Oregon Lens is celebrating its 15th year on OPB. The program takes the pulse of the Oregon independent film community, highlighting quality cinematic works from seasoned professionals to students. View the broadcast schedule.
Erik Bender’s three entries in this year’s Oregon Lens series focus on athletes both inside and outside organized sports. His subjects are high-school football players in St. Paul, university hockey skaters in Eugene and Redmond-based smoke jumpers — U.S. Forest Service employees who parachute into wildfires.
Bender won a Hearst Award for Team Multimedia Storytelling for the smoke jumping film, which he produced last spring with two other University of Oregon students for the school’s student-run magazine, Flux. (The Hearst Journalism Awards recognize the best in collegiate journalism.)
After graduating last year from the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, Bender remained in Eugene to become the first managing producer of OR Media, an on-campus production house of “emerging professionals” that also helps students produce high-quality multimedia stories.
Arts & Life talked to the 26-year-old Hillsboro native about his filmmaking roots and his ability to give viewers a peek inside the locker-room culture.
Q & A with Erik Bender
Arts & Life: How did you get into filmmaking?
Erik Bender: I made my first film in high school, because it was a way to get out of speeches and presentations. I used to race motocross, but I tore my ACL in a crash in March 2008. Afterward, the only way I could spend time around the track was with my camera. Then school took over and Journalism School went full bore. They had really deep video classes you could take. It’s where I found my niche.
A&L: Did sports draw you to filmmaking or did filmmaking draw you to sports?
EB: Sports drew me to filmmaking. My favorite videos when I was a kid were dirt-bike videos. Today when I watch them they don’t make any sense; they look like just random clips set to music. I watched Crusty Demons [of Dirt] recently and it was horrible. I can’t believe it motivated me to make films like that.
A&L: It can be difficult for an outsider to penetrate the locker-room culture, but in both Football is Family and Across the Goal you take the viewer on the inside. What allowed you to get an intimate look at these particular teams?
EB: I guess just hanging out with them and getting to know them. Nothing is ever staged, we never asked anyone, ‘Hey, can you walk through that doorway again?’ or ‘Can you say that again?’ We hung around with them, ate with them, and they pretty much opened up. We told them to act natural, be themselves. And for the most part, I think they were able to do that.
A&L: Did you get to ride in the plane for Smoke Jumpers?
EB: No, it’s illegal for us to be in the plane. We had access to the cargo area before they took off, so we installed cameras there, and we shot from the ground. [On the ground] they were all wearing hard hats, but they didn’t give us any. They said boxes can come out of their parachutes at 100 miles an hour, so watch out. It was fun, but we always had to keep looking up.
A&L: Both the football and hockey films turn melancholy when the graduating players talk about hanging up their cleats or their skates. Why was that important for you to include?
EB: It’s basically your last moments of youth glory. Most of these people, they’re going to move on to different careers. When we talked to [St. Paul High School Football Announcer] Claude Smith in the football movie, he gets really nostalgic looking back at his football days, and I think the kids will do the same. You don’t really think about it being over until it’s been over for a while.
A&L: What’s next for you? Is there another sports team you’d like to spend time with?
EB: I’d really like to focus on talented women in Oregon who ride on the national motocross circuit, and the family backing they need to do that, because [the support] comes basically out of one’s own pocket when you’re doing that series. It’s another strong story where people rely on family and friends to chase their dream.
Watch Football is Family, Across the Goal and Up in Smoke on August 28 at 10 p.m. on OPB TV.