Alum-Directed Documentary Wins Grand Jury, Audience Prizes at South by Southwest

Monday, March 23, 2015
Still from Peace Officer

Three decades after William “Dub” Lawrence formed Utah’s first SWAT team, that same unit killed his son-in-law in a controversial standoff. Obsessed with bringing to light the truth behind the killing, the retired sheriff approached Cinema graduate Scott Christopherson about making a documentary. The resulting feature-length film, Peace Officer, won the Grand Jury and Audience prizes at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March.

Peace Officer focuses on the connection between the increase of military weaponry available to small-town police departments and the increase in officer-involved shootings. It explores several high profile cases across the country. A March 15 review on IndieWire praises Peace Officer as “a refreshingly objective and level-headed documentary that’s as culturally relevant as it is expertly paced and captivating.”

Christopherson and Brad Barber directed, produced and cinematographed the film. Renny McCauley, who earned his Master of Fine Arts in Cinema in 2012 in the same cohort as Christopherson, is editor.

Christopherson and McCauley were interested in the film because of the complexity of the topic. “I could see that [the issue] was complicated. … I knew you could make a film like that inflammatory, but Scott and I knew he would think about it in a deep way,” McCauley said.

Both have family connections to law enforcement. They found it important for the film to explore the topic of officer-involved shootings as a systemic problem, rather than just blame it on “bad cops.” Their intention was to make the film as fair as possible to all parties involved, an intention that helped convince law-enforcement officers to agree to speak to them.

McCauley indicated that the making of Peace Officer was an emotional process for them, especially due to the extensive research. The crew often found themselves reviewing the details of death records and violent police reports.

Both credit their experience in the Cinema Department with changing their outlook on film, stating they gained a strong sense of the power and responsibility of filmmakers. Christopherson mentions Professors Pat Jackson, Greta Snider, Britta Sjorgren and Bill Nichols as having been highly influential in his career as a filmmaker, helping develop his passion for storytelling, especially Sjogren. He also credits the program with influencing his interest in making films about social justice topics. Both added that serving as a teacher’s assistant is highly influential.

Christopherson and McCauley urge Cinema students to do their best to take advantage of all that State has to offer, especially the time and experience of the faculty.

“SF State shaped my worldview in so many ways,” Christopherson says. “I found myself thinking back to things I learned at SF State throughout this process. Thanks for all of your influences.”

Submarine Entertainment, which has represented Oscar-nominated documentaries such as Food Inc. and Man on Wire, has picked up Peace Officer for distribution sales. The crew recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign to compensate the many people who volunteered their time and energy toward the project’s completion. The film has also been submitted to about 20 other festivals including Hot Docs, Tribeca and Full Frame.

—Lynn Brown

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