UC Berkeley alumna Kristen Hwang wins best documentary at student Oscars

Photo of UCB Student Kristen Hwang in a bee suit holding a video camera
Kristen Hwang/Courtesy
Campus alumna Kristen Huang shown in beekeeper's jacket. Her documentary "When They're Gone" received the top prize for documentaries at the Student Academy Awards.

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When campus alumna Kristen Hwang logged onto a zoom call with other Student Academy Awards finalists in September, she was not expecting to hear her thesis film, “When They’re Gone,” had won the top prize for a documentary film.

Expecting the call to be promotional material for the upcoming award ceremony, Hwang was initially suspicious of the level of technology set up for the call. She was then pulled into a separate zoom room where Nanfu Wang, a filmmaker she admires, told her she had won.

“I was incredibly shocked then and I continue to be shocked now,” Hwang said. “It was nice to have a real moment of surprise.”

Established in 1972, the Student Academy Awards are an international competition for “emerging global talent” to showcase their work, run by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the same organization that coordinates the Oscars, according to their website. This year, the competition received more than 1,500 submissions from 210 domestic and 126 international colleges and universities.

Hwang’s documentary “When They’re Gone” follows four migratory beekeepers as they attempt to maintain their livelihoods pollinating crops as entire bee colonies disappear and die. In addition to the beekeepers, “When They’re Gone” examines the national agricultural industry that relies on bees for pollination, and touches on family and climate change impacts.

Hwang noted though there is already significant scientific evidence regarding why bees are dying, she wanted to focus on the human aspect found in making a film about the beekeepers instead of the bees themselves.

“To me, at its core, it is a story about humans versus nature and how we can often be our own worst enemies,” Hwang said. “There was something symbolic and very sad about this sort of craft and generations of knowledge that are usually passed down in a family dying out because of the stress we’ve created for the bees.”

She added she hopes viewers will realize they all have a role to play in ensuring a sustainable future, as the current systems in place to produce energy and food are not sustainable.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hwang produced, directed and shot her thesis film on her own. She also switched film topics in November 2020 — three months after most of her classmates had submitted their pitches — to one that could be shot outside to accommodate an increase in COVID-19 cases.

“Making a film, in general, is so much more work than you would expect,” Hwang said. “But because I was the sole director, it was just me in my apartment staging equipment, driving to the Central Valley to film alone. It felt pretend.”

Hwang said winning the Academy Award was “certainly validating.” For Hwang, the process of creating “When They’re Gone” was primarily a learning experience and a way to challenge her creative and journalistic practices.

She added in a normal year, students would watch their classmates’ rough cuts live, but during the pandemic everything was virtual, making the film seem like something she “just made up” in her apartment.

“It really is just validation that pursuing stories that I think are important and that matter to me, when that authenticity comes through, it makes it matter to a wider audience,” Hwang said at the ceremony.

Contact Maria Young at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @maria_myoung.