Sundance Participants Include UA Faculty, Alumnus

Jan. 29, 2016

"The Bad Kids," edited by University of Arizona faculty member and award-winning film editor and producer Jacob Bricca, was among the documentaries to have a world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, receiving multiple screenings with wait lists.

Bricca, an assistant professor in the UA School of Theatre Film & Television, served as the primary editor for the documentary film by directors Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe. The film follows the lives of impoverished students attending a progressive program at a high school in California's Mojave Desert whose principal, Vonda Viland, has the philosophy that at-risk youth can be academically successful when they receive love and compassion.

The film was one of 16 documentaries selected for the U.S. Documentary Competition.

"This is a big honor, as this list of films often has strong overlap with the short list of documentaries selected as nominees for the Best Documentary Oscar the following year," said Bricca, who was in attendance at Sundance and has edited more than a dozen feature films. It is his first experience attending Sundance as an exhibiting filmmaker. "It was terrific."

Jacob Bricca with his assistant editor, Bill Hilferty, at Sundance. (Photo courtesy of Jacob Bricca)

Bricca, who lives in Tucson, worked mostly remotely on the film with the Los Angeles-based directors. As the primarily editor, Bricca worked with editor Mary Lampson, whose credits include the Academy Award-winning "Harlan County, USA."

"When I started work on the project, the directors built several weeks into the schedule for me to simply watch and digest the footage. This is a crucial first step in a project like this, which is at least as much about themes and tones as it is about narrative development," said Bricca, whose credits include the international theatrical film "Lost in La Mancha" starting Terry Gilliam and Johnny Depp, and also "Pure," which premiered at the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival. 

Bricca noted that empathy, family, poetry, triage and moasic were some of the main concepts that came to define "The Bad Kids."

Related to the theme of the mosaic, he said the team "wanted to build a tapestry that showed the experience of many, many students, rather than focusing exclusively on the stories of a few."

While the stories and experiences carried tremendous emotion and depth, Bricca said that, ultimately, the best scenes turned out to be the most simple and helped contribute to the uniqueness of the film.

"The approach of the filmmakers was a very pure one. They wanted to build a portrait of a place, and so they confined their shooting almost exclusively to Black Rock High School," he said. "They worked in the true cinema verité tradition, in which you immerse yourself in a community and find the story with footage of the human interactions around you, rather than relying on interviews to explain things to an audience.  This was tremendously exciting."

The Egyptian Theatre, one of the venues at Sundance. (Photo courtesy of Jacob Bricca)

"Intimate vérité camerawork and poetic, stylized sequences create an immersive, emotional experience that gives way to not just information, but also insight about America’s most pressing education problem: poverty," the Sundance Institute noted in its assessment of the film. "'The Bad Kids' is that rare documentary whose power emerges as much from its exquisite artistry as its crucial content."

In addition to his film work, Bricca teaches classes on editing and documentary and narrative filmmaking, and he is currently working on a book, "Documentary Editing: Concrete Strategies for Building Structure in Non-Fiction Films," to be released by Focal Press in 2017. The book will detail strategies for editing toward the completion of a full documentary.

Also at Sundance this year was UA alumnus James J. Jefferies, who was there for the first time. 

Since graduating from the UA in 2011 with degrees in political science and media arts producing, Jefferies covered local happenings for Downtown Tucson Partnership, a nonprofit. He also co-directed, wrote and produced an animated pilot for cable television's popular show, "Adult Swim." He also produced a Foto-Kem New Filmmaker Award-winning thesis film after receiving the UA School of Theatre Film & Television's Outstanding Senior award.

Jefferies is serving as an industry guest, scouting for short and feature-length narrative films and also documentaries to be shown at Aspen Shortsfest (North America's premier shorts-only festival, also an Academy Award-qualifying festival) and Aspen Filmfest.

"The thrill of discovery, and knowing you found something special that you think will entertain, enlighten or educate an audience you've come to know, as I have over the last 18 months, is definitely an addictive thing for a cinephile," said Jefferies, currently a programmer and programming coordinator for Aspen Film, having joined the organization in 2014.

"The sheer variety of films on display is very, very impressive. I saw everything from heart-wrenching docs to skillfully made teen LGBT indie romances to completely crazy midnight genre films and everything in between at Sundance," he said. "The technical quality of the presentation and the intensity of the rapt audiences here, amid the snow-capped beauty of Park City, is definitely special."