmaker, Murdock said, “You always feel like it's something you're working towards, instead of something that you actually are.”

The students of the 2020 festival were guided by the team of Field of Vision, including co-creator and executive producer Charlotte Cook. Field of Vision describes itself as “a filmmaker-driven documentary unit that commissions and creates original short-form nonfiction films about developing and ongoing stories around the globe.”

“The end of this year has been tough on everyone but we’re proud of the effort and resilience of our filmmakers. We share these films as an act of solidarity and we hope you enjoy!” said Robert Greene, filmmaker-in-chief, and Stacey Woelfel, Director, of Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism at MU, on the Stronger than Fiction 2020 website. 

Despite it being difficult for the students to accept that the final celebration of their work will now be happening online, both chose to look at the bright side. Sabatke is glad that the film will be easily accessible for a wider audience now. Murdock appreciates the hard work that Greene and Woelfel have put in to bring this together. They have had their students back, Murdock said, and this has kept him motivated.

“Their commitment and dedication is really what has made me realize that this is just as special and as meaningful as the physical festival would have been,” Murdock said.

  • Community reporter, spring 2020. I'm a graduate student studying magazine editing and writing. Reach me at aimanjaved@mail.missouri.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5700.

  • As senior editor of the Missourian, Fred Anklam manages general assignment reporters. He can be reached at anklamf@missouri.edu or in the newsroom at 573-882-5720.

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