Carolina alumnus produces award-winning documentary


“Race Night” is an award-winning 2021 flat-bed motorcycle racing documentary short written, directed and produced by Sean Jackson ’10, Carolina lacrosse player and graduate of the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

“It’s what we do in our lives that gives us agency,” Jackson says of his first film project. “What no one can take away from us when we have nothing.”

A former assistant to fashion photographer Bruce Weber, the New York-based, Carolina-graduated commercial photographer has created a personal, grainy coming-of-age film (duration: 24:43). It evokes the shifting motivations and sheer will behind striving to be the best at something.

Respectfully and without pathos, the film – three years in the works – captures the lives of three young teenagers, led by motorcycle rider Zaria Martens, then 14, from the town of Fond du Lac on the south shore of the lake. Winnebago. in Wisconsin. They participate in amateur motorcycle races on flat tracks, often at the Aztalan Cycle Club in Lake Mills.

“On weekends we get up to run errands, like other families go to the football field,” says Zaria’s mother, Melissa Terkhorn.

The documentary premiered at the Tokyo International Virtual Short Film Festival. In May 2021, “Race Night” captured the hearts of audiences at the London International Short Film Festival and won an Audience Award and Best Documentary Short Award. The short made its US debut this summer at the Manhattan Film Festival.

A claimant

Sean Jackson came to Chapel Hill in 2006 from Fairfax, Va. As a lacrosse rookie who had competed as a swimmer, wrestler, basketball and football player and excelled in four years of lacrosse at the high school.

6-foot-3, 210-pound Carolina lacrosse defenseman, Jackson played on scholarship (“Every four years – my dad wouldn’t have done it any other way”) and competed in four NCAA tournaments, getting the nickname “” Action “Jackson. He was named varsity athlete of the year in 2009-2010 by athletic director Dick Baddour. All this to say that he knows how to compete to win.

And yet, the story arc of his first film isn’t how a young runner beats all the contenders to win a trophy.

“Creatively my intention was to leave that out altogether,” Jackson says from his Greenwich Village apartment of the “go fast and win” trope.

Instead, Zaria Martens’ story is told by introducing us to her community: her father, Brian Martens, a mechanic and runner who laconically recounts the “40 pins and screws in my body”. Her mother, an intensive care nurse, says, “We always wanted to give her confidence. And I think that’s what the race has given him. Through the stories told by a larger circle of friends who make up the family’s running community, we get to know Zaria and what motivates the competitor and her young running friends.

Making the movie the way he did, pitching a tent in the backyard of the family home, going to races with Zaria’s family and friends, gave Jackson a more introspective side of competitive sports. It captures a non-linear slice of life that encompasses a 70-year-old man who looks back without regret on his racing days; a grieving father who lost his daughter, Charlotte, in a racing accident; and Zaria and her friends, looking for where their parents’ dreams end and theirs begin.

“I grew up in an environment that allowed me to excel in a short period of time,” Jackson says of his own athleticism. “I wanted to go to college at UNC-Chapel Hill. And my lacrosse skills made that happen.

In the young female motorcyclist, Jackson sees herself. He hopes the film becomes some sort of existential self-esteem for anyone who watches it.

“She is what I would have become if I had been born elsewhere,” he said, if he had grown up with parents who wanted to teach him how to assemble an old motorcycle and take her to a flat track course for the purpose of week.

Zaria Martens was three years old when she first rode a motorcycle. “I had a little PW50 with training wheels,” she says.

Now, as she prepares to finish high school earlier in order to move up to the pro level as a runner, she says it was important for Jackson to get involved in documenting her past racing life.

“Running is my whole life,” she says. “Few people would be able to capture the dedication and hard work it takes to run at this level if they didn’t have an understanding of what it takes to be a competitive athlete themselves. Sean could imagine it.

And she’s grateful for the authenticity of the film, for the way it captured the time and effort it takes to excel.

“I missed weddings, birthdays and family events to race,” she says. “After my family and friends saw the movie, they got a better understanding of what was needed.”

Live a great life

A public relations major turned CNN staffer who moved to Manhattan to apprentice for Weber, Jackson describes himself as a social documentary photographer whose work is a visual expression of who he is – through working for clients. like The Observer, Tommy Hilfiger, Levi’s and Ford. Automobile company.

He remembers two pieces of advice from Weber that still influence him today. “Live a great life,” Weber told him. “Always know where you want the photo to go. You don’t have to tell anyone else. But you have to know where you want it to end.

“Having a journalism degree from Carolina was an asset up my sleeve,” Jackson says of transitioning to the competitive world of storytelling through fashion and commercial work. He learned to write, storytelling, and manage his time at UNC, learning character lessons from his coaches and drawing inspiration from classmates like Allen Mask ’10.

“We came together. I tried to follow his heels. He was so early, ”recalls Jackson de Mask, now a business executive.

“Sean is a powerful talent,” Mask says today, “and one of the nicest human beings I’ve met.”

Team spirit

Jackson decided in 2018 to become a self-funded filmmaker. He says, “I sailed into the creation of ‘Race Night’ out of sheer will,” and likens the experience to setting up his own private film school along the way.

When he recalls going through the unexpected bumps along the three-year road to making the documentary, Jackson remembers calling his friend Tom Arnell at the start of the project.

“I needed a camera. It was in the summer of 2018. Tom said, ‘I’m coming with my gear. We’re going to fix things, ”says Jackson, explaining how Arnell became a co-producer and cinematographer on the project.

“We rented a van, pitched a tent, ate a lot of PBJ sandwiches and shot a lot, and then went back the following summer for many more days of filming.”

When the time came to edit the movie and fire the music, Jackson says he realized with some trepidation, “I can’t cut a movie like ‘Guardians of the Galaxy.’ I can’t use Led Zeppelin’s tunes in the soundtrack.

Instead, friends introduced him to Abdur Rahman, who worked with videographer Hype Williams in the 1990s. Rahman became the film’s advisor on everything to do with music publishing and licensing. And he became the executive producer of the film.

To help edit the film, he found Emmy Award-winning editor Brad Turner, whose recent work includes the films Patti Cake $, Paterno, and Native Son. “One of the best friendships I have developed in 2020,” Jackson says now. “He knew the vision. And he could bring it to life in a sophisticated way.

Become that person

Jackson sees “Race Night” as a proof of concept piece that could be used to leverage a series down the line, with backing from a platform like Netflix or HBO Max.

He is confident about the direction he wants to take from here as a photographer and filmmaker. He knows where he wants to be at the end of his life in a creative way – and that there’s no set way to get there.

For today’s students of UNC Hussman, the young storytellers of tomorrow, he has a similar message. “There will be no application for the job you want. Get up everyday and become that person. One day you will wake up and be there. He adds, “Your greatest commodity is time. Spend it with intention.

Learn more about the Hussman School of Journalism and Media

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