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Preceded by a Love Story: Sweet Land Director Joins Faculty

Ali Selim
Ali Selim’s body of work includes award-winning independent film, television and commercials.

Award-winning filmmaker and screenwriter Ali Selim heads east from Los Angeles this month to join the English Department as its visiting McGee Professor. He will teach two classes for the spring semester.

“The English department is honored to be finally joined by a filmmaker, and a superb one at that,” Professor and Department Chair Zoran Kuzmanovich said. “Ali explores both senses of the term ‘moving image’; he is at once brave and self-effacing in the way his films handle emotion as he shows us something compelling and memorable about being human.”

Selim will teach classes in both screenwriting and filmmaking, all with an emphasis on creating work.

“My classes don’t incorporate a lot of reading and theory,” Selim said. “I’m a storyteller, and to me all that matters is the students learn how to tell a better story. In the writing class, they will write. In the production class, they will shoot. It’s that simple.”

In addition to making their own work, students will participate in discussion and critique of each other’s work.

“The writer’s room is a volatile, unsafe environment if you’re sensitive,” Selim said, “but it is extremely collaborative and pushes artists to make their best work.”

Selim earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature with a minor in philosophy from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. While there he took a film appreciation course, for which he made his first film and discovered his passion for filmmaking. At the time, Hollywood was becoming decentralized, he said, which allowed for more opportunities for new artists and writers and made a career in the industry seem more possible.

He wrote and directed Sweet Land, a 2005 independent film starring Alan Cumming and Ned Beatty that received recognition for its screenplay and cinematography, including a 2007 Independent Spirit Award for best first feature.

“Everything about the way the story of Sweet Land is told feels right; it is practically a toolkit for an independent filmmaker of the sort we hope Davidson produces,” Kuzmanovich said. “Ali begins the film with a Don Snyder quotation: ‘Let us hope that we are all preceded in this world by a love story,’ and then goes on to show what he can do with such an opening. What in another set of cinematic hands would quickly descend into sentimentality, fake spontaneity, jumbled time-frames and a surfeit of self-conscious technique, in Ali’s hands becomes a beautifully filmed and absorbing story of a stranger’s arrival into a small community, not unlike the way one imagines Davidson to have been a century ago, and the risks faced and taken by both the stranger and the community.”

In addition to his film work, Selim also has directed six episodes of the drama series In Treatment on HBO and directed the crime dramas Criminal Minds on CBS and Gracepoint on Fox, as well as more than 850 television commercials for companies such as Coca-Cola, Miller Brewing Company and Pfizer, among others. For his commercial work he received the prestigious Gold Lion award from the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, and remains one of the most sought after commercial directors in the country.

“No memorable cinematic experience is possible without great attention to the elements of the toolkit Ali brings to Davidson,” Kuzmanovich said. “I envy our students the time they will get to spend in Ali’s classroom.”