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Get to Know documentary filmmaker Paul Stekler

Paul Stekler was appointed chair of the Department of Radio-Television-Film this month. Through 10 questions, you’ll learn about Stekler’s documentary filmmaking career, what he was doing before academia and which documentary films he recommends as “must-see.”

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Paul Stekler was appointed chair of the Department of Radio-Television-Film this month. Stekler, who’s taught documentary film production at The University of Texas at Austin since 1997, becomes the first working filmmaker to head the prestigious department, which boasts highly ranked graduate programs in both film production and in media studies.

A critically honored filmmaker, Stekler’s documentaries on American politics and history include “George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire,” winner of a Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Award; “Vote for Me: Politics in America,” winner of an Emmy, a duPont-Columbia Journalism Award and a Peabody Award; “Last Man Standing: Politics, Texas Style,” aired on PBS’s P.O.V. series in 2004, two of the “Eyes on the Prize” civil rights history films; and “The Choice,” PBS’s Frontline series film on the Obama-McCain election, which was seen by an audience of more than 10 million. He is in production on an ITVS (PBS’s Independent Television Service)-funded film about New Orleans five years after Katrina, “Getting Back to Abnormal.”

His documentary students have won numerous honors including student academy awards (Ruth Fertig’s “Yizkor” in 2010 and Laura Dunn’s “Green” in 2001), have had their thesis films broadcast nationally on PBS’s Independent Lens series (Diane Zander-Mason’s “Girl Wrestler” in 2004 and Heather Courtney’s “Los Trabajadores” in 2003), won University Co-op/George H. Mitchell Undergraduate Awards for Academic Excellence (Lauren Banta in 2003, Jeremy Liebman in 2005 and Keeley Steenson in 2010), and have earned national attention for their film work (Ben Steinbauer’s “Winnebago Man” opened theatrically in New York City and Los Angeles this summer, and PJ Raval was the cinematographer on the Oscar-nominated “Trouble the Water”).

1. You studied government in college. What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

When I was in graduate school for political science, a friend introduced me to Ricky Leacock, one of the father’s of American verite documentary filmmaking. Ironically, he showed me a film called “Crisis,” about George Wallace’s standing in the schoolhouse door in 1963, barring African American students from enrolling in the University of Alabama. I sat there stunned by the film. And years later, 22 years actually, I used some of that some footage in my film “George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire”!

2. Where did you get your training as a filmmaker?

I got my training on the job, making my first films. But after teaching at The University of Texas at Austin for 14 years, I wish I’d have had the opportunity to go to a program like this and get trained for real. I would have reached a level of good filmmaking a lot quicker than I did on my own!

3. Who are some of your heroes in filmmaking and why?

Quite frankly, my colleagues and students. It’s so hard to make films, harder to raise money in this economy and in a 500-channel universe. For folks making documentaries, they’re running on passion and commitment. That they make the films they do is amazing.

4. Do you have any must-see documentary films to recommend?

There are so many. “Man on Wire.” “To Be and to Have.” “Nobody’s Business.” “Sherman’s March.” “Hoop Dreams.” And so many more.

5. Tell us about your career before entering academia.

I was in a lot of bands. Got a license as an emergency medical technician. Drove a taxi for a week in New York City, while doing construction. Worked a few political campaigns (as a pollster in Louisiana in the 1980s). Waited tables in a ski resort in Utah. Went door to door doing surveys in Seattle. I’m probably forgetting something.

6. What inspired you to enter academia?

I love politics and wanted to study it.

7. What sets the university’s Department of Radio-Television-Film apart from other programs in the country?

We have both a top-ranked production program and one of the best media studies programs in the country, all in the same department. We have great, well-known teachers. And we have a diverse student body. This is one of the best media departments in the country and being at a state university, you do not have to be rich to be enrolled in it. I would match our filmmakers and our media scholars up with any program out there in the U.S.

8. As chair, what are some of your goals for the department?

Just to improve on what we’re already doing. And to get more attention of the excellent work that our students and our faculty are achieving.

9. What are your favorite courses to teach?

Teaching students how to make documentary films. I also love teaching my LBJ School American political campaigns class with Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News.

10. You’re passionate about politics. What role, if any, will you play in the months leading up to the Nov. 2 election?

I’m tied up with being chair and making a new film in New Orleans (“Getting Back to Abnormal,” about the city five years after Katrina, being made with the guys I made “Vote for Me: Politics in America” with), so I’m going to sit back and enjoy watching this election cycle.