Many university faculty members collaborate with one another on research or projects for the good of the community, but for Booker T. Mattison and Garland McLaurin, their collaboration draws on more creative elements—those of filmmaking.
Mattison, an assistant professor, and McLaurin, a lecturer, each are relatively new additions to the Department of Entertainment and Media Studies at Grady College, and the two graduates of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts knew that they wanted to work together on projects not just in the classroom, but outside, as well.
If their first collaboration, “Ungubani (Who Are You?)” is any indication, this is just the start of more films to come.
“It’s been a great relationship,” said McLaurin who worked as the cinematographer and a producer for the movie. “It’s been good to work with someone in the department who’s in the same creative space that you’re in and have that collaborative effort with a friend but also a fellow faculty member.”
“Ungubani” is gaining a lot of attention thanks to its acceptance at numerous film festivals, which are mainly virtual events since the pandemic. Festivals that the short 15-minute film has been accepted include the Harlem International Film Festival in New York City; the Deep in the Heart Film Festival in Waco, Texas; the Roxbury International Film Festival in Boston, Massachusetts; and the Cineodyssey Film Festival in Charlotte, North Carolina, among others.
There are also two Academy Award qualifying festivals that have accepted “Ungubani”—the St. Louis International Film Festival and the Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival—which means if it wins best short film at either festival, it will be eligible for an Academy Award nomination.
“Ungubani” won Best of Competition in the Narrative Category of the BEA Festival of Media Arts last spring.
Mattison and McLaurin explain that the film festival circuit provides extra visibility for films through added viewers and also a juried competition. Most importantly, it’s a showcase of what the filmmakers can do individually and collectively.
“It’s a business card that utilizes sound, performance, imagery and story,” according to Mattison. He also likens it to the NFL Combine: “The power brokers come to discover new talent.”
Like many other events in a pandemic world, Mattison, the director and a producer of the film, has been connecting with festival viewers over Zoom to discuss the messages of the film and answer questions.
“Ungubani” focuses on a young Black man who puts himself at risk to help a young white woman.
Mattison said he had been looking for a project to direct with McLaurin and when he read the script, he knew he wanted to be involved.
“The film is about identity, perception and race,” Mattison explained. “At the end, the characters are not who you think they are in the beginning. Viewers are constantly peeling back layers of the characters and come to realize that they can’t judge a book by its cover.”
Other advantages of the collaboration between the two faculty members are the benefits it brings to students. For instance, former students and now alumni Jacob Hale (AB ’18), Natalie Garcia (AB ’20) and Sheldyn Moore (AB ’20) served as the gaffer, director’s assistant and production assistant, respectively, on the film. Moore is now in the inaugural class of the MFA Film program.
Department of Theatre students Leah Merritt and Robyn Accetta acted in the film.
“I like to extend my pedagogy beyond the walls of the classroom. It’s one thing to tell the students how to make a film, but another to be able to show them how it is made. It’s really a great opportunity for them and us.”
“Ungubani” will be distributed early 2021 on the Urban Movie Channel.
Mattison and Garland’s work together is expected to continue. Mattison, who is known for his work as the screenwriter and director for the film adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s story “The Gilded Six Bits,” which aired on Showtime and McLaurin, who won a Peabody Award for “180 Days A Year Inside an American High School” and “180 Days Hartsville,” are currently working on a television series pitch.
“I’m basically Robin to his Batman,” McLaurin explained with a laugh.
In addition to teaching undergraduate film production classes, Mattison and McLaurin are also professors in the new Master of Fine Arts in Film, Television and Digital Media program.