Guy Walks Into a Theatre ...
Sean Lyness '11 recalls the movie that sparked a cinematic career
by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson
Sean Lyness '11 is production assistant at Motto Pictures, a production company that creates documentaries about social justice and global contemporary culture.
One evening in the fall of 2010, Sean Lyness '11 walked into a
movie theatre to see an acclaimed documentary. He emerged, 93 minutes later, as
a moviemaker-activist who today helps create razor-edge documentaries that cut
to the core of cultural and social-justice issues.
Lyness is a production assistant at Motto Pictures, a small,
New York independent-film company that has sent four films to major festivals
this year, including the Sundance Official Selection God Loves Uganda, the Tribeca Festival-winning The Kill Team and Manhunt, which premiered at Sundance and has aired on HBO and CNN. In April Lyness visited
campus to speak with current students about his budding cinematic career and shared
his thoughts about the movie that inspired it all.
Setting the bar
Growing up in New York in the wake of 9/11, Lyness was
keenly aware of global politics and cultures. He majored in Middle East studies
at Dickinson and interned as a media specialist in a defense-logistics firm in
Jordan, his sights set on a diplomatic or international-journalism career.
He also was a film buff and film-studies minor, and in the
summer of his junior year, he traveled to Uganda to shoot, direct and edit
short promotional videos for the Bicycles Against Poverty program. He began to
think about ways that film could be used to spark social change.
The following semester, the Carlisle Theatre screened Restrepo, an Academy Award-nominated
full-length documentary chronicling an Army platoon’s 14-month tour of duty in a dangerous outpost in Afghanistan. Lyness had been meaning to visit the
theatre for some time, and he decided to check it out. What he saw on that
silver screen blew him away.
“That movie was so emotionally raw, so intentional, so
dangerous, and I became completely obsessed with it,” said Lyness, who returned to the Carlisle Theatre to view it three times that week. “I couldn’t
believe how much access the filmmakers had—what they were able to capture, and
what they were able to convey. It set the bar for me. I wanted to do that too.”
Lyness went on to write, produce and direct an 18-minute
feature for his senior project, and several documentary projects followed, including
rough-cut editing of Raspo Warriors,
a documentary by Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Patricia Moonsammy on Trinidadian
and Tobagoan musical culture. After Commencement he worked as first-assistant director for
an independent feature film. Lyness joined Motto Pictures last spring.
On the hunt
Lyness’s first assignment was God Loves Uganda, a powerful, full-length documentary about the culture
wars that erupted when a group of American evangelical-Christian missionaries traveled to Uganda. The film encapsulates 200-300 hours of interviews
on two continents, representing the points of view of the church leaders who
sponsored the mission, the young missionaries and the Ugandans they
Lyness, still an undergraduate when the interviews were
shot, supplied b-roll of the mega-church movement—a task that required him to
scour the archives of outlets such as CNN, PBS and the BBC. “Basically, I was a
hunter of footage,” he said with a laugh. “The great part was discussing the
narrative and seeing the story take shape over time.”
The film premiered at Sundance last January and has garnered
awards at festivals around the world. It was recently selected for the AFI Docs
film festival, along with two other Motto Pictures, Gideon’s Army, slated to air on HBO this summer, and The Kill Team. Another Motto film, Manhunt, premiered at Sundance and has aired on HBO and CNN.
Asked what it was like to rub elbows with indie-film royalty
at Sundance, Lyness couldn’t suppress a smile. “It was probably the coolest
vacation you can imagine,” he said. He even had a chance for an in-depth talk with Sebastian Junger, one of the
interviewers who worked on the film Restrepo.
“It was incredible to be able to hear his perspective on a movie that was so
important in my life,” he said. “It was one of those full-circle moments.”
Looking ahead, he's inspired by new projects on the horizon, including consulting work for a documentary by Amitabha Joshi '11, a new graduate of the School of Visual Arts' social-documentary program. The film examines the plight of impoverished migrant workers from Mustang, Nepal.
“It is amazing
to be able to work with such talented people on projects that can make an
impact,” said Lyness. “I feel incredibly lucky.”