Documentary students learn from his experience
By Vicki Hildner
Turn on the television and you might get hooked by a film about a man recreating Stonehenge in Nebraska—with old cars. Perhaps you can’t stop watching the video of geocachers looking for buried treasure around the world. Or maybe you find yourself captivated by a documentary that follows two women with lung cancer as they prepare to die.
In every case, you would be watching the work of College of Arts and Media (CAM) Associate Professor David Liban, MFA. And even though his degree reflects his education, Liban might prefer to be known by three simple words that often follow his name: Producer/Director/Editor.
Liban produced “Mortal Lessons,” an Emmy Award-winning film that turns death into an educational experience, after his own father died.
“Once I had my own children I started asking ‘What happens if I die?’ I became curious about exploring death, and that’s what led to this film.”
In “Mortal Lessons,” Liban used an intimate and innovative approach to encourage people to see death as not just a clinical process but a personal one.
“One of the women in the documentary was facing her death without an ounce of self-pity. While the healthy people around her felt sorry for themselves, she danced around the room. She just wanted to live long enough to see Barack Obama elected and inaugurated.”
The Backstory: Clay Animator to Businessman to Teacher
Liban remembers making his first film after seeing “Star Wars” when he was 11. Creating his characters using clay and filming with a Super 8 camera, he imagined himself another George Lucas.
“From the beginning, I lived and breathed making movies. I had delusions I was doing important work. But looking back on it, you wouldn’t get anything done if you didn’t have delusions.”
After college, Liban started his own video production business.
“The thing you learn with your own business is that you have to say ‘yes’ to any project that comes along, whether you have any passion for it or not,” he said. His business thrived, but he didn’t just want to make other people’s projects—he wanted to make his own. To do that, he knew he would need to return to graduate school.
When Liban arrived at Brooklyn College, he says, “I realized how much I didn’t know.” Two years later, he left with an MFA in his pocket and a new passion for teaching. His academic career took him around the country until he landed a position at CAM’s Department of Theatre, Film & Video Production.
“[At the University of Colorado Denver,] I sometimes have students who have more talent than I do,” he said.
The Filmography: Transcending Classification
Liban has directed and produced more than a dozen films. In August 2011, Rocky Mountain PBS aired his documentary, “Roll On.” For this production, Liban collaborated with the muscle clinic at Children’s Hospital Colorado. He profiled young people, ages 4 to 18, who are wheelchair bound because of neuromuscular diseases like muscular dystrophy.
“We might think of these kids as victims of a disease,” Liban said, “but I wanted this film to show that our perceptions are often wrong. They do not see themselves as victims.”
Liban’s favorite of his films, “Carhenge: Genius or Junk” (2005), looks at the love-hate relationship that residents of Alliance, Neb., have with a whimsical replica of Stonehenge built out of old cars. “Geocache” (2007) follows a high-tech sport in which participants use a GPS to find items hidden around the world.
Currently, Liban is working on a film documenting the lives of people devoted to Shotokan karate.
The Future: Small Crews and Smart Students
Newly tenured, Liban plans to continue teaching during the school year and making films during the summer. He has no grand ambitions to head to Hollywood.
“I like documentary, because I can work with a small crew and pursue projects that are interesting to me,” he said.
And when he comes across students in CAM’s courses who have more talent than he does?
“I ask if I can hire them!”