Alumni directors duo shed light on social issues through documentary

While filming the award-winning documentary “Peace Officer” in 2012, SF State alumni Scott Christopherson and Reeny McCauley did not realize the social issue they were highlighting would coincide with the Ferguson unrest that incited the nation.

Christopherson, the director of the film, and McCauley, the film’s editor, met in the same class at SF State and both graduated with an master in fine arts in cinema. A year after graduation, the two worked together on a film that exposed the access of military weaponry to small-town police departments in the U.S. The film would go on to win awards at the South by Southwest Film Festival last month.

“We hadn’t thought a whole lot about the militarization of police until this came up,” McCauley said. “But when I started working on (the film), the evidence that something was wrong and somebody needed to start talking about it was pretty clear to me.”

“Peace Officer” is based on the true story of William “Dub” Lawrence’s fascination with resolving the systematic failings of small-town police forces, according to the film’s website. Lawrence’s obsession led him to become sheriff of Davis County, Utah where he assembled the state’s first SWAT unit, which would fatally shoot his son-in-law 30 years later.

Christopherson and McCauley said they credit their professors and the cinema department at SF State for opening their eyes to the magnitude of filmmaking and the social impact of documentaries like “Peace Officer.”

“I think that it was due to my time at (SF) State that I realized that documentary films are a much more important and effective way of analyzing culture and improving society because millions of people could potentially see it,” Christopherson said.

Combat officers collect behind an Abrams Main Battle Tank in a scene from the docu- mentary “Peace Officer” filmed in 2012 and directed by SF State alumni Scott Christopherson and Reeny McCauley. (Courtesy of "Peace Officer")

Combat officers collect behind an Abrams Main Battle Tank in a scene from the docu- mentary “Peace Officer” filmed in 2012 and directed by SF State alumni Scott Christopherson and Reeny McCauley. (Courtesy of “Peace Officer”)

“I am really grateful that Scott and Renny have focused their passion, work ethic, and creativity at tackling the issues in “Peace Officer,” said Greta Snider, a professor of cinema at SF State. “Their success and their commitment to engaging in dialogue on the urgent social issues in the film are what keep us energized at SFSU.”

McCauley said it was his experience in the cinema department that helped him gain a sense of responsibility through his craft.

“When I realized the power behind (filmmaking) I started taking it more seriously,” McCauley said. “I think I got a lot of that out of taking classes and realizing how much is conveyed through film and a plan to take that responsibility seriously.”

That responsibility led both filmmakers to the annual SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas, where their feature-length film took home the Grand Jury and Audience awards.

“I had never been in a huge festival like South by Southwest so I was surprised and really elated that I got in and it was really like a dream when we won,” Christopherson said. “I thought we had a chance but I never really expected it.”

During the two and a half years it took to film the documentary, the duo never envisioned that the social issue of their film would play out in real life with last year’s fatal police shooting of Michael Brown Aug. 9 and the nationwide protests that ensued.

“My feeling is that something public (like Ferguson) was bound to happen at some point but the coincidence of it happening when we were finishing our film, I mean you don’t want to use the word ‘luck’ because it’s horrible that something like that happened but it was sort of a fortunate coincidence,” McCauley said.

Through their film, the filmmakers said they highlighted some of the issues prominent in today’s society, like the use of lethal force by police officers in the country.

Christopherson and McCauley first debuted the film with a large audience at SXSW and said they felt a bond between the audience and the social issues featured in the documentary.

“I could see that people were really connected to the issues and were ready to start asking more questions about what is the problem and how can we help deal with it,” McCauley said. “Through filmmaking, let’s shine light on something that can help people alter the course of history to make it a better place to live.”

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