When media production specialist, lecturer of digital media arts, and alumnus Mario Congreve (Class of ’88, M.A., humanities) isn’t preparing students to be a part of the next generation of filmmakers, producing promotional pieces that play during breaks in distance learning classes, and other myriad video projects for California State University, Dominguez Hills, he can still be found behind a camera or in front of an editing bay, as director, cinematographer and producer of several award-winning documentaries, which has taken him to more than 30 countries, in many cases with unprecedented access.
“I get to travel to a lot of countries. I get to meet a lot of people. I get to visit different cultures,” the native Chilean said. “And I get to do something that I like.”
Congreve, who has been a member of the staff at CSU Dominguez Hills since 1985, has partnered on various types of film projects with Glenn Gebhard, a film director and producer, and professor of film and television production at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) in Los Angeles, where Congreve has taught part-time since 1996 in the School of Film and Television.
Their latest joint project, “Greetings from Fire Island, Long Island, N.Y.,” is a feature-length documentary. Although, it—as with most documentaries—may not have the same mass appeal that mainstream entertainment does, it is no less an important record of historical events. Yet, fact-based films have trouble competing with series and reality shows for airtime.
“This is not reality television, this is a serious documentary about the history and the communities of the Island,” Congreve said.
But, he conceded that distributing films these days is a little easier with the advent of aggregated markets such as Netflix, Hulu and YouTube. A producer of numerous business education films, he also distributes many of his projects through the education film market.
Not one to get stymied, Congreve finds a way to get things done, whether it’s distributing his films or getting the perfect shot. Case in point was during the filming of “Greetings from Fire Island.”
The focus of “Fire Island,” a landmark lighthouse first completed in 1826 and in 1858 reconstructed a short distance away from its original site in order to accommodate a greater height, housed a rare First Order Fresnel Lens. The lens continued to guide transatlantic ships coming into New York Harbor until 1933, but advancements in lighting brought better, smaller lamps, and so out went the Fresnel. The massive 16-foot-tall gem-like illuminator became a museum piece on display for public viewing. However, the viewing room is rather tight.
“We couldn’t get me inside with the [Fresnel] Lens with the big camera, so I used my $200 Samsung TL 350 camera to shoot it,” Congreve said, referring to a small point-and-shoot camera.
Congreve used the same ingenuity to help gain him, his long-time collaborator Gebhard, and their small crew, unparalleled access inside the politically unstable island nation of Cuba.
The product of their trip, “Cuba: A Lifetime of Passion,” looks at the extant Cuban Revolution and the country’s uncertain future. The 2006 feature-length documentary has been aired on the History Channel and was a category winner at the 2007 Boston International Film Festival, 2007 Beverly Hills Hi-Def Film Festival, 2007 Columbus International Film Festival, and was screened at the 2007 Big Muddy Film Festival and the 2007 San Paulo International Film Festival.
Groundbreaking because of the degree of access the crew was granted, Congreve said the film has been archived by CNN as a possible resource for biographical information on Ex-Cuban leader Fidel Castro when obituary material becomes needed.
Congreve is no stranger to Cuba. In 1998 he produced “Crossing Borders: A Cuban Returns,” which aired on PBS. A Bronze Plaque winner at the 1999 Columbus International Film and Video Festival, the film documents Cuban-American college professor Magaly Lavendenz as she returns to her native Cuba for the first time since fleeing as a child.
The filmmaker connects with the people who are often the anchor of his films.
“You get into the life of people that you have never been with, and you research the theme,” he said. “There’s this tremendous amount of bonding with the people and the subject.”
Sometimes Congreve delves into painful topics, getting a look into deeply personal issues. In a project he co-produced with Bernard Clinch, a senior producer and coordinator of media production at CSU Dominguez Hills, he explored the fallout of divorce and separation, which in extreme cases included kidnapping and psychological manipulation. Shot in Norway, Scotland, and Mexico City in 2005, “Victims of Another War: The Aftermath of Parental Alienation” was considered for an Academy Award in the short feature documentary category.
The prolific filmmaker and video editor, who has done projects for the likes of Stanton Films in Redondo Beach and Shop Television Network at KTLA’s uplink facility in Culver City, could have easily become an expert in something else. As a high school student in the 1970s, he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life.
“In those days, in Chile, film school wasn’t a thing to go for,” Congreve recalled. “Film school was usually for someone who has a lot of money in a third-world country. …Then your parents can support your hobby. But, as a career you want to be an architect, a lawyer, a doctor or something like that. Not a filmmaker.”
So, after completing high school and a semester as an exchange student at Bishop Gallagher High School in Harper Woods, Michigan, in 1979 he enrolled in the architecture program at the Pontifical Catholic University of Valparaíso in Santiago, the capital city of Chile.
But as an architecture student, one of his professor’s saw that he had an eye for film, and suggested he consider a career as a filmmaker instead. Taking the cue, he immigrated to the U.S. and earned a Bachelor of Arts in cinema photography with a specialty in film production from Southern Illinois University (SIU) in Carbondale, Illinois, in 1982 as a Fulbright Scholar.
From Illinois, Congreve made his way west to San Francisco where he worked as a reporter at Spanish International Network, what’s now Univision. But Congreve came to the U.S. to work behind the camera, not in front of it. So, on an earlier recommendation from a mutual friend at SIU, he connected with Jim Sudalnik, professor of communications at CSU Dominguez Hills. When an opening for a part-time position arose at the university, Sudalnik alerted Congreve.
The move was a good one. Congreve enjoys his work; teaching students who are serious about filmmaking, and collaborating with colleagues.
“You have to use your talent, but you also have to enjoy what you are doing, correct?” he asked, to make a point.
Not one to sit on his laurels—among them are Aegis, Telly, Hermes, and Videographer awards, just to name a few—in addition to teaching music and television students how to use Adobe Photoshop, Premiere and After Effects to produce graphics during his class TV Titling and Animation (DMA 324), he is working on “Deconstructing the Cuban Revolution,” a project he intends for broadcast on PBS. In December he submitted a six-minute preview for national consideration.
“It’s kind of a ground-breaking film,” he said.
Spoiler alert: It is. Stay tuned.
To learn about Congreve’s other projects, visit click here.
For more information on the digital media arts program, visit cah.csudh.edu/digitalmedia.