Congratulations to Aleks Gezentsvey, Reel Works Alumni from Fall Lab Class of 2002, on the success of a new documentary film, Jim: The James Foley Story. Premiering at Sundance last week, it was the recipient of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival Feature Audience Award. Aleks worked as an editor on the film and we were lucky to have her stop by, tell us about her experience at Reel Works, how it set the stage for her next steps in building a career, and advice she has for our students:
Her experience at Reel Works: Big thanks to Reel Works. In fact, Reel Works set me on a path that resulted in this major breakthrough, creating the trajectory of how things unfolded. I used the films I made at Reel Works to get into Purchase College Film Conservatory, from there I graduated, and got into post-production.
What really helped with Reel Works was the fact that we were learning real things that I use to this day. Technically speaking, we were learning the structure of a documentary, the components of storytelling, how to break down a story, and how stories are told – solid convention and foundational knowledge, along with the software used throughout the industry. We learned things you need to know.
Equally important, we learned to trust our gut feeling and go with it. The story begins inside the person and that is what makes it special. The teachers and mentors at Reel Works guided us in telling our own stories, and gave us the confidence to tell them how we wanted to. It is a gift to gain this confidence early on.
Advice to student filmmakers at Reel Works: Hard work is hard work. Sometimes it’s just about the grind. It’s not glamorous at all, but you have to push yourself and work through those moments. Try not to focus too far ahead. Concentrate on the job at hand, cross each bridge, one at a time, and do the best work you can. There is satisfaction in just doing that, and completing the process. I think that is a very important lesson that I have encountered.
Another thing I would say is your team is really important. People you work with, work under, those you encounter, there is always something to learn from others. I would say, ask questions, be open to guidance and advice, but never lose sight of your vision. Sometimes your instinct is the best thing to rely on.
You never know who you come across. Sometimes you make an impression on someone and they find you for an opportunity. That’s how I got this job. A former colleague on a project I had worked on sent me a text years after the project was complete, ‘Hey I’m working on this film and we are looking for an editor, would you be interested?’ And I’m super thankful she did.
5 Questions with Aleks:
One of your favorite films: The Gleaners and I – It’s a documentary by a French filmmaker Agnès Varda. It’s a playful exploration on the concept of “gleaning” or “gathering” – in a very stream-of-consciousness way, she jumps from harvesting a field, to dumpster diving, to filmmaking itself. It’s a beautiful film, full of magic: everything in there is for the sake of telling the best story. Also, her career is an amazing example of how one can move seamlessly between narrative and documentary film, and work without the support (and constraints) of the studio system.
Greatest influence (or one of) on your work: Since I already named Agnès Varda in the previous question, I think I’ll say that a lot of my personal influences aren’t film related. Patti Smith’s book Just Kids made a huge impact on me, and my perception of what an artist should be.
Person you’d most like to work with: Louis CK; Creators of Reply All podcast if they ever chose to make a film; Andrea Arnold, who directed a film called Fish Tank; and I’d love to continue working with the team I have spent the past months with on Jim.
What would you tell your 15 year old self? Breathe. People aren’t as scary as you think. We’re all here trying to make sense of this thing.
What advice would you give to Reel Works students, unsure of next steps? Set a realistic goal (one at a time) and break down the potential steps for getting there. Internet is a great tool for that – there are many forum discussions on pretty much every branch of cinema. Reach out to people who have done what you want and ask them questions. Try to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are, be humble, learn new things and work hard.
Thank you again to Aleks Gezentsvey, Reel Works Alumni Fall Lab Class of 2002 for stopping by to speak with us, sharing her insight as she navigates the industry. We look forward to having her come again to share a bit more with our student filmmakers.
For more information on Aleks, visit her website: aleksgezentsvey.com
Jim: The James Foley Story will premiere on HBO, Saturday, February 6, at 9 p.m. The film tells the life story and legacy of childhood friend, James Foley, an American journalist beheaded by ISIS in August 2014.
Watch the trailer here: