Reprinted from the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Impact of Giving Report 2017-2018
Nairobi is a long way from the Macdonald Campus, but that’s where Alex Pritz, BSc(AgEnvSc)’13 – MSE, is usually found these days. “It’s been a winding path,” says Pritz of his career trajectory since graduating from the McGill School of Environment, where he focused on ecological determinants of health. But in at least one way, the path was direct: Pritz arrived in Kenya a week after finishing his McGill exams, missing convocation ceremonies to begin a media job for a local start-up. Within a year he threw himself into the world of full-time independent documentary filmmaking. “Nairobi is a true hub for media across east Africa, and it was intimidating to begin freelancing in a completely foreign country,” he recalls. “That first year was a struggle, but things have picked up steadily in the last two years.”
Indeed, Documist, the media company Pritz cofounded in 2014 with two colleagues – Will Miller, BA/BSc’13, and Jack Weisman – has established itself as a significant player in documentary video-journalism, primarily shooting short web videos for non-profit organizations but currently expanding into multimedia. Documist has developed an impressive client list that ranges from smaller NGOs like Uganda-based Mama Rescue to international organizations such as the Gates Foundation, UNESCO and the World Health Organization; its documentaries have also appeared on the websites of CNN, The Guardian, The Independent, The New York Times, Vice News, IRIN News, and Columbia University.
Pritz had a well-honed interested in film production when he arrived at McGill from his native Ithaca, New York. In 2009, he and Miller visited Kenya and filmed short documentaries – an experience that led to their co-founding Developing Pictures, a McGill based, student-run enterprise. “When the earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, we wanted to help, so we started by fundraising on campus,” says Pritz. “Then we sent student volunteers to Haiti to shoot video, giving media exposure to the important work being done by organizations and individuals working outside the traditional media spotlight.” The result was tens of thousands of dollars raised from McGill sources, positive feedback from their partners in Haiti, and a long life for Developing Pictures, which won a 2010 Forces Avenir award, recognizing exceptional student involvement in social causes.
Between Developing Pictures and Documist, Pritz’s path took another tangent. In 2011, he collaborated with McGill student Christian Elliot, BA/BSc’13 – MSE, and Arcie Mallari, at the time a Jeanne Sauvé scholar from the Philippines. “Arcie comes from a community on the edge of one of the huge trash dumps that services Manila,” says Pritz. They wrote a proposal for a Dalai Lama Fellowship with the goal of helping people in such communities, and it was accepted. “The focus was on waste and environmental issues because a lot of schoolchildren’s families worked as trash pickers, looking for recyclable goods in massive waste hills.” With the $10,000 fellowship, the team created a multimedia-based curriculum for students in extra-curricular schools Mallari was running in Montalban in the Philippines and Montreal to teach digital storytelling and video journalism skills, which the students then used to investigate issues of waste and overconsumption in their communities.
The project, Iwastology, added an educational component to Pritz’s activities. “I hadn’t really thought about teaching before Iwastology, but now I’m going in that direction quite a bit,” he says. This past spring he taught a workshop for a legal aid group of Somali lawyers and activists about how to use video as evidence admissible in courts. In addition, Documist runs workshops to instruct individuals and groups at all levels of expertise how to shoot film and rents equipment to aspiring filmmakers.
Like Developing Pictures and Iwastology, Documist is characterized by a deep commitment to causes and communities that face profound challenges while receiving little media attention.
Pritz, who received the Gretta Chambers Leadership Award while at McGill, credits his education with providing many of the tools needed on his professional journey. “The McGill School of Environment put me on both Macdonald and downtown campuses and gave me a huge range of courses,” he says. “I have always wanted to carve my own thing out of whatever I was given, and the options presented by the MSE were incredibly valuable to me.”