Columbia alumni find success in making documentaries

By Sadie Miller

Two of Columbia’s alumni recently saw a project from their time at Columbia find success—their documentary about Chester Gould, the creator of the Dick Tracy comic strip, was aired on public television.

Brothers John and Steve Firak, 2005 and 2006 graduates, respectively, co-directed “Chester Gould: An American Original,” which aired Feb. 22 on WTTW Channel 11.

John Firak currently works as a freelance photographer and has done work for the Taproot Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aims to build the infrastructure of other nonprofit organizations and Steve Firak founded Ahoj Productions, a documentary production company. The Firak brothers, who grew up in Woodstock, Illinois, developed an interest in Dick Tracy because Woodstock was Chester Gould’s hometown, John Firak said.

“It was quite a privilege to be part of a hometown and American legacy,” John Firak said. “We got involved with the film through the Dick Tracy museum. It was closing, so we started by making a video, which led us to the Gould family, and things grew from there.”

From that point, the brothers were given access to original art and family videos, and began interviewing members of the family as well as artists that Gould influenced, including Robert Crumb, an American cartoonist and musician. After compiling, interviewing, filming and editing, Gould’s family and the families of his assistants came together with the Firak brothers for a private screening of the documentary.

“Everyone gave positive feedback, and it was a great relief to see the years of work culminated into one showing,” Steve Firak said. “Seeing those people who were involved in Chester Gould’s life come back together after many years was a rewarding experience.”

Steve Firak said he attributed much of his success to Columbia’s curriculum and the support he received from his professors and peers during his years here.

“Columbia was a great environment to let my dream develop,” Steve Firak said. “You certainly get a sense of how many people have dreams just like you when you get there, and I think that fuels the student body.”

John Firak said making the right connections in college continues to help him in his professional career.

“If you hook up with the right students and really go after it, you can make a lot out of the resources there,” John Firak said. “I was able to take some really great classes which definitely still help me out today.”

John Firak said his journey as a filmmaker began in his documentary classes with Jeff Spitz, an associate professor in the Cinema Art + Science Department. It was in these classes that John Firak produced his first documentary, one that chronicled a young woman’s experience serving in the military. Spitz said he was immediately impressed with John Firak’s quiet determination and drive for storytelling.

“Trying to dip a toe into documentary [making] doesn’t work real well,” Spitz said. “You have to be ready to fully immerse, and John was ready.” 

He said that John Firak would not only listen to his subjects, but knew the right questions to ask, which is an important quality in documentarians. Spitz noted that even from his first attempts at filmmaking, John Firak could give a fresh voice and perspective to his subjects, which is something that many documentarians struggle to do.

Spitz later had Steve Firak in a class and said he noticed the same quiet passion and determination as he had in John Firak. 

“That’s what both of the boys had going for them,” Spitz said. “They were very determined and very genuinely interested in storytelling.”

Although no specific dates have been announced, “Chester Gould: An American Original” is set to be aired again soon.

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