GW’s Documentary Center received television’s highest honor in July with a Best Director Emmy nomination for its founder, Nina Gilden Seavey.
The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences will announce whether the film is the winner of the Best Director for a news feature or documentary at the Emmy Awards on Sept. 13.
Seavey’s film, “The Ballad of Bering Strait,” focuses on seven Russian teenagers who are trying to succeed in the Nashville country music scene. The documentary allowed Seavey to combine her affinity for the South and country music with her passion for “odd stories.”
A native of St. Louis, Mo., Seavey said she has had a fixation with the South because of its “interesting paradoxes.”
“It’s got its roots very much still in its own history, but yet it’s so very progressive,” Seavey said.
During the film, Seavey follows the band Bering Strait, which becomes skilled in authentic American bluegrass music through the instruction of their music teacher in the small town of Obninsk, Russia.
From Russia, the band moves to country music’s capital, Nashville, where they sign a recording contract with Arista Records.
The band’s accomplishments are all the more remarkable considering its inauspicious beginnings in the former Soviet Union. Seavey said the town of Obninsk “wasn’t even on the map” during Soviet times because it was the headquarters of Russia’s nuclear energy industry.
When Seavey began working on the movie in 1999, she thought the project would take about six months. But not long after, the country music industry “basically collapsed.” A lot changed for the band, and they could have easily gone back to Russia. But they did not give up on their dreams, and Seavey followed them as they struggled to keep their momentum.
Seavey ended up following the band for two-and-a-half years.
“Suddenly, I had an entirely different film that I was making,” she said.
It took three years to shoot and produce the film, which cost about $650,000.
Seavey said the film gave the young group exposure and contributed to their success but that its members were truly talented musicians. While still unknown in Russia, they have earned American acclaim and live in Nashville. The band tours the country music circuit in the South, playing at state fairs and other events.
The group has been nominated for a Grammy award and is now working on its second album.
Seavey has been making documentaries since the 1990s, pursuing a particular interest in historical films.
No stranger to success, the filmmaker won an Emmy award in 1998 for Best Research in a News and Documentary Program for her documentary, “A Paralyzing Fear: The Story of Polio in America.” Seavey was also nominated for Emmys in Best Music and Best Editing for her work in the polio documentary.
GW’s small documentary center, a subdivision of the School of Media and Public Affairs, is now in its 15th year. It offers an annual, intensive six-month graduate documentary filmmaking course. The center recently expanded from making historical documentaries to production of other types of documentaries that focus on art and social issues.