Professor Barber talked about finding empathy through his work and reassured students that they had a place here at BYU.
Theatre and Media Arts professor Brad Barber drew on his filmmaking experience to talk about empathy in February’s Faith and Works Lecture. Barber demonstrated how his journey led him to explore truth, belonging and diversity by explaining his background and work on documentary series, primarily his new project “States of America,”.
“The journey of faith that I’m going to try to describe is rooted in my documentary portraiture, documentaries about people,” Barber said. “The late film critic Robert Ebert famously said, ‘Movies are like a machine that generates empathy.’
“I think that’s also true for trying to make films. In other words, trying to operate this empathy machine invites us to increase our empathy as we’re trying to speak for the people whose stories we’re telling.”
Barber’s first cinematic influence came from his childhood when he watched home movies on 8mm film. The fleeting feeling of the home movies helped Barber cherish moving images about real people. Barber developed powerful feelings for uplifting media while in college. This sparked his desire to create media that could communicate with everybody and help them feel the Spirit.
Barber graduated from BYU, worked on films and documentaries and eventually went on to receive his MFA at the University of Southern California. Interacting with people from diverse backgrounds through these years opened Barber’s understanding about truth.
“I realized how arrogant I had been in what I thought about my understanding of truth,” Barber said. “I don’t think I was prepared for how much truth I could still be taught, especially by unbelievers. I began to investigate the idea taught by Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, that ‘we should search for truth wherever we may find it.’”
One of Barber’s first breaks came when he got the opportunity to work on the HBO documentary “Resolved.” The documentary is about high school debate as seen through the eyes of two African-American students in Long Beach, California.
“I learned about their direct experiences in a way I never could have if I had just been reading about it,” Barber said. “Having this camera in my hand allowed somewhat of a passport.”
Barber was hired by BYU soon after the HBO documentary. As a professor, Barber continued his work telling individual’s stories and getting his students to help out along the way. Barber started a documentary series in 2009 called “Beehive Stories.” This series told stories from one individual from every county and national park in Utah and finished production in 2016. This project gave him inspiration to do it on a larger scale, telling stories of an individual in every state. The project, called “States of America,” is still in progress, with 25 states filmed and eight published. One new state is released each month on the website.
In the process of making these documentary series, Barber explored the idea of home and belonging. As he discussed the project, he stressed the support and help he received from his wife, Susan Krueger-Barber, who collaborated with him on several of the states. He also touched on the experience he had working with fellow TMA alum Scott Christopherson (now a TMA faculty member) on one of the episodes. That experience led to them directing a feature documentary together called “Peace Officer,” which broadcast on PBS in 2016.
“I really believe making films about real people is a sacred act,” Barber said. “This idea of speaking on behalf of somebody — that’s such a special, delicate thing. Someone’s entrusting you to tell the rest of the world how they feel about something at a time when these stories can live virtually forever online. That responsibility is more important than ever.”
Barber shared two clips from “States of America” during the lecture. They highlighted each individual’s diverse experiences and their sense of home and belonging. Then Barber concluded his remarks by discussing diversity and, in particular, diversity here at BYU.
“You may have felt that to be good you have to be the same,” Barber said. “I don’t think that’s exactly true. All of my work filming these diverse people across the country has built my testimony on the expansiveness of truth and the goodness of humankind without diminishing my testimony in Jesus Christ.”
He continued, “I hope this presentation assures you in some way that your testimonies and your identities are not prescribed. They’re unique.” Barber reassured students that it is okay if they are examining how their testimonies have evolved — “it will become yours.” He gave reassurance to students that they could be different and belong, and are always welcome within the College of Fine Arts and Communications.
“This building here is special,” Barber said. “We love the arts and creative expression and we love Jesus Christ. You’re part of a family here.”
Lastly, Barber emphasized, “Above all, if you feel a little out of place in any respect, I want to assure you that you belong here. No matter what, there will always be a place for you here. In fact, if you don’t remember anything else I say today, will you remember that you have a place here? In the College of Fine Arts and Communications. You belong here.”
Read more about Brad Barber and his lecture here.