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Ryan Johnson, Published February 02 2014

Making a Scene: Student’s documentary earns praise on festival circuit

MOORHEAD – Miah Detjen’s documentary is earning praise on the film festival circuit.

But the Minnesota State University Moorhead film production major who grew up in Northfield, Minn., said she has a hard time watching the mostly silent short film “Daddy” that explores her relationship with her father, who was born hearing but became deaf from a high fever as an infant.

“When it’s gotten screened at a festival, I’ve actually exited the theater and haven’t watched it,” she said. “I don’t want to go up on stage with red eyes and tears down my face.”

“Daddy” shows Detjen interacting with her father, Michael, but much of the film features only Detjen alone in a quiet room using sign language and subtitles to explain her experience growing up the child of a deaf person.

Made in the winter of 2012 for a personal documentary class, “Daddy” was named best nonfiction video of MSUM’s juried film exhibition that year.

With the encouragement of a professor, Detjen submitted the film to several festivals. “Daddy” was an official selection of the South Dakota Film Festival in Aberdeen, S.D., last September, and it will be one of the student films screened during the 2014 Fargo Film Festival at the Fargo Theatre March 4 to 8.

Her film also earned fourth place last November in the “Overcoming Obstacles” category of the My Hero International Film Festival, a prestigious annual event at the University of Southern California.

Now 21, Detjen is spending this semester at the Los Angeles Film Study Center. She plans to graduate from MSUM in the spring of 2015.

Why is it so hard for you to watch your film?

The story is about my father and me, so it’s close to my heart. I’m so sensitive and protective over my dad that it’s really hard for me to watch the film.

Did growing up with a deaf father change your view of the world and how you frame that in your films?

I think this one’s really uniquely different from all of the other films and projects I’ve ever worked on because I originally did it for a class on personal documentaries. I’d done a little bit of documentary work, but never a personal one.

The original assignment was you have to make a movie that connects to you with either a person or place, some sort of relationship that’s personal to you. I originally thought this was just going to be some film that I make about my dad and I that wasn’t going to come up to anything.

I just really thought of whenever my father goes to the movie theater or gets a DVD, he has to make sure that there’s closed captioning. I wanted to make the film to kind of show my dad’s and my relationship, and show the different lifestyle in a way and how deaf people may view a film because the film is mostly silent and it’s closed captioned.

I drew from my dad and thinking about the two audiences that I have to entertain, both hearing and deaf audiences, and they have to both watch this film without one feeling left out. But it’s also showing there’s this other audience that people need to pay attention to.

What kinds of films do you usually make?

Before I came to college, I made documentary kind of films. I documented the swim team, soccer team and made graduation videos, and then at MSUM I made short narrative films, some comedies, a thriller and some dramas.

I tend to usually make films that show the relationship between two people, not exactly a romantic one, but just any kind of relationship.

“Daddy” was a change of pace. I like to think of it as a bit of a narrative and a documentary because it starts out looking like a narrative, but it was new and different.

What do you think about the positive response “Daddy” is getting?

It was really amazing. When I first showed it, I showed it at the school at MSUM’s juried screening, and I won best nonfiction video there.

When I submitted it to the South Dakota Film Festival and the My Hero festival and the Fargo Film Festival, and hearing that they’re accepting it and they’re excited to show it, I kind of realized this is a little bit bigger. People are more interested in it than I really thought.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587