Christof Putzel '02
Can you tell us about how you came to find Film Studies at Connecticut College and how it impacted your success with your film, “Left Behind”?
My path to success wasn’t linear; I bounced around a bit. I wanted to major in Theater but I realized I wasn’t a good fit so I decided to major in Psychology. I wasn’t entirely satisfied so I thought I should join the Holleran Center’s Program in Community Action (PICA). In PICA, you get involved with an organization over a summer internship and write a senior thesis paper about it. I never viewed myself as someone who would sit down and write a thesis. I think in pictures, not words. So I decided to make a documentary instead.
I was given a $3,000 stipend through PICA and I used half of it on a ticket to Kenya and the other half on a camera. I spent the summer before my senior year in Kenya making “Left Behind,” a film about orphaned children who lost their parents to AIDS.
Admittedly, I didn’t know what I was doing. At the time, I was only concerned about how I was going to get out of doing a thesis by just “making a video.” Little did I know how much work it would entail, how hard it would be, and how much it would change my life. When I arrived to Kenya, I quickly realized I had stepped into something. Something incredible was going on around me. So I just started filming.
It seemed like an insane concept in 2001. Now that there are iPhones it seems more realistic, but at the time, these types of films were for big news and crews. The idea that you could go to Africa with a small camera and mini dv tape and make a film that anyone would want to watch was nuts. It worked in theory, but in practice… it was going to take forever.
Conn made the impossible possible.
When I returned with tapes full of incredible footage, I met with the president of the college and asked for help. I met with professors from across campus. Ultimately, it was Film Studies that helped me pull it off. I was a Film Studies minor and I had taken a documentary course with Professor Tetzlaff [since retired]. Professor Tetzlaff was brilliant; he could look at your film and understand exactly what was going on and would teach you immediately how to improve it. He understood the immense challenge that lied ahead and he also saw the film’s potential, so he ended up taking me and the film on, and we worked tirelessly on it together. I edited the film all year continuing into the summer after graduation. Eventually, somehow, I completed the film. And it started my career.
“Left Behind” went on to beat every film made in graduate film schools in the country. It won the Gold Oscar Award for Best Student Documentary, it beat all of the big schools. [It also won First Place in the College Emmys, the HBO award for Best Student Film, as well as the David Wolper award in the International Documentary Association, among many others]. It was amazing to come out of college from being that kid who fell asleep editing in the lab to spending a year touring film festivals and accepting major awards.
“Left Behind” caught the attention of Al Gore who was starting a TV network. I’d been out of school for three years and I worked with Gore to start Current TV. We created a show called Vanguard which was based on the model that I used to make “Left Behind” at Conn – one person goes out with a small camera and tells these raw and important stories. The show ran for eight years.
I don’t necessarily attribute the film’s success to my innate talent; I just saw a possibility, I worked to make it happen, and Connecticut College put it all in place to make it happen. Professors in other departments like Professor Singer in Psychology and Professor Boyd in English played significant roles in making the film better. Even campus safety officers who found me working and sleeping in the lab late at night would watch the footage and encourage me. Everyone came together to help me pull it off. And I needed that support. When people ask me about Connecticut College – that is the experience I remember. My life would have been totally different if I went somewhere else. I wouldn’t have done something like this somewhere else. What is the best piece of advice you were given for succeeding in your current field of work? My advice is that it’s gonna be hard and things aren’t going to work out. But that’s where the magic is: you have to keep pushing. That’s what you have to do in this profession - even after you’ve won all the awards. You’ll still get rejections. But it’s also so rewarding. I’ve gone from making no money to making lots of money to making no money again to making lots of money again.
I’ve made lots of films that I’m proud of, many of them in various constraints. When I was working for Al Jazeera, they would tell me that I needed to complete a piece in four hours, for example, and I’d have to sacrifice my creative integrity to get it accomplished – and then, in the end, I’d created something I was actually very proud of. It’s constant. It never stops. You need to be resourceful, and you need to push through the challenge.
In what ways did being a Film Studies major at Connecticut College prepare you for your career?
At Connecticut College, I learned that technology will always change but what will never change is the ability to tell a story. So many people get obsessed with becoming a tech geek but that only gets you further away from the actual story. I’d much rather watch a great story shot on an iPhone than a mediocre story shot on great equipment. I think that’s one of the reasons that “Left Behind” worked. There was no production value, it was just a camera pointed in the right direction and edited to tell a story.
Going over and watching films in the Documentary Theory and Production course. Watching them, dissecting them, reading about them. You not only got the rich history for documentary but you got to learn the documentary process. When I watch a documentary now, what I’m still taken by is seeing how the filmmaker kept going throughout it. Film Studies at Conn gave me that knowledge and understanding the rich history of film, the process, and how it’s done. I learned about overcoming road blocks and the impossible. You have to keep pushing. And that’s what Conn implemented: this is going to be hard, but if you keep pushing hard past the road blocks, that’s when the real creation begins.
What are your best memories of studying Film Studies at Connecticut College? It may sound cheesy but when I came back and no matter who I showed footage to, whether it was a fellow student who wasn’t studying film, or campus safety, or the president of the college, or a professor in another field – everyone was there to lend whatever support they could. That’s what I was moved by. People recognize when you’re really trying. I think that’s the spirit of Conn that I’ll never forget. I was really giving it my all and I think that people really got that. I think my best memories are feeling the support around me.
I look around and see a whole generation growing up on Snapchat. Kids’ brains are literally learning the art of editing early. I was a senior in college when I started to figure that stuff out. More young people will discover that they have a talent for editing early on. I never thought I could tell stories with a video camera; but now that people have technological access when they are younger, they have opportunities to develop filmmaking talent and skills as kids. Conn is providing an education where young people can not only discover their love of film, but further the craft they have already learned – it’s awesome.
I’m thrilled that the College has invested in the Film Studies Department. It warms my heart. I was given so much support before there even was a Department. It completely shaped my career. Many years later, I’m still making films in the same style, with the same emphasis on storytelling craft that I learned there. And I know that, so many years later, it was Film Studies at Connecticut College that was the turning point.