UCLA – Sample Essay for MFA in Film Production
At the age of twelve, I was deported to Ireland — by my mother. She thought the change of scenery, and some time spent with her side of the family, would be good for my overly inquisitive nature. I quickly translated her act of banishment into my own deliberate act of self-exile. In my stubborn twelve-year-old mind, this seemed more dramatic somehow. At that age, I had little wisdom and what some would call a fairly banal Irish Catholic upbringing: my father was a gifted horseman, a raging alcoholic, and a crisis-fomenting tyrant. Needless to say, home was a place I didn’t mind leaving.
I spent the next year and a half living and working on a rural farm in the Irish countryside. I studied French and Irish at St. Aloysious College, but I chose to focus on mechanical drawing, a subject that allowed me to represent a construct of my vast twelve-year-old universe. I had been seriously drawing on my own since the age of nine, and in Ireland I seized the opportunity to study drawing techniques in school, along with the complementary subjects of math and physics.
My migration from a large family in the United States to an austere and isolated farm spurred my independent, internal creative life. My aunt and uncle had no TV, no phone, and no records post-1970. Without television or neighbors for the first time in my life, I was solely responsible for my own adventures: cycling the countryside, sketching farm animals, and applying my mechanical drawing skills to restoration sketches of the family farm.
When I was away from the farm, I spent time with a large collection of cousins; almost all were involved in local theatre. Watching rehearsals for their plays, I became skilled in the art of listening and observing. I discovered an Irish imagination, imbued with a complexity of poetry, politics, humor, and history, which pervaded the works they performed on the stage. I was fascinated by the nimble play of the language, the intricacies of character, and the timing of proper silences as an element of sound. Intrigued by the “persona” of a character — the essential qualities that made a person unique — I started drawing charcoal sketches of local characters’ portraits, and I even wrote character skits and improvisations.
After I returned from my exile in Ireland, I finished high school, then earned a six-year “degree” in the national competitive cycling scene. My week-long races around the US on Greyhound’s $49.00 student fares led me to settle in Utah. There, high in the Wasatch Mountains, I retired from bicycle racing and studied painting, drawing, and printmaking (woodcut and lithography) in college. At home, I continued my oil paintings with a series of portraits. Working with friends and borrowed equipment, I wrote a short absurdist critique of the network TV coverage of the Albertville Winter Olympics. After a deluge of unforecasted snow ruined our original script, I wrote a new one in just one night. We shot our video in Park City, Utah, during the following two days of the storm, and it later won two awards in a local film festival.
After college graduation, the curiosity fueled by my childhood experiences in Ireland compelled me to travel, so I joined the Peace Corps ten days after commencement. I arrived in Morocco, where I had the opportunity to design the English program at the FSTM, a brand-new science and technology university. The students there came from a language-study background of translating and transcribing. They knew perfectly well how to conjugate verbs, but they would fall silent when asked for the time of day. With no available textbooks or traditional teaching aids, I created a series of courses using theater, video, drama, and debate as in an experimental approach to teaching English.
Outside of teaching, Peace Corps volunteers are required to create “secondary projects.” When the Peace Corps Washington selected a script that I had written for a safety training video, I was chosen for the lead role. My success in this project led to another work opportunity, this time with the Moroccan Educational Institute for Radio and Television. Over a year and a half, we wrote and developed an eight-minute pilot episode for a series using English-language TV time as a means to address current issues in Morocco. We worked with Japanese technicians in French, an Iranian director in Arabic, and an English-speaking writing staff to produce a pilot that would pass strict censorship standards and still remain entertaining to our viewers. Later on, other projects brought me back to the drawing board — literally — illustrating USAID-funded health manuals for Peace Corps Volunteer projects.
Before finishing my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco, I wrote a series of staged events that I planned to examine in a video essay, or mock-umentary. My objective, at the time, was to exploit the naiveté of Americans overseas, those gullible new volunteers who were willing to swallow a sword just to scratch their stomachs. On the surface, the resulting film was a humorous and caustic treatise on American values and group identity. But the summer-long exercise of setting up, shooting, exhibiting, and discussing the video spurred me to explore my own roles as project creator, actor, and outside commentator.
Once I had completed my Peace Corps service, I headed north to a teaching post in Paris. As fate would have it, my office was two blocks from the Cinematheque francaise. Here, I spent the majority of my first wet winter days, mingling with a group of young video-makers who were exploring similar questions of identity. I began work on a series of large format portraits, using 35mm prints on canvas. I completed my first commissioned photo in 1998.
Since 1999 I’ve been working a day job in Kafkaesque environs, writing appeals and legal petitions. Meanwhile, I’ve begun another project, a portrait of a unique and gifted man, James Donaldson. I wanted to create a video narrative that would address serious social issues in an indirect and poetic manner. As the subject of my current investigation into character and truth, James’ life and music have forced me, as a storyteller, to confront my own technical limitations. James spent his youth in American juvenile orphanages after witnessing, at the age of five, his own father brutally murdering his mother. Thirteen years later, he met his father again, both men prisoners in the same penitentiary. James rose to fame and prominence as a Billboard recording artist with Chess Records, and, now, at age sixty-two, he fights a battle with homelessness.
This project, which has consumed my life for the last three years, has enabled me to develop my own voice and to explore my role as the storyteller of my own work — whether the story is about a town or another man. Ever since my early childhood encounters with farm animals and Irish theatrical characters, I have looked for places to store the lives of the people I meet. I think of my drawings and photographs as the preliminary sketches for my films and videos, which are, essentially, concerned with truth. Not reality or even facts, necessarily, but the kind of truth that only art seems to address, truth that connects with the essentials of human experience. At UCLA’s MFA program in film production, I will develop a palette of techniques and refined skills vital to a professional, independent storyteller. For this is, in fact, what I am. I examine social issues through investigation of identity and community, adding texture to my own life as an active participant in the collaborative imagination of my generation.
While my desire to study film at UCLA is quite specific, my motivation comes from a wide spectrum of creative and social experiences, including my travels to Morocco, Paris, Ireland, and the United States. UCLA, with its production and documentary program, including the Marina Goldovskaya Documentary Salon Series, is a school that will nurture my diverse experiences and my single-minded creative visions, while also rigorously challenging me to grow as a technical filmmaker and creative thinker.