From the J-School to the Oscars with 'Nomadland' Author Jessica Bruder & 'Colette' Associate Producer Sarah Jenks | Columbia Journalism School
Jessica Bruder wears black dress and holds two Oscar statuettes
Adjunct professor and 2004 graduate Jessica Bruder wrote the book upon which the Oscar-winning film "Nomadland" was based. Credit: @jessbruder (Twitter)

From the J-School to the Oscars with 'Nomadland' Author Jessica Bruder & 'Colette' Associate Producer Sarah Jenks

Not one but two J-School alumnae earned shoutouts for their work during Sunday's 2021 Academy Awards. Read below for a behind-the-scenes look at how Jessica Bruder, '04 Part-time M.S., and Sarah Jenks, '19 M.S. Documentary, went from journalism school to their respective roles on "Nomadland," winner of the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress winner awards, and "Colette," winner for Best Documentary (Short Subject).

Three Academy Awards, Including Best Picture, Go to ‘Nomadland,’ a Film Inspired by the Book by J-School Grad and Adjunct Professor Jessica Bruder. 

"Nomadland," Jessica Bruder’s immersive portrait of retirement-age Americans who were squeezed out of traditional housing and took to the road to live and work from RVs, vans and cars, has gained national acclaim. On Sunday at the Los Angeles Union Train Station the film adaptation of the book won three Oscars: Best Director (Chloé Zhao), Best Actress (Frances McDormand) and Best Picture.

The author did not appear on the broadcast (only 170 people were allowed in the venue due to COVID-19 restrictions), but she watched from her L.A. hotel room as two of the real-life nomads in her book who had roles in the movie, Linda May and Charlene Swankie, shared the spotlight with movie stars, producers and directors, all gathered in a transportation hall transformed for a night of Hollywood glamour. 

"They felt incredibly validated by the experience," Bruder said. "I was delighted to see them up there….I followed these women for three years, and none of us expected this would be part of their journey."

When Bruder arrived at Columbia Journalism School in 2003, she enrolled in the part-time M.S. program, not yet ready to let go of her day job as an assistant editor at a publishing house to try reporting full-time. Her first stop was in Professor Dale Maharidge’s Reporting class. 

"I became a born-again journalist in that class," Bruder said. 

During her program, she began working as a student stringer for the New York Times and interned in the newspaper’s Trenton bureau. Eventually she taught alongside Maharidge and then on her own. Maharidge introduced her to an editor at Harper’s Magazine, which published the article that led to the book “Nomadland.” 

WATCH: Earlier this month, Jessica Bruder spoke to J-School audiences about how she reported "Nomadland."

At Columbia, Bruder also learned the art of immersion reporting, what many longform reporters do when they spend days, weeks or even longer with their subjects, capturing their lives moment to moment, scene by scene, the way they talk and interact with each other and with their environments. 

"It’s a J-school jam," said Bruder of the experiences that helped shape her as a journalist and led her to a three-year reporting journey for "Nomadland," clocking some 15,000 miles in a used van dubbed "Halen" as she traveled across the United States to follow her sources.

[Read more: Professor with a Van]

Maharidge vividly recalled two moments from the start of her reporting for "Nomadland."

"The very first time she went to the Arizona desert to start her research, she called me one night from her tent," Maharidge said.  "It was winter and I could hear her teeth chattering as she talked."

When Bruder eventually bought her van to travel with the nomads, Maharidge helped put solar panels on the roof for an off-grid power system before Bruder set off on the road. 

"I will never forget the look in her eyes — a combination of fear and excitement," he said.  "I knew then that this was going to be a blow-up book for her."

Bruder, who published an op-ed in the New York Times that appeared the day before the Oscars, said she hopes “Nomadland” becomes a “vector for empathy” in a post-pandemic world.

"I hope that it helps bridge lives," she said. "I hope it helps people step into experiences that might otherwise feel remote in a way, that it becomes much harder to ‘other’ someone else. It’s always been my dream to write stories that at least try to do that."

Precision, Perseverance and Patience Lead Sarah Jenks ‘19 to an Oscar-Winning Project in “Colette”

Sarah Jenks; Colette poster
Sarah Jenks, a 2019 graduate of the J-School documentary program, worked as associate producer, assistant editor and archival researcher for the Academy Award-winning short documentary "Colette."

