“Go Meet a Stranger”
Faculty Focus: Denise Bennett
In 1936, Mark Calnon, a farm boy from Meridian, Idaho, left his hometown for his first big adventure to study agriculture at the University of Idaho. As his senior year approached, so did a world war. Volunteering, he became a pilot flying a B-17 over Europe. After eight missions, Calnon was shot down and captured by the Germans and sent to a prison camp, where he witnessed one of the greatest escapes of the war.
"Someone should interview you," Bennett, a documentary filmmaker and professor in the University of Idaho's School of Journalism and Mass Media, told Calnon after hearing his story.
Calnon is Bennett’s step-grandfather, and she discovered the details of his life while she was attending a family funeral. Busy with several other projects, Bennett did not intend on embarking on a new film, but knew she had to tell his compelling story.
“He’s part of the Greatest Generation. It’s important to share their stories because we are losing these people — and it’s an Idaho story,” she said. “After World War II, he came back and worked as an extension officer for UI in Ada County. Also his wife died unexpectedly and he ended up being a single dad. He had a really interesting life.”
Sharing the interesting and often extraordinary lives of real people is what attracts Bennett to documentary filmmaking.
“There’s more freedom in documentaries (than fiction), which is strange because it’s real, but you are more independent and it’s fun to search for the story,” Bennett said.
The search in Calnon’s case is a bit of a departure from her previous work.
In her award-winning documentary “Pups,” a coming-of-age film about the lives of the Gonzaga Prep football team from 2005-08, she shot action as it unfolded and it had an uncertain outcome: Were they going to win or lose? “The fun of making it is not knowing what’s going to happen,” she said.
The Calnon film is different.
“This is historical. I know how it ends,” Bennett said. “So I need to make this visually interesting beyond a talking head, so I’m going to D.C. to look through the national archives to find things I can incorporate into the film.”
Due to his age and health, Bennett also decided to film Calnon’s interviews first — and is grateful she did. Her step-grandfather passed away in the spring of 2015. Now, in addition to public archives, she will be relying on family documents, letters, postcards and records to pull it all together.
Although she met Calnon toward the end of his life, Bennett credits her art form for getting to know him or any of her subjects.
“The camera is an excuse for me to get involved in worlds I would otherwise never be a part of,” she said.
Bennett encourages her UI students to use the camera in the same way — to be fearless and explore unfamiliar and uncomfortable worlds.
“I get a lot of students who want to make films about how hard it is being a student — but I tell them, ‘Go meet a stranger. Get them to trust you. People you have never met will tell you the most amazing things,’” she said.
Once the Calnon film is completed, a digitized version, a transcript of his oral history, his personal papers and memorabilia from WWII will be donated to the UI Library Special Collections for future generations of scholars to access and research. See the Calnon Archive in Special Collections.