June 29, 2023 | Matt Kucinski

Award-winning documentary filmmaker Sam Smartt works with a student in one of the studios at Calvin University.

The 2022-2023 academic year was a year of firsts for Calvin’s film and media program.

It marked the first year that every student-produced film from Advanced Media Production (COMM351) received a nomination for The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (NATAS) Michigan Chapter’s Student Production Awards.

It was also the first year that Calvin student-produced films won both the long-form and short-form fiction categories at NATAS.

And it was the first time two student documentary crews were invited to present their work at the FREEP Film Festival in Detroit, Michigan.

A record of excellence

While 2023 was a banner year, it wasn’t a far cry from what Calvin has come to expect from its film and media students.

“To have all the students in the fiction film course nominated for Emmys is incredible, they were in essence competing against themselves to win in Michigan,” said Kathi Groenendyk, chair of the communication department at Calvin University. “But this success is longstanding for us, we have a great record of acknowledgment for that work. Calvin is a smaller liberal arts school, but we hold our own with the larger institutions.”

While the students’ work is impressive, so too is their training and their trainers.

“We really do think that understanding how films work in terms of history, criticism, and the understanding of questions of life and society can deepen a student’s approach to filmmaking,” said Groenendyk. “So, when a student comes to the Advanced Media Production class, they already have this strong foundation that’s broad and deep, a foundation that’s prompted them to question and engage stories. And having that base paired with the technical opportunities they have and the close mentorship with faculty, that naturally produces great results.”

Both professor and practicing filmmaker

At Calvin, that proximity to professors and practitioners is one and the same. It’s a reason it's not surprising that Calvin students are consistently producing award-winning films, because so too are their professors.

Sam Smartt, associate professor of film and media at Calvin and director of Calvin’s master of arts in media and strategic communication, is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, whose films have been featured at festivals around the world, and whose most recent documentary Luminous will launch on “Kanopy” in August 2023.

Geert Heetebrij, assistant professor of film and media at Calvin, has wrote, produced, and directed feature films which have played at premiere film festivals, like Sundance. This past summer, he finished post-production on his new feature film Vronika starring Inbar Lavi, Jack Kesy, and Usman Ally. Heetebrij wrote and directed the film.

Unparalleled student experience

And the work professors are doing in industry isn’t slowing down. While Calvin places a premiere value on their teachers “teaching,” they also are clear they want them to continue their scholarship too. What this means is students are being taught by industry professionals who have a heart for teaching.

And that keeps students in the middle of the filmmaking process.

“Our professors are practicing filmmakers who are bringing students along on every step of that journey, modeling that work well and that shapes our student’s knowledge and approach to their own work,” said Groenendyk. “When a filmmaker produces a film, they pull in students to work on those professional films. Geert’s feature film had a number of students who were either paid workers or did an internship, and for Sam’s most recent documentary a number of students worked on that from start to finish.”

Expanding opportunities

And the opportunities will only increase with Calvin University and Compass College of Film and Media announcing this week that they have signed a Letter of Intent to develop a pathway in which students in Compass College’s innovative and nationally recognized film and media arts programs are being invited to transfer to Calvin University, becoming part of the institution's award-winning Department of Communication.

“Calvin and Compass are uniquely aligned in our missions to equip students to use their gifts to the glory of God,” said Wiebe Boer, president of Calvin University. “After an impressive year of student awards and faculty accomplishments in Calvin’s film and media major, we continue to evolve our vision for faith-centered storytelling across traditional and emerging platforms and mediums.”

While Calvin’s film and media facilities are state-of-the-art in many ways, the university will assume ownerships of Compass’ 29,000-square foot building in downtown Grand Rapids thus expanding the technology and space Calvin students will have access to in their career training.

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