Get to Know: Dylan Nelson
Growing up in Charleston, S.C., where her mother’s side of the family had lived for generations, Dylan Nelson never heard race relations discussed. “There was inequity of the races, but it was an unspoken reality,” says Nelson, who, with her husband, Clay Haskell, are CC artists-in-residence for film studies.
Years later, she would explore that reality through her documentary filmmaking, as she interviewed the unsung heroes of the Civil Rights movement for her award-winning film, “Soundtrack for a Revolution.” Working on the film “was an amazing privilege,” she said. “For me, it was really wonderful to have an opportunity to meet these heroes. I felt like I was in the service of an incredible story.”
The story is that of the American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, told through the freedom songs protesters sang on picket lines, in meetings, and in jails.
“For many, the American Civil Rights movement has been distilled to Black History Month, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks. But it is so much more than that,” Nelson said. “The film takes the Civil Rights movement out of the textbooks and makes it immediate and energetic.”
There are no experts in the film; instead, the filmmakers rely on direct participants and the music of the Civil Rights movement to tell the story. “Music has an incredible ability to speak to people emotionally,” Nelson said. “We wanted to make a film that would appeal to people of all ages.”
As a film producer, Nelson is involved in all aspects of the project, from conception to research, scouting, shooting, editing, final post-production, and distribution. “When you’re a producer, a film is your baby,” she said. “You live with it through its ups and downs, and you nurture and defend it as it goes out into the world.”
Nelson’s film appears to have been well nurtured, and it is holding its own in the world. “Soundtrack for a Revolution” premiered at the Tribeca and Cannes film festivals, had its theatrical release last year, recently came out on DVD, and will air on PBS’s “American Experience” on May 9, 2011. Among other honors, it was short-listed for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and nominated for a Producers Guild of America Award, a Writer’s Guild Award, and three International Documentary Association Awards.
The film also was selected for the U.S. State Department’s American Documentary Showcase program, which presents award-winning contemporary American documentaries to audiences around the world. As a delegate for the program, Nelson was in the Ukraine in late October, where she discussed the film and conducted master classes and outreach programs on documentary filmmaking.
Nelson describes herself as a fourth-generation “CC person,” though not an alumna. Her great-grandmother, Anne von Bibra Sutton, taught German at Colorado College in the 1930s; her grandmother, Jane Sutton Nelson, was a member of the Class of ’33; and her father, fiction writer Kent Nelson, teaches as a visitor in CC’s English department.
Nelson, who with Haskell teaches several film courses at CC, got into filmmaking in a roundabout way. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Yale University in 1996 and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Oregon in 2001. During the summer before her final year in the MFA program, Nelson lived in Los Angeles, turning a novella she had written into a screenplay. Upon returning to school, she took a documentary film course to expand on her interest in film storytelling.
“I took that film course and it felt as though I had struck gold. Not in a financial sense, but it was as if a lightning bolt struck me,” Nelson said. “The first time I was in the field on a shoot, I was completely engaged. You are listening as hard as you’ve ever listened while thinking about the film you need to make; thinking about so much at once – the narrative, visual, technical, and interpersonal aspects. Filmmaking is demanding on all levels. From then on, I wanted to learn more. You could spend a whole life learning about film.
“While I still love fiction, I never looked back. I’ve been writing, researching, producing, and directing for film ever since,” she said.
Because filmmaking is so all-encompassing, the Block Plan is well-tailored to film courses, said Nelson. “It allows students to focus intensively on one final project. The students at CC are passionate, and because of the Block Plan, they are able to – and do – throw themselves entirely into their films. As a result, they come away with an indelible learning experience and a final product of which they’re truly proud. The intensity of the Block also mirrors the real-world intensity of film production and post-production.”
In addition to teaching basic and advanced filmmaking, documentary and screenwriting classes, and thesis advising, Nelson and Haskell also co-teach the popular off-campus Block VII class “On Location: Hollywood.” While in Hollywood, students study the history of Los Angeles filmmaking while pursuing an area of film interest: a genre, profession, or area of critical study. The class meets with prominent film industry professionals – from directors and producers to sound mixers and editors to agents and executives – in order to understand the state of Los Angeles filmmaking today.
“I think that one reason CC students respond so positively to filmmaking courses is that filmmaking represents the best of a liberal arts education,” Nelson says. “Among the most integrative of all arts, filmmaking draws from numerous disciplines and requires students to synthesize concepts, abilities, and artistic techniques they learn elsewhere in their academic journey. Most of all, making film is about making connections – connections among ideas and connections with one’s community – and to me, that’s what an education in the liberal arts is all about.”
CC students also benefit in another, hands-on way: A number have assisted Nelson and Haskell with production on their forthcoming documentaries, one about child actors in Los Angeles, tentatively titled “The Hollywood Complex,” and another on civil rights icon James Meredith, titled “Mississippi Messiah.” For the latter, Nelson, then seven months pregnant, traveled through sweltering Mississippi during the summer, staying in ramshackle hotels as she and Haskell followed Meredith on a quixotic journey.
Nelson was also a producer for the 2007 documentary “Nanking,” about the Japanese invasion of Nanking, China, in the early days of World War II. The film, like “Soundtrack for a Revolution,” was short-listed for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. For more information on the class in Hollywood, go to http://blog.coloradocollege.edu/hollywood/