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The Zaki Gordon Institute for Independent Filmmaking
Blossoming in its First Year

by Juliana Rose

If you happened to have been travelling west on 89A toward Cottonwood a year ago or so, you may have found a nice little right-hand turnout at the top of the hill on the end of town. A great place to pull off for a few minutes and watch the sun go down. No buildings, no concrete, little discernable activity save the lazy circling of birds and quiet solitude of junipers overlooking the far mountains, canyons and valley. That environment has changed somewhat with the breaking of ground in the Spring of 2000.

The first of its kind in the country, the Zaki Gordon Institute for Independent Filmmaking quietly took up residence off 89A opposite West Sedona’s Upper Red Rock Loop in September, 2000. Located in The Sedona Cultural Arts Park, and affiliated with the Yavapi College for Arts and Technology, the Institute chose Sedona as home through a synchronistic string of events. According to Dan Gordon, a co-creator and supporter of the new venture, the key connection happened as the result of a casual airborne meeting as Gordon returned from work in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, a year earlier.

Said Gordon, "It turns out I am sitting next to this lady who says she is a consultant from Arizona, travelling the country researching models on which to base a new film school in Sedona. I can’t explain it, I had no plan in the working, I just started talking. My words were basically, ‘I can tell you exactly what kind of school you will build. You will build a film program, unique in all the world, for those who have stories they are bound to tell. You will say to them, come with us for a year and learn to make your movie. Don’t spend $30,000 on a conventional degree that will take you two to four years to complete. Spend $3000, get practical hands on experience actually making movies, and then take your $30,000 in the second year and MAKE THE MOVIE!’ "

Gordon added quietly, "I believe it was Zaki speaking."

That reference is to Gordon’s late son, a young man with a skill and passion for making movies outside the power structure of the "studio and suit" film industry. The young Gordon, who had an opportunity to sell a script he’d written, chose, instead, to produce and direct his own feature film, "Waiting for Mo," at age 20. Showing promise as an uncompromising filmmaker, Zaki was supporting himself, working with an HBO film in New York before his untimely accidental death a few years later. The school is named in his honor with an emphasis on the word, "Independent."

Considered a centerpiece of Yavapai College’s Sedona Center for Arts and Technology, the Institute became a concrete reality once seasoned filmmaker Stephan Schultze was added as program director and key instructor. On October 2 of last fall, 19 very unique individuals from around the country and the world, changed their lives and showed up for class.

They found that entrance into the program is competitive in a non-traditional sense. Previous life, education or work experience has no impact in securing a fellowship into the program. Acceptance is based solely on a 20-30 minute "pitch" to Gordon and his committee, of the movie the individual intends to make. "The substance of the concept and the desire to make the movie is the main criteria," according to Schultze.

Schultze took a break from his intense involvement in the industry moving from Los Angeles and has served days, nights and weekends for the last four months as program director, chief instructor, mentor and overseer of school activities. He will be a featured presenter at this year’s Sedona Film Festival. The second semester staff addition of local filmmaker, Bryan Reinhart as an Instructional and Lab Assistant will enhance the program’s ability to serve students.

According to Schultze, the uniqueness of the program is that students do not learn filmmaking as it has been taught in leading American film schools to date. Rather than separate, theory-based courses taught by various professors, the institute offers a holistic, process-orientated approach. A mentor oversees the entirety of the student’s work and progress and professionals working in the industry are brought in periodically to deliver specific workshops on aspects of directing, lighting, cinematography, sound and editing.

Film students faced a rigorous schedule of eight to twelve hour days, 5-7 days a week during their first semester. The activities included a variety of classroom study, film analysis, scriptwriting and treks into the field to make their own short exercise movies. These super-shorts were written and produced based upon techniques used in scenes by great filmmakers of the past. After a weekly lecture and analysis with screenwriter Dan Gordon, students formed teams, wrote scripts and headed to the field with gear to make a new movie each week. Each student had opportunity to practice the crafts of writer, director, producer, video photographer, light and sound technician. Raw footage was then shared, edited and the resultant mini-film evaluated by the class as a whole.

Figuring heavily into the school’s ability to host fellows in producing movies is the ready availability of affordable digital filmmaking equipment. According to Schultze, digital technology, still evolving, has already begun to make an impact in the field of moviemaking. "The medium was formerly reserved for those with big budgets and big organizations. It is now possible to tell stories in light and sound on a shoestring budget because of this technology." According to Schultze and Gordon, the wave of the future is for independent filmmakers to have numerous venues for marketing their film, including the Internet and cable programming.

"The real uniqueness of the Zaki Institute, however, is in its students," noted Gordon. "We have students in their 60’s, 40’s and 20’s. You can go to any film school and what you see are a lot of students who look like Zaki looked. We don’t look like any other film school anywhere in this country. We have everyone here from grandparents to retired businessmen and active musicians; to mothers with grown children; from a car-body repairman to computer programmers. People from Ireland and from Australia and a lot of Sedonans. For God’s sake, we even have our own resident Buddhist nun!"

Another interesting characteristic of the school, according to Gordon, is the number of students who are working on film content of a spiritually orientated nature. "You won’t find so many movies focused on going out into the desert to seek enlightenment and searching for or chewing on various leaves and buttons in traditional film schools! I guess I’d call it the "Sedona School of Filmmaking," he laughed.

According to Schultze, "Probably one of the most important aspects contributing to the success of the program is the outpouring of support from the city of Sedona. They have welcomed the students; willingly provided their homes and businesses as shooting locations; and they have turned out in great numbers to volunteer as unpaid actors and assistants in the student films. There is a spirit of creative cooperation in Sedona that makes this the perfect place for the Zaki Institute!"

According to Gordon, the program is exceeding his expectations in its innovative format and student outcomes. "I’d put any student here up against an NYU or SC graduate in terms of ability to get out into the field and make a movie."

Short student films created as part of the curriculum of the first semester are currently being broadcast by local cable access station Channel 18. Please see the local channel guide for days and times.

For further information on the Zaki Gordon Institute for Independent Filmmaking at the Sedona Center for Arts and Technology, please contact Program Director Stephan Schultze at Yavapi College (520) 204-2691.

Thankfully, the new structure housing the Zaki Gordon Institute and classrooms of the Yavapai College Sedona Center for Arts and Technology does not impede the sunset or change the nature of the countryside. The earth, stone, water and light based structure blends with the red earth of the Cultural Arts Park Road. An information and visitor’s center, including restrooms, is nearby.

A sculpture park with graded trails is well under construction and big inviting picnic tables dot the edges of the juniper forest. The site remains an inspiring spot to pull off of 89A when travelling to Cottonwood or other parts west.

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