Just two years after graduating from Columbia Journalism School, Sarah Jenks, '19 M.S. Documentary, saw the short film she worked on as an associate producer, assistant editor and archival researcher win an Academy Award for best documentary short. 

"Colette" traces the journey of 90-year-old Colette Marin-Catherine, a former fighter in the French Resistance who is persuaded by a young historian, Lucie Fouble, to travel back to the German concentration camp where the Nazis killed Colette’s brother, Jean-Pierre. When Jenks joined the documentary team, it was at the point of post-production. 

Jenks said she found out about the position through another J-School graduate who had posted the opening on the documentary program’s Facebook page. The contact passed her resume along to director Anthony Giacchino and producer/editor Aaron Matthews, and she got the job. 

Jenks said she drew upon many lessons she learned as a documentary student at Columbia in the role. 

"Before Columbia, I did not know how to edit or manage footage or film file formats or understand the workflow for a film," Jenks said. "All those technical skills I learned at Columbia and in particular, from [Director of Video Journalism and Adjunct Professor] Thor Neureiter, and they became a really big part of my role in this film."

"Sarah excelled in the documentary program," said Neureiter. "The short documentary 'Vet Van' that Sarah directed with her partner Lizzie Mulvey has an intimacy that captures the essence of the type of filmmaking we encourage and teach at Columbia. I was thrilled when Sarah joined a production that allowed her to use the diverse technical and stylistic skill set she developed during her year at Columbia."

Although "Colette" was mostly developed when Jenks came on board, she was meticulous and intentional about the handling of archival material and historical facts. 

"I leaned on a lot of my researching and reporting skills from Columbia to make sure that everything from the archival footage of V2 rockets to the statistics about the lifespan of prisoners in the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp were accurate," she said. "It was also just a tremendous amount of project management of lots of small details and deadlines. That's not something you learn in the classroom at Columbia, but you definitely learn making your master’s film and from the program overall!"

The film was acquired by The Guardian, where it launched in November of 2020. Her role then shifted to helping with marketing, distribution and the awards campaign.

For this, Jenks drew upon her experience as a fellow at the duPont-Columbia Awards for audio and video reporting, in broadcast documentary and online. She supported the complex screening process, coordinated special events, helped organize and preserve a digital archive, created content for the duPont website and assisted in preparing the awards ceremony, where she spoke about what she had learned. 

The experience of seeing first-hand what makes for award-worthy multimedia journalism helped Jenks think about how to approach and position "Colette."    

"When it comes to documentary work, telling the story is only half the journey — getting audiences to watch and care about your film is the other half," she said. "This takes cohesive messaging and marketing. I did most of the graphic design, marketing, events and social media for ’Colette’ over the last year, and those were all skills I learned and practiced as a duPont fellow."

"Sarah Jenks was exactly the kind of student and colleague you might expect to go on to be part of a collaborative, Oscar-winning team just two years out of J-School," said Lisa Cohen, director of the duPont Awards. "She was passionate about the work, detail oriented and indefatigable. We're thrilled for her."

From the "Colette" team itself, Jenks drew many lessons, among the most vital being the importance of never giving up. She watched the directors and producers remain steadfast in their faith in "Colette," even through a series of rejections.

"'Colette' did not get into the big-name festivals, and now it won an Oscar," she said. "It was just another great example of perseverance — get comfortable with rejection and keep advocating for your stories. It’s why I’m still applying for festivals with my master's film, even two years after graduating. All it takes is the right person seeing it for everything to change."

Throughout the process, no one lost sight of Colette Marine-Catherine’s place at the heart of the project. Jenks said the team showed true craftsmanship of documentary filmmaking, a "balance of being present in the right moments and having restraint in others."

"The French producer Alice Doyard described this as 'creating a nest,'" Jenks said. "They built enough trust to tell her very vulnerable story, but also gave her the power to say when filming should stop. The health and boundaries of source relationships in a documentary context are important because you’re with them for years."

Colette Marine-Catherine remains very much a part of this film’s journey, Jenks said. 

"When the film was nominated for an Oscar, she said that it meant her brother Jean-Pierre was no longer lost in the ‘night and fog’ of the concentration camp system,” Jenks recalled. “And that’s really what this is about, it’s why we tell these stories. That was really the biggest reward of all."

Watch the films:

Nomadland (2020) | Searchlight Pictures

Colette (2020) | The Guardian