Documenting History

This month’s Iowa Alumni Magazine feature article chronicles how Churchill Roberts, 72PhD, came to make his latest documentary The Last Flight of Petr Ginz. In the film, he evocatively depicts how a young dreamer courageously did what he did best until his untimely end while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. Since his graduation Roberts has dedicated his life to recounting important historical events and issues.

Churchill Roberts has traveled all over the world to make award-winning films of enormous historical significance—but he got his start at the University of Iowa.

In the 1970s, while studying under Sam Becker, 47BA, 49MA, 53PhD, at Iowa for his doctorate in communications, Roberts met and was inspired by Charles Guggenheim, 48BA, a four-time Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker. Roberts became “hooked” on visual storytelling and produced his first documentary—Keep Your Trash, about the assassination of Martin Luther King—while at the UI.

Since then, he’s addressed important issues like civil and human rights and social justice through documentaries including:

Giving Up the Canal (1990)—how the United States handed over control of the Panama Canal;

Campaign for Cuba (1992)—exploring a powerful Cuban-American exile group’s influence on American foreign policy;

Last Days of the Revolution (1994)—examining the 1990s economic crisis that drove many Cubans to America;

Freedom Never Dies: The Legacy of Harry T. Moore (2001)—the life and death of a civil rights activist;

Negroes With Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power (2006)— the story of a polarizing force in America’s fight for civil rights; and

Angel of Ahlem (2007)—about a former G.I.’s friendship with survivors of a Nazi concentration camp he helped liberate.

Roberts’ work has been funded and screened by major organizations including PBS, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Freedom Forum, and the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

Since 1997, Roberts has been a professor at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communication in Gainesville, Fla. He also served as co-director of the school’s nationally ranked graduate filmmaking program, The Documentary Institute, before statewide budget cuts led to its transfer in 2010 to Wake Forest University. Funding for independent documentaries is harder to find than ever before, yet Roberts is undeterred. Among other future projects, he hopes to make a film about Chinese youth using social media to accomplish social change in their country.

Says Roberts: “I hope that my work offers a chance to make a difference, to bring about change and understanding.

Read more about Roberts’ latest documentary here.

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