Filmmaker observes and captures life

Liza Hazelwood in a red shirt and khaki pants sits on the floor of a bedroom

For Liza Hazelwood, documentary filmmaking is about both the process and the product.

The Photography + Film student tackles complex subjects—sustainability, human rights, chronic illness, and family legacy and history—by stitching together detailed research. She also relies on everyday moments, like patching a hole in a shirt or falling asleep in the car, to start a more complicated conversation.

“I like to make the small things big,” she says. “I focus on small acts that have larger repercussions.”

This past spring, that took the form of a film about distance learning. As Hazelwood helped her mother, a second grade ESL teacher, make a series of videos about matter, plants and habitats, she documented the process. The documentary follows their process of writing the script, setting up lighting and sound, and editing. And in footage showing Hazelwood filming her mother teaching about changes in matter, her film reveals how they connect as a family.

In another project, during Hazelwood’s summer 2019 internship with the Library of Congress, she worked on an oral history project about preservation librarians.

“It was a different medium than I’m used to,” she says, “but later the next semester, I was experimenting with audio-only interviews.”

Hazelwood approaches each project from a quiet distance, watching and waiting to see how the story will unfold. Her instincts guide her as she frames a shot and tries to anticipate what’s to come, but ultimately, she knows she can’t predict what someone will say or do.

“I love seeing that moment,” she says, “watching something go down and knowing that this segment will be perfect for the final film.”

With Hazelwood’s deep passion for documentary filmmaking, it might be surprising to hear she originally had her sights set on Hollywood. She grew up taking photos with dad, who had been doing photo work since the 1970s, and she was drawn to the idea of feature-length narrative films. Hazelwood even followed in her father’s footsteps by attending VCU. That’s where, in the Art Foundation Program and early film classes, she realized her interest in observational documentary filmmaking.

This summer, she received a scholarship from the William R. Gaines Endowment Fund in Photography + Film, which allowed her to further explore her process in a creative nonfiction writing class. She says the class was also a chance to apply her work in a different medium.

“We talk a lot about theory and ethics in documentary classes, and it was interesting to look at it from a different angle when faced with personal memoir,” she says. “It is very helpful to see the differences and similarities between covering a personal story and someone else’s, and how they have to be done in completely different ways with writing.”

Now in her senior year, Hazelwood is focused on her thesis project, a documentary about local mender Lisa Hutchinson, which she hopes will lead to a larger conversation about sustainability and human rights.

The pandemic requires Hazelwood to keep the scale small. She’s following the story of one person, who lives just a bike ride away. She often works alone, with only the occasional sound assistant. But, she says, she would have been shooting in this style regardless.

“I am usually a one-woman crew, because it lets me connect with my subjects a little easier, but also because I know that I can do everything,” she says. “I really like the editing process of making a film and going through all of the footage and making sure that everything is where it belongs.

“It’s often my favorite part of the process, and it’s very satisfying when it comes to an end.”

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