A piece of the Oscar action: Three ARHS graduates have hands in Academy Award-nominated documentaries

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 03-06-2023 10:24 AM

The Academy Awards are almost upon us, and with it comes the endless handicapping and speculation on who will win best actor and actress, who’s likely to be voted best director, and which film will score an Oscar for best picture of the year.

But though it doesn’t get as much attention, there’s also an Oscar at stake on March 12 for the best documentary feature film — and this year, three graduates of Amherst Regional High School have had a hand in putting together two of those documentaries.

For “Fire of Love,” a film that profiles the late French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft, Elijah Stevens served as associate producer and Lucy Munger designed animation.

Meanwhile, fellow ARHS grad Matt Hixon was the associate editor for “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” which profiles the photographer Nan Goldin and the protests she led against the Sackler family, owners of the company behind the addictive painkiller OxyContin.

Fun fact: All three of the one-time Amherst High students now live and work in Brooklyn, New York, and Hixon and Stevens, who have known each other since seventh grade, live just a few blocks from each other.

Another thing they have in common, aside from working in film: They’re thrilled to be part of these two highly praised documentaries, both of which have already won several awards.

“I’m really drawn to being part of a collaborative effort,” said Stevens, who’s worked as a producer on a number of documentaries. “That’s one of the best parts of being in film, and for ‘Fire of Love,’ we just had an incredible team of people. It’s been really exciting.”

Munger, who studied film at Columbia College in Chicago, has worked variously as an editor, producer and animator for a range of projects — music videos, documentaries, fiction films — over the years. She says “Fire of Love” gave her a great opportunity to develop paper and collage materials for animating volcano eruptions and other effects for “Fire of Love,” using artwork inspired by the Kraffts’ own collections of volcano art.

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“It’s wonderful to see the film get this level of recognition,” said Munger, who with two other people on the “Fire of Love” team won an award for outstanding visual design at the Cinema Eye Honors in New York in January.

And Hixon, who has edited and directed many music videos over the years, got his first taste of editing work on a feature documentary film when he joined the team producing “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.” Now that the film is nominated for an Oscar, he’s looking to do more work on documentaries.

“I feel really good about being part of what feels like an important historical moment,” he said, a reference to the larger issue of opioid addiction and the legal judgments that have been brought against the Sackler family.

(A fourth ARHS graduate, Sam Bromell, class of 2004, is also one of the screenwriters for “Elvis,” the Elvis Presley biopic that has earned eight Oscar nominations.)

A long history together

Hixon and Stevens, who graduated from ARHS in 2011, have shared an interest in film for many years. They taught film and video over several summers at Deerfield Academy Summer Arts Camp, and both took a few video classes at ARHS as well. (Stevens has also studied photography.)

Then they ended up at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, graduating in 2015. Hixon majored in film studies and Stevens in government and Latin American Studies, though Stevens also made an independent documentary film as part of a study abroad program in Bolivia.

“We can’t seem to shake each other off,” Hixon said with a laugh.

Stevens said he was interested at that time in pursuing a career in journalism in some form — something that would combine his interests in research, public policy and the natural world — and he came to feel working in documentaries might be the best way to do that.

“There’s the research angle and the creative angle, and the ability to tell a good story,” he said.

He made an early entry to the field by contacting Sara Dosa, a 2005 Wesleyan graduate who’s now a documentary director and producer. Dosa invited him to work on her 2019 documentary, “The Seer & The Unseen,” about an Icelandic seer, Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir.

That led in turn to an opportunity to work on “Fire of Love,” also directed and written by Dosa. As associate producer, Stevens oversaw various logistical elements for the film, such as coordinating efforts when everyone was working remotely during the pandemic, and he did background interviews and extensive archival research for the film.

He also contacted his old friend Matt when he learned that “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” needed a new associate editor, and he helped put Hixon in touch with the documentary’s production team.

“He asked me if I was interested in working on a documentary and I said, ‘Are you kidding? I’m very interested,’” Hixon said.

Hixon enjoyed the work in part because editors of documentaries “have an important role in shaping a film, in telling a story that’s right and true,” he said.

For her part, Munger says she got interested in doing animation work about 10 years ago, something that would be more “analog” and a departure from straight editing. “I’m interested in a kind of handmade aesthetic, something done with paper and flowers,” she said.

Munger met Sara Dosa through another documentarian, Cecilia Aldarondo, who Munger was working with. Dosa was looking for a specific, paper-driven style of animation, Munger says, and Aldarondo, a friend of Dosa, shared some of Munger’s work with her.

Munger’s effects, such as moving paper columns of volcanic fire and ash, complement many scenes from “Fire of Love,” much of which is taken from film footage and photos the Kraffts shot themselves as they documented volcano eruptions — at very close range — all over the world in the 1970s and 1980s.

The couple died in 1991 when they were caught in a deadly cloud of hot ash and gases spewing from a Japanese volcano. But “Fire of Love” is not about tragedy: The story focuses on the love the couple shared for each other and their work. One reviewer calls the film “[a] poem of matrimony and magma.”

“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” directed by Laura Poitras, in turn is not a conventional documentary, Hixon says. It’s something of a profile of Goldin, now 69, who had a history of activism that preceded the opioid crisis.

The film chronicles Goldin’s career as an edgy photographer as well as her own descent into opioid addiction several years ago after she took OxyContin following surgery. Goldin ended up leading protests against the Sackler family outside many museums the family had donated money to — including museums that exhibited her photography.

Amid the pre-Oscar excitement — Hixon and Stevens both plan to be in Los Angeles next weekend — local connections still matter. Hixon and Stevens are now part of a team doing preliminary work on a documentary about the late experimental lesbian filmmaker Barbara Hammer.

And Hixon said he wanted to give a shout-out to his father, David, the former Amherst College basketball coach who was recently announced as one of 12 finalists for 2023 for induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfiel d.

“Way to go, Dad,” he said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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