John Benam, Class of 1997
At National Geographic, John Benam worked on documentaries starring insects like bees and ants. He loved it but switched course in 2009 when he became a freelance documentary filmmaker and director of photography (DP). “I was very much compelled by the advent of social justice documentaries,” says Benam, who was the DP on the hit Netflix series The Keepers. “I’m very mission oriented. I choose projects now based on whether they have a clear mission of doing right by somebody.”
Teaching—not filmmaking—was Benam’s focus when he came to TU, but that changed when he took a film course with a group of friends. These are among the documentaries that impacted him after he made the switch.
I loved the amount of time they took to tell the story of these two young basketball players growing up. It was a commitment of years.
I’ve always been a nature nerd. This is a very artistic and abstract movie about nature.
It follows the progression of how nature turns to modernism and industrialization. Basically, it’s about the scourge of humans on the planet. I think it’s one of the best documentaries ever.
Hearts of Darkness
In my college days, two of the most influential films that I watched were Easy Rider and Apocalypse Now. That led to Hearts of Darkness. I love seeing how the movie actually gets made.
These days, Benam is working on a documentary about a group of people in Baltimore who built a spaceship in their garage in the 1920s in the hopes of flying it to Venus. He’s also doing one for PBS about Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott.
It follows the life of a beekeeper in Macedonia. It’s like an ethnographic, but it’s very much a conservation film too.
The Biggest Little Farm
A group of people bought an old farm, and they brought it back to life by working in rhythm with nature. It changed their entire lives. It feels like you’re on a journey of discovery with them.
There’s this place in Arizona where they did a two-year test, putting people into a dome as if they were on Mars. Could they live in this dome cut off from everything and survive? It has a very intriguing political element as well.
Dick Johnson Is Dead
I think Kirsten Johnson is one of the living geniuses of the documentary world. It’s about her father starting to lose his mind to dementia. She tries to capture him in a way that lasts forever. Having worked on the film, I’m admittedly a little biased.