CWU News

CWU Student Film a Finalist in International Documentary Challenge

Group photo of CWU students and Dave and Evelyn Jones

Five film and video students at Central Washington University in Ellensburg are headed to Toronto this week for the world premiere of their seven-minute documentary. The short film, Spirit of the West, was produced over five days and is one of 12 that made the final cut in the International Documentary Challenge. At least 120 films from all over the world were entered in the contest.

The crew, made up of Johnathan Benson, Dylan Hubber, Seth Lonborg, Emily Meyer, and Kevin O’Donnell, was sponsored by Jon Ward, a film and video studies lecturer at CWU and owner of Clearwater Studios in Ellensburg. Ward has been a finalist in the International Documentary Challenge, or Doc Challenge, twice before and has won the contest once.

“I was there to offer support,” Ward said. He provided equipment, helped the crew brainstorm, and offered editing advice.

In the Doc Challenge filmmakers have five days to make a nonfiction film between four and seven minutes long. This year’s challenge was from February 26-March 2. The content is dictated by genres and a theme that aren’t revealed to the filmmakers until the challenge begins. The top 12 films, picked by a panel made up of experienced directors, producers, filmmakers, professors, and other industry professionals, premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival in Toronto on May 1. The winners are announced after the premiere.

The CWU team’s short documentary takes place at the Spirit Therapeutic Riding Center southeast of Ellensburg. Emily Meyer, the crew’s producer and main interviewer, was tasked with cold calling Spirit owner Evelyn Jones to ask if she and her family, clients, volunteers, and horses would mind being the subject of a documentary—one that potentially would be screened across the globe.

“She was like, ‘Why not have these strangers I’ve never met before come over,’” Meyer said, recalling the reaction from Jones. “She was like, ‘We’re not very interesting people, but you can come.’”

The crew was at the riding center that evening to meet Evelyn and Dave Jones. The next day was a test day for the crew to check out the facility and make sure the horses were comfortable with the cameras and equipment. The following day was a marathon of shooting—from about 5:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. the crew gathered its footage.

Each student was assigned a position. Meyer was producer and interviewer, Seth Lonborg was the director, Kevin O’Donnell was director of photography, and Johnathan Benson and Dylan Hubber were editors. And every member of the team shared roles, such as operating the camera and audio equipment.

“We all just worked well together,” Lonborg said. “We were on the same page.”

As they were shooting, the story was still developing.

“I didn’t realize we had a story until the final interview with Evelyn,” O’Donnell admitted.

Ward is proud of the group for taking the challenge seriously and trusting the creative process.

“Your senses kick in and you’ve got to go where they lead you,” Ward said about finding the story.

Back in the editing room, the filmmakers dumped the footage into the computer and backed up their work.

“We decided to get a good night’s sleep,” Hubber said.

Then came a marathon editing session. The first cut of the film was 25 minutes long.

“We knew what the story was, but we were still finding it in the editing room,” Hubber said. “Being able to take six minutes and 40 seconds and cut everything else was hard. ... Even though we had to cut it down ... we made the best film that we could.”

The team uploaded the final product with one hour to spare. Two weeks passed before the crew was notified of its finalist status. They’ve all booked airfare to Toronto and rented an apartment two blocks from the theater where their film will premiere.

“Something like this is a moment to celebrate with your peers. Other people see your work. It allows you to feel like a professional filmmaker. It’s to promote your product and yourself,” Ward said about the film festival. “Maybe something really unexpected will happen.”

More than 20 awards will be handed out at Hot Docs. The grand-prize winner receives $1,000 and free registration in next year’s Doc Challenge. The final films also are considered for national broadcast on PBS and will be screened on a festival circuit.

A separate component of the Doc Challenge is “the making of” contest where Doc Challenge participants upload a separate short film that is a behind-the-scenes cut of the five-day filmmaking process. To get a sense of what it was like for the CWU team to compete in the Doc Challenge, watch their behind-the-scenes video at Search for Spirit of the West.

PHOTO: Dave and Evelyn Jones, sitting center, pose for a photo with Central Washington University film and video students (from left) Kevin O'Donnell, Dylan Hubber, Seth Lonborg, Emily Meyer, and Johnathan Benson at the Spirit Therapeutic Riding Center in Ellensburg. Dave and Evelyn Jones own and operate the riding center, which was the subject of the students' short documentary, "Spirit of the West," which is a finalist in the International Documentary Challenge and will premiere Thursday in Toronto.

Media contact: Barb Arnott, CWU Public Affairs, 509-963-2841,

April 29, 2014