A chance conversation in the campus dining hall changed the course of Joe Jones’ life. After two years at Central, Jones ’98 was considering a return to his native Chicago to study filmmaking and directing when he met Naji Naufal ’98. Also interested in filmmaking, Naufal had enrolled at Central as an international student from West Africa, though originally from Lebanon.
“I chose Central for two reasons: first, I had family in Pella (mathematics professor Leland Graber was his uncle) and second, because Central was known to be a very good liberal arts college,” Naufal recalls. He chose to pursue filmmaking by majoring in communications and theatre, a route he described convincingly to Jones when they first met.
“I was on the verge of transferring when I had that chance conversation with Naji,” Jones remembers. He said ‘don’t leave to study film.’ He convinced me to stay and study communications, education and theatre. He changed my route.”
“After that conversation, Naji and I got closer. We talked passionately about art forms, seeing the interrelationships between photography, acting, music, and how cinema is an aggregate of those particular art forms. We talked about philosophy and life.”
“Naji was really my first film teacher,” Jones credits. “We checked out films from the Media Center and critiqued them. We moved into the townhouses as suitemates and would stay up ’til 1 a.m. watching foreign films. As an international student, he was my introduction to foreign film and those important perspectives.” The two also began making their own short films, using 90’s equipment from the Media Center that both acknowledge today was “crude by comparison.”
“Cameras at that time recorded to VHS,” Jones recalls, “so we had to dub in order to edit. It was a cumbersome process that could take three weeks or more. Now with digital, you can create and edit a five-minute short within hours, compared to weeks in the old format.”
Still, Naufal remembers that the friends “really supported each other and pushed one another to dream big.”
Cut to Dreams Realized
Those big dreams have led both to full-time film careers: Jones as a documentary artist based in Chicago and Naufal as a multimedia producer based in Beirut.
After graduating from Central, Jones completed an M.F.A. at Columbia College, where he taught film studies. He also taught digital photography, graphic design and other visual design courses at The International Academy of Design and Technology.
“I found that it was difficult to work as an artist with the demands of teaching. I also worked in music production and started a small business for entertainment venues. That’s where I cut my teeth as an entrepreneur. Now I’m producing films independently and with In the Light Studios in Chicago as an independent artist,” Jones says.
“I chose documentary, instead of narrative filmmaking, to be the eyes and voice for other people. Documentary is live, and you are capturing the situation in its fullness, in the moment, in the process of discovery. The role of the documentarian or storyteller is to spread awareness so others understand a particular issue or situation, to incite change and empathetic response. I like to call it spontaneous composition. You compose as you go, adding artistic principles to real life. There is no luxury of preconceived shots. The empathetic response you will get from storytelling depends on the way you edit,” he explains.
Jones’ most recent work carries a strong social justice theme. “I like to tell stories for the voiceless, those who might not be able to tell their own stories,” he says, as he talks about “But Not Forgotten,” a feature-length documentary expected to be released this fall about a mother’s quest to find the truth behind her son’s mysterious death.
“When I was first introduced to this, I could see how the family was facing obstacles to get to the basic truth and awareness. We are telling the story of the mother’s courage and persistence, to get an intimate understanding of what family and friends have been through. We want to show what’s really going on behind the scenes and provide insight in order to effect change. The way I approach the story has to be objective, which is ironic because I feel strongly about the injustice.”
Naufal produces feature documentaries and communication campaigns that include TV commercials, billboards and 2D/3D animations. He also produces the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beirut International Film Festival and leads the festival’s film selection committee. His Beirut festival work recently took him to the renowned Festival de Cannes in France, where he networked with film distributors and other festival organizers.
“I have made my home in 27 places around the world. After graduation, I had to do compulsory military service for a year in Lebanon. As soon as I was done with the service, I enrolled in an intensive film directing program at the New York Film Academy. By the end of 2000 I was back in Lebanon where I taught theatre for all grades (K-12) in an American school in Beirut,” Naufal relates. “In 2003, I began work as a TV commercials producer and later focused on producing documentaries and political campaigns. Now, my wife Nora and I produce short documentaries and TV segments for French national TV stations. We just finished a TV pilot for a fashion program, and we are also in the middle of a communication campaign for the French Embassy in Beirut to encourage more parents to enroll their children in French-speaking schools.”
Calling it a Wrap
- To aspiring filmmakers Naufal would give much the same advice he gave Jones in 1996. “The richness of a filmmaker’s experience is directly related to the richness of the film he/she makes.
- Read as many books as possible. There is nothing better than books to truly educate us in the art of storytelling and character development.
- Watch as many films, from as many countries as possible. It’s the best way to study editing, rhythm, music and visual composition.
- Study acting and theatre. Understanding the dichotomy of a character’s motivation and how to block a scene are all major theatrical tools that are a must in film.”
Jones concurs with his friend’s advice and adds from his own experience, “Pursuing a career in the arts is challenging. If you love it, stay committed. Continue to master your craft. Keep learning and growing. There’s an infinite amount to learn. Have as broad an education as you can because what fuels art is not just skill, but the wisdom, ideology, philosophy and will behind it that make it great.”
Naufal says, “Central College was the best experience for me. The kindness, generosity and openness of everyone, from the first day, I just don’t know that I could have found anywhere else. The quality of the faculty was exemplary. I remember a faculty member telling a group of international students during orientation that ‘you have a bigger scope; you have to reach out to others who may not have that experience.’ That’s how Joe and I connected.” And it’s how the producer pair reconnected, across decades and continents, through the lens of cinematography.
Central in the Credits
Another of Jones’ documentaries prompted Central connections to reunite the longtime friends. Jones returned to campus last spring to screen “Lakay,” his documentary about two brothers from Chicago who return to Haiti to reunite with family after the 2010 earthquake.
At the campus screening, professor of theatre Mary Jo Sodd recalled her former students’ close friendship and asked Jones if he had been in touch with Naufal recently. He hadn’t, but Sodd’s inquiry spurred him to reach out to Naufal.
“When I reconnected with Naji after years apart, we had so much to talk about; we talked for nearly an hour. We would like to collaborate now that we are both producing,” Jones says. “Producing allows you to choose your own projects and decide what stories to tell.”
Naufal, too, was grateful for the Central reconnection prompted by Sodd. “Hearing from Joe really took me back,” he said. “It was like yesterday because of our true friendship. Dr. Sodd remains a mentor. The values I saw in her I use every day. She always gave you the chance but asked you to be very frank with yourself about what you could and could not do, which is a good life lesson. I remember her saying ‘you should never tell someone they are good just to give them a response. That may not be good for their life.’”
For Jones, professor of sociology Jon Witt was an early influence. “His passion for sociology had an effect on me. I was curious and began to see why he was so passionate about human behavior in the larger context. Faculty members Steve Ybarrola (sociology) and Art Johnson (English) also influenced my approach to filmmaking. Ybarrola helped me develop understanding of the nuances of different cultures, while Art Johnson taught me how to observe the nuances of people. Both skills have helped with my writing, character development and approach to multimedia work,” he says.