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Professor-produced documentary Peace Officer wins Grand Jury award at SXSW film festival

BYU Media Arts professors Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber teach a common theme in their film classes — empathy.

“Documentaries in particular are called empathy machines,” Barber said. “It helps us to see the world through other people’s eyes and empathize with those who have different experiences from us.”

That theme of empathy is found throughout Christopherson and Barber’s award-winning documentary Peace Officer. The documentary’s success adds to a growing list of awards and international recognition for recent films produced by students and professors in the BYU Media Arts department:

Peace Officer

  • Grand Jury winner, Audience Award winner at South By Southwest Film Festival
  • Kathleen Bryan Edwards Award for Human Rights, David Carr Award, and Audience Award winner at Montclair Film Festival
  • 75 independent screenings nationally with a premiere on PBS in May


  • Students’ screenwriting class project was selected as one of only 50 entries to screen in the competitive New York Television Festival.   

The Surface

  • Best Student Film winner at Miami International Science Fiction Film Festival
  • Best Short Film Production Design, Best Emerging Director at Other Worlds Austin Film Festival

TMA department chair Wade Hollingshaus attributes the recent achievements to the caliber of both students and faculty in the media arts program.

“The TMA media faculty are dedicated to fostering filmmaker artists, those that have something to say and also the expert skill by which to say it,” said Hollingshaus. “I’m always impressed with the degree to which the media faculty work with students to integrate critical thinking into their production work.”

Making Peace Officer

Exploring the question of whether local police departments are over-militarized, Peace Officer focuses on recent Utah cases where a shooting death resulted from a police confrontation.

But what makes the documentary particularly unique is its central character William “Dub” Lawrence. Elected as sheriff in Davis County in the mid 1970s, Lawrence founded his department’s SWAT team. Thirty years later Lawrence’s son-in-law was killed by the Davis County SWAT team after a domestic-disturbance call escalated to a standoff.

The documentary follows Lawrence as he investigates other cases in Utah where police officers pulled the trigger. Christopherson and Barber didn’t initially intend to make a big issue-driven film, according to Barber. The pair was interested in Lawrence’s personal story and the documentary took off from there.

Directors of Peace Officer (l-r) Scott Christopherson
and Brad Barber.
Photo by Tim Irwin.

“Our goal for Peace Officer now is to make a film that will ignite discussion to make the lives of both officers and citizens more safe,” Christopherson said. “The whole film is through the lens of this guy who knows both worlds.”

Peace Officer won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury award winner at the South By Southwest Film Festival in 2015. It has received several other film festival recognitions, and earned Christopherson and Barber a place on Variety Magazine’s “10 Documakers to Watch” list. An impressive accomplishment for two professors making their feature directing debuts.

Additionally, Peace Officer has been heavily endorsed by actor Alec Baldwin, who chose to screen the documentary as part of the Hamptons International Film Festival SummerDocs Series.  Starting in April, PBS’s documentary series Independent Lens is hosting 75 independent screenings of Peace Officer around the country. A broadcast of the film will air on PBS May 9, 2016. The documentary also has a score of 100 percent on popular movie review website Rotten Tomatoes.

“We didn’t originally plan to spark so many discussions, but it’s been very rewarding,” said Barber. “We both believe in the power of documentaries as a catalyst for conversations that can lead to meaningful change in our society.”

Christopherson and Barber, who are also both alumni of BYU’s media arts program, filmed Peace Officer over two summers while they weren’t teaching classes. The professors also mentored several students who assisted in making the documentary.

Watch the trailer for the documentary and find more information about screenings on the Peace Officer website


Beyond the classroom

An entire class of BYU media arts students recently found footing in the television industry for their classwork in a course nicknamed “the Writer’s Room.”

Each semester, the TMA department teaches a class centered around screenwriting for television. Students apply for the class with writing samples; and once accepted, the group spends the duration of the semester producing a workable script for a single-season television show or web series.

“The purpose of the Writer’s Room is to learn from being edited by peers and professionals,” said Professor Tom Russell. “I love teaching it because I’m reminded of the keen intelligence and creativity of the students here. They seem to make up for their lack of experience with creativity.”

During Fall semester 2015, the TMA department asked Russell and his students to film a pilot episode from one of their projects. The chosen project was a show called Beyond, a story about a Midwestern town affected by a mysterious plant root that causes strange behavior in people who eat the root.

Using crew of nearly 80 students, the group completed the pilot in 11 days during the Fall 2015 semester working with a tight deadline. Typically, a professional preproduction would extend months, the media students did it in five weeks.

“Making a TV show is like flying by the seat of your pants,” said Matt Siemers, a senior at BYU and producer of Beyond. “I learned how to write with a large group of people and see the end from the beginning.”    

Wanting to teach students how to create a piece of work in its entirety from inception to pitching a completed piece, Russell submitted the class’s finished project to the highly competitive 2015 New York Television Festival. The festival received more than 2,000 entries and only accepted 50. Beyond was one of those 50 accepted entries.

While attending the festival, most filmmakers were surprised to learn Beyond was a student project tied to a class, according to Siemers and fellow student director, Hunter Phillips.

“It was the first movie I’ve ever done that wasn’t made in my backyard,” Phillips said. “The project overall made me feel more prepared and it’s good to see what we can do as students.”


Scratching The Surface

In addition to their media arts coursework, many students in the program are additionally working on their own personal projects and collaborating with others to further develop the skills they acquire throughout their degree.

BYU Senior Willem Kampenhout said it can be difficult to balance time and resources between school, work, and individual projects, but the effort is worth it. Kampenhout has garnered quite the list of accolades for his senior capstone film The Surface.

BYU Senior Willem Kampenhout
directs a scene in The Surface.

The science fiction film follows a mother searching for a new power source to help her dying son in a post-apocalyptic world. Kampenhout developed this idea between semesters during winter break when he spent time with his own mother.

The Surface has been accepted into multiple film festivals where the piece has won Best Student Film (Miami International Science Fiction Film Festival), and Best Short Film Production Design attributed to fellow student Ashley Cook (Other Worlds Austin Film Festival). Kampenhout was also named Best Emerging Director at Other Worlds Austin.

At any given moment there were nearly 50 students working on The Surface, and several of those students have been nominated to receive honors for their work at the Utah Film Awards in late March.  

“Even in Dubai at the Original Narrative Film Festival people were blown away by what we accomplished as students with a limited number of resources,” Kampenhout said. “It’s true that you can make films on your own, but going to film school at BYU opens up a lot of doors to priceless education and networking opportunities.”

For more information about The Surface, visit its Facebook page  or website.