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Embracing artistry: College of Media grad follows dream of documentary filmmaking

Yancey Burns stands with a group of people at a film festival

From left to right: Aviva Kempner, Yancey Burns, Dr. Amy West,  Ben West, Dr. Joely Proudfit and Cheryl Bedford 

Yancey William Burns (BSJ, 2004) was working as an ethics prosecutor for the District of Columbia when he walked away from a decade-long law career to become a documentary filmmaker.

“I was burnt all the way out,” Burns said. “It wasn’t until I embraced being an artist that I really started to enjoy my career.”

Burns returned to his journalism roots. While enrolled in a master’s degree program at George Washington University, he was exposed to the GW Document Film Center, and he discovered a passion for documentary film.

Law and documentary filmmaking may seem like opposite ends of the career spectrum, but Burns credits his legal experience with making him a better filmmaker.

“The law changes the way you look at things — it’s a study of nuance at its most extreme — and that’s why it meshes so well with film,” Burns said. “The law forces you to look at every issue from every direction, and that’s exactly what good documentaries do.”

Burns’ current project, “Imagining the Indian: The Fight Against Native American Mascoting,” follows the movement to end the use of Native American names, logos and mascots in the sports world and beyond. He is the co-producer and co-writer for the film. 

Burns developed a passion for social justice as an undergraduate student in the Reed College of Media. A media law class is what initially led him down the law career path. It’s also what has fueled him as a filmmaker.    

“My ultimate goal is to make films that matter,” Burns said. “The industry can be tough, there are a lot of great ideas and not enough funding to make them all a reality, but that’s part of what keeps me inspired and on my toes. You have to really believe in your projects, and that’s why I love the intersection of social justice and documentary film so much.”

Now, he’s on the festival circuit searching for a distributor for the film. His busy day-to-day schedule includes frequent Zoom meetings and stops around the country for screenings and award ceremonies at such venues as The Kennedy Center, The Smithsonian and the Autry Museum of the American West, among others.

“Imagining the Indian” has received numerous awards, including being named a finalist for the 4th Annual Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film and winning Best Documentary at the Boston International Film Festival, Morehouse College Human Rights Film Festival and at Soo Film Festival.

Burns’ advice for current students is to pursue what you love.

“There will be plenty of time for pragmatism, but when you’re a student, you are in the prime time of your life to pursue what you love,” Burns said. “I realize that’s easier said than done, especially if you or your family are struggling financially, but there’s no better investment in yourself than pursuing what you love. I know it's cliché, but it's the truth. If you’re doing what you love, it isn’t even work.”