Heston Summer Experience

Brian Kelley's African documentary wins breakthrough film award

Before he came to Gettysburg College, Brian Kelley '10 knew he would major in environmental studies, which had fascinated him for years.

What the San Francisco native didn't know was that he would discover a second passion -- filmmaking -- and that it would lead him to Botswana, where he produced a documentary so powerful that it earned him an award previously won by Ron Howard, Steven Spielberg, and Ken Burns.

Kelley's interest in filmmaking and the environment first came together when he took part in the college's GRAB experiential education program. He started by capturing footage of himself and other students rock climbing, kayaking, or hiking and creating short videos.

It was a course on environmental films and their impact on mainstream thought taught by Prof. Salma Monani during his sophomore year that took his combined passion to the next level.

"I watched films like King Corn or Planet Earth, and I was interested in how the filmmakers choose these topics and what they were saying about the environment," he said. "When I watched An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore, I kept asking myself, ‘How would the average person watching this movie see themselves fitting into these huge global issues? How do you get someone to feel vested enough in an issue to make a change?'"

Lion at waterKelley tried to answer that question by producing an environmental film of his own. His study abroad semester in Botswana was the perfect time and place. In Fall 2008, he completed background research, honed his technical skills, and spent time with classmate Atlang Mompe ‘10, a Botswana citizen who helped him learn about her country and its environmental issues.

"I had an independent study at the end of the Spring 2009 semester for six weeks that allowed me to do my shooting," Kelley said. "Botswana has large pockets of wilderness. There are 1.2 million people in a country the size of Texas with communities at the edge of or in the wilderness. I was interested in filming wildlife and conservation issues that result from this closeness."

His 65-minute film, On the Fence," focuses on the construction of a 480-kilometer electric fence along Makagidkadi Pans National Park in Botswana. It offers a complex portrait of three individuals working in community-based ecotourism. After the local community built the fence to reduce human-wildlife conflict, the three main characters discovered a new conservation perspective suggesting the local communities take down the fence not only in the park, but also in their minds.

"While this film is based on an issue in Africa," Kelley said. "The basic essential ideas of this film can be applied to communities everywhere on a local level."

Kelley debuted his film in Spring 2010 at the Majestic Theater in Gettysburg to a packed audience and much praise. But the most significant recognition came this past November when he was awarded a CINE Golden Eagle Award.

CINE Golden Eagle Awards are given for excellence in professional, independent, and student filmmaking, and are recognized internationally as symbols of the highest standards in film and television production. Kelley joins a stellar list of award-winners, such as Ron Howard, who was a teenager when he won; Steven Spielberg, who won as a young director; Ken Burns, who was a budding documentarian; and John Lasseter, who won as a pioneering animator whose Pixar Animation Studios was then in its infancy.

Kelley was one of seven student winners out of hundreds of submissions judged by industry professionals. His film is now a nominee for the CINE Award of Excellence, given to CINE's top student film of 2010, which will be announced this spring.

Currently pursuing a master of fine arts in film and electronic media at American University's Center for Environmental Filmmaking in Washington, D.C., Kelley hasn't let the critical acclaim for his first film get in the way of his continued learning and passion for filmmaking.

kayakingHe interned with National Geographic during his first semester of graduate school in the CritterCam department, where terrestrial and marine animals are fitted with cameras to capture their point of view without humans around. Kelley worked on editing and post-production, creating a couple videos for their website.

"I'm currently thinking about my thesis project and I'd like to do focus on a domestic environmental issue," Kelley said. "Often times, when we watch films that are based in places that are ‘far away,' we don't fully consider how that influences us here in the United States."

Whatever he chooses, the future of Brian Kelley is surely one that is as bright as the lights that come on in the theater at the end of film.


By: Kendra Martin, director of media relations & news content

Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Posted: Thu, 24 Mar 2011

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