Faculty Profile: Justin Reifert’s Journey to Documentary Filmmaking
February 22, 2017
Justin Reifert, 32, always held a passion for combining filmmaking with international relations, two areas he studied during his academic career. So when an opportunity to join the faculty of Northwestern University in Qatar arose, Reifert knew it was his calling to stay involved with filmmaking while living abroad. Reifert is now an assistant professor in residence at NU-Q, teaching media construction to first year students.
Before coming to Doha, Reifert was engaged in freelance video production in Chicago, right after he finished his Master of Fine Arts degree in Documentary Media from Northwestern’s School of Communication in Evanston, Illinois. Reifert also served as a teaching assistant at Northwestern, and it was his MFA program director who informed him about a vacancy in Doha. However, being a newlywed, it wasn’t easy for Reifert to move to Doha without his wife.
“It is very tough and one would not want to leave especially in the first year of marriage,” Reifert said. But the fact that Reifert and his wife have lived apart various times during their seven years together helped him take on his new journey to Qatar.
Reifert’s wife is currently a volleyball coach at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. She has previously played volleyball abroad in Finland and Switzerland, which has made the couple used to living separately for short periods.
Over the course of his student life, Reifert has switched various paths. He went to Kalamazoo College for two years, where he studied political science in Spanish, before transferring to Michigan State University to study Russian language and international relations. At Michigan State, he got a chance to study abroad in Russia, where he lived the language and fell in love with it, he said. After briefly working for the U.S. federal government, Reifert took a year to study broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland. However, he said it was not as enjoyable as he thought it would be, as he preferred documentary over broadcasting.
“I appreciate the ability to do a deep dive. Really taking a focused look at a subject and then also being able to have a sense of perspective,” said Reifert. “I don’t have to imply that I am objective in any way in a documentary film, so it is a way to be creative also.”
Reifert then joined a graduate certificate program in documentary filmmaking at George Washington University. After, he freelanced in Washington D.C. as a producer for a couple of years, but wanted to focus more on his documentary work so joined Northwestern to study documentary media.
“[I have] kind of a varied background, but I can bring elements from everything I have done to both teaching and filmmaking, which I think is important,” said Reifert. “You can have a lot of technical skills as a filmmaker, but if you want to direct, you need a point of view, you need a perspective, you need world experience. I am still gaining it. Everyone gains it every day.”
According to Reifert, one of his most important filmmaking endeavors was making a documentary on his brother’s journey of recovering from addiction.
“Probably, one of the hardest things I have done,” he said. “It is extremely difficult to focus the camera on yourself and on your family’s issues.”
The documentary was originally planned to have a retroactive look, but right after Reifert started filming, his brother lost his job and apartment, and moved in with his parents.
“I had this really tense family situation unfolding while I was filming, which was good for the filming, but not good for my brother,” Reifert added. “You don’t hope for these things to happen. But it gave me a chance to take a look at what a cycle in addiction is like for most families, especially in our family.”
The documentary, which is currently participating in film festivals, is not yet available to the public, although Reifert shared a teaser of the film exclusively with The Daily Q. He also plans to shoot a couple of projects in Qatar once he gets a chance to.
Reifert said he did not have many expectations about Doha or NU-Q as he had never imagined living in the Middle East before. Once in Doha, he said he was surprised by how almost everyone speaks English and he faces no problem in getting around the city.
The most striking thing for Reifert is the similarity between students in Doha and Evanston.
“There are more international students at NU-Q, but the students in both campuses are extremely intelligent, engaged and welcoming,” he said.
Correction: February 23, 2017
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Reifert’s wife is both a volleyball player and a coach at Illinois Institute of Technology. She only works as a coach at IIT.