DSU Film Students’ High Desert Chronicles Reveal the Secrets of the Desert
The desert has an energy and a mystery all its own. You never know what you’ll find there. For example, a high-quality documentary film festival in a tiny corner of Utah and a University film program producing professional, feature length documentary films. This year, DSU DOCUTAH International Documentary Film Festival™ offers 64 films, 5 special events and 4 DOCtalk™ sessions with filmmakers.

While DOCUTAH screens films from all over the world, its team also has a passion for our own part of the planet and the amazing people and stories that emerge from the challenges and benefits of living in and near the wilderness. The emptiness and starkness of the desert landscape brings out a different kind of creativity and drive in its inhabitants. Just as the animals and plants adapt, so do the people. It is for that reason that Phil Tuckett, Professor of Digital Film and Executive Director of DOCUTAH, and the students of the DSU film program decided to produce, the High Desert Chronicles for DOCUTAH, a series of films that spring from the environs of the desert Southwest.

Each year, the film students at Dixie State University work with professionals to produce films that tell those stories. “The petri dish for this whole project was a class I teach called Documentary Production. The creative process starts with a blank slate and the class begins to think of ideas. But they must think quickly. A 3-month semester does not allow for a lot of rumination,” said Phil Tuckett. “You can’t meander about and wonder about this or that. Decisions need to be made and acted on.”

Each class is capped at 15 students, who together produce a documentary for the DOCUTAH Festival each year. Each student, who finds a story, is required to pitch that idea to the class. The challenge, of course, is to make your idea interesting enough that others would give up their idea to produce yours. Students must also learn, understand and implement the practical applications of anything that is needed in the film business to bring any project to fruition.

“You are either asking for money, asking for equipment, asking for practical help. You’re always asking for something. So, in the case of our students, it starts out with asking the other members of the class to abandon their idea for the one you have,” said Tuckett.

“The first three or four years we did not quite formulate a strong enough concept to take it forward, not only for the 3 months where you get the first rough cut, but then to take that throughout the summer to prepare the film to be in DOCUTAH. I would not allow any of those films to be in DOCUTAH unless they were professional quality. We had one film idea that I really liked a lot. Judea Runs Through came up with an idea about a Navajo punk rock band called Black Fire. We went down to Flagstaff Arizona and we filmed them; we brought them here and they performed in the Electric Theater. We had lots of good elements in the can, and a few years later, we revisited that film at the Electric Theater with the Blackfire band again.”

Tuckett says despite even great ideas, not every idea comes to fruition. “It is a tricky thing. It is almost an alchemy. You have the good idea, you have the interviews and shots but how do you make it look like it was supposed to be done that way. As the film program builds momentum, as the program gets bigger and more students are available to take on responsibilities, Tuckett hopes that they can have the luxury of spending more time on each film shoot, which could help flesh out those stories.

He says one must be careful when you decide this is the film that you are going to devote a year of your life to. You want to be sure that it is something that you won’t get half way into and say, well I’ve wasted my time on that. “I still think Black Fire might still work but I did not want to do it myself because part of this is as a motivational tool for the student to say, I am not going to let it just sit there. I am going to go forward with it.

A perfect example of what happens when an idea and the content really works is My Father’s Highway, which was the first film which fit well into the idea of High Desert Chronicles. Tuckett felt that this film really tapped into an idea that came to great fruition.

“I broke my own rule on that one because usually I do not pitch an idea to the students. The project needs to be theirs. However, in that case, I did because I had always wanted to do that film since 1972, when my wife and I came back to St. George. I had been told there was a road through a slot canyon that was impassable, even on a horse, and now there was a four-lane highway on it. I always wondered where did that come from and who built it. The students were a little bit unfocused with their ideas and none of them really liked their own ideas so I suggested that one and we did it. It was a big hit at the Festival.

The next desert chronicle was The Devil and the Angel, a film about Kevin Lee, a master luthier who is working in the desert. Kevin is from the Southern Utah desert and as a master violin maker, he says if the violin wood is cured in a low humidity environment, when it is finished it can go to any place in the world. Creating the instrument in a dry climate actually increases the tonality of the violin according to Kevin. Violins which are made in higher humidity, when brought to a dry spot such as the desert, causes them to shrink and crack. Therefore, in our little corner of the wilderness, Kevin makes internationally renowned violins in the desert., which can be transported anywhere in the world.

“Then when we heard about the work that is going on at Dixie Regional medical center in the genetic cancer research and treatment. That really intrigued us, because when you think of the High Desert Chronicles, it could be an old coot with a mule looking for ore but it could just as easily be high tech too – therefore, a high desert chronicle. In 2016, that film, Moonshot through the Double Helix, became the third in our series produced by our students.”

In 2017, Tuacahn: Miracle in Padre Canyon, was the fourth in the series. The documentary intertwines the history of that magical place with a behind the scenes look at how the production of Shrek the Musical came together. “Using historical stills and film to reveal the story of the creation of Tuacahn Center for the Arts and Tuacahn Amphitheatre, we demonstrate what the founders first envisioned – that Padre Canyon could be more than just landscape – and then we bring the audience through the first audition and opening night for Shrek: The Musical,” continued Tuckett.

“I guess for me it’s a legacy. You look to what are you going to leave behind when you are all done with this. I had 38 years at NFL Films, really helping to create that genre, but I thought I had more to offer than making football films. Coming home to Dixie State University, I saw an open field of possibilities that had been constrained by being in corporate America. By making DOCUTAH part of DSU and bringing the students into direct contact with film professionals, I get to do what I love – making documentaries – and the students get real world experience of making films – shooting, editing, producing, meeting deadlines – while still in school. It does not get any better than that.”