Alumni Profile / Marc Shaffer: Seeing unconventionally

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Marc Shaffer

(Photo by John Chater)

Marc Shaffer makes movies that challenge our assumptions about the world. His documentaries explore button-pushing issues ranging from immigration, drugs, and gangs to the destruction of our waterways.

Shaffer's latest film, American Jerusalem: Jews and the Making of San Francisco, looks at the largely unknown history of a group of immigrants who helped create a vibrant city.

The subject was a departure from his award-winning investigative work. But as a Jew who grew up in Berkeley, Shaffer (Stevenson '86, American studies) felt a deep connection to the subject matter.

"I'm always looking to broaden my creative experience as a filmmaker," said Shaffer. "I'd always wanted to make a historical film. I had never taken the time to dive into that challenging, uncertain process."

Shaffer is mostly a self-taught filmmaker. After graduating from UC Santa Cruz, he moved to Washington, D.C., and landed a job in television working on a debate show hosted by Harvard law professor Arthur Miller.

"I was intrigued by the power of the media," he said. "I didn't know about working with film, or telling stories. The show was about getting people in a room to argue about politics. That, I could do."

Shaffer went on to work on a string of CBS News programs before making independent television documentaries for PBS, National Geographic, and others.

Shaffer credits his time at UC Santa Cruz with shaping his life as an investigative journalist. "It reinforced in me an impulse not to accept the status quo and to question the rules of the game," said Shaffer.

American Jerusalem: Jews and the Making of San Francisco debuted to a sold-out house at the Castro Theatre in July. It will screen in film festivals around the world and air on San Francisco's KQED and other public television stations.

Shaffer is now working on an investigative documentary for the Al Jazeera Media Network. He's also preparing a feature-length documentary on Eadweard Muybridge, the iconic 19th-century San Francisco photographer.

Regardless of the story, Shaffer said he's always looking to challenge the conventional way of seeing things, and believes that's a fundamental tenet of filmmaking.

Said Shaffer, "My aim is to open people's eyes to see the world more accurately."