Behind-the-scenes with John Fiege: DMS professor and filmmaker advocates for the environment
John Fiege has been pepper sprayed by police and has watched environmental activists chain themselves to the bottom of a truck.
But Fiege isn’t an activist.
He’s an award-winning filmmaker.
His documentaries –– which he creates to educate the public about social and environmental struggles –– focus on climate change, environmental injustice and culture, and highlight his passion for environmental conservation.
They’ve been screened at international film festivals, including Sundance, SXSW and Cannes and have brought home prizes. But they don’t always pay the bills and selling and marketing them can be wearing.
Fiege says a decade of working commercial projects to fund his independent documentaries left him drained and frustrated.
“It was a hard balance and one of the reasons I’m here in Buffalo is I got really exhausted by that,” he said.
Fiege, 44, joined UB’s Department of Media Study as a professor last semester after working part time at the University of Texas between 2003 and 2017. He enjoys the first-hand impact he has on students and likes to use his films as teaching tools. He also offers hands-on experience and incentives by using his classes to recruit students for his projects.
He encourages students to watch and analyze a lot of films as a tool to develop a direction for their own work and says he teaches his students the way he films.
“John is exactly what the media study department needed,” said Glenn Kicman, a senior media study major. “… He’s very knowledgeable and most importantly very approachable. He makes every class feel like a master class.”
Both in and outside of the classroom, Fiege is warm, down-to-earth and open to sharing his experiences and knowledge. He dresses casually, in a sweatshirt and a denim jacket and his office has ideas for scenes written on index cards stuck to the wall. It's also filled with equipment and computers equipped to edit his expansive library of footage.
With his own work, Fiege finds his stories in people. He is observant, empathetic and looks for moments of struggle and change.
“I start a project with an interest in a broad idea. But once I find that character who can carry the film, then I kind of let go a little bit in terms of what I'm intending for the film. And at that point, I'm just telling the story, no matter what happens.”
Fiege’s producer Christopher Lucas says working on socia documentary is a “labor of love;” a labor Fiege is able to provide.
“From the time I first met [Fiege], I saw he had a unique combination of skills and talents and I was really pleased to get to work with him, to learn from him and help him achieve his work and dedication to his subject,” Lucas said.
His interests in environmental issues and art came to him at different points in his life. Fiege loved art and film as a child and made films in high school as a hobby. But, as a young adult during the Cold War, he didn’t think a career in the arts was an option.
“Everything was about science, [and] ‘We need to beat the Soviets,’” Fiege said. “I feel like the culture was telling me science was legitimate and the humanities and arts aren’t really necessary.”
A seventh-grade trip to a bird reserve, where he found out about the decline in bird population due to pesticides, sparked Fiege’s interest in environmental issues. He later decided to study science, earning a bachelor’s in geology at Carleton College in Minnesota and a master’s in environmental history and cultural geography from Penn State.
But his “pressing need to communicate with a broader audience around these [environmental] issues” led him to pursue filmmaking.
“The problem isn’t science, we figured out the science,” Fiege said. “The problem is figuring out how to communicate the weight of this problem to a larger audience.”
So, he went back to school at the University of Texas, Austin to pursue a master’s in film in 2004. While he was in film school, his short film “Bebe” won a Kodak Award and was screened at the Cannes Film Festival.
He went on to win Best North American Documentary in the Global Visions Film Festival and a special jury prize at the Dallas International Film Festival in 2014, among others.
But he says his exposure to the films at Cannes inspired him. He realized the capacity of social documentaries to be “a vibrant art form” and strives to emulate that.
Working in the film industry hasn’t been easy after college, though.
The industry, he said, is tainted by celebrity culture, money and business. Romantic comedies, action and horror films and even porn bring in money. Films about the environment usually do not. “Things about problems in the world are not what people are often looking to see,” he said.
“The industry creates what the audience wants and doesn’t care about social issues.”
Fiege’s 2014 film, “Above All Else,” focuses on the controversy and activism surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline by TransCanada, which was built to transport Alberta tar from Canada into Texas.
He was inspired to pursue the project after over 1,000 protesters were arrested outside the White House for protesting the pipeline’s construction. Fiege lived in Texas at the time and said the pipeline was the “biggest environmental issue in the country.”
To film the documentary, Fiege followed activists who often broke the law. He has filmed protestors who chained themselves to the bottom of a truck, tree sat and tree hugged. He focused the story on David Daniel, who was losing his land to the pipeline. Fiege had to consult with lawyers and “skirt around the law to” make sure he wouldn’t get arrested or have his footage seized.
Fiege is currently working on “Raising Aniya,” a film which explores the issues of environmental justice, environmental racism and the impacts of oil in the Gulf Coast. Aniya, a dancer displaced from the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Harvey, encountered the effects of climate change and environmental injustice and Fiege decided to use dance and poetry to showcase her experience.
Adam Rome, professor of Environment and Sustainability at UB, was Fiege’s graduate advisor at Penn State. Rome served as an adviser on his film “Above All Else” and is now working on “Raising Aniya.”
“He immerses you in the lives of people facing hardship. You feel the heat, and you hear the wind moving through the trees. Though John never preaches, his films put you in the frontlines of social and environmental struggle,” Rome said.
Fiege has begun to expand his repertoire with photography and art installations, hoping that the medium makes just as much of an impact as his documentaries. “I’m hoping to create a bigger footprint with my work through media,” Fiege said.
Vindhya Burugupalli is a senior multimedia editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org on Twitter @moonhorizon__