San Francisco State University MFA student Daniel Chein has received the prestigious 2017 Princess Grace Award, a $28,260 scholarship that will allow him to complete his film about a dancer in Germany. He’s the third SF State student in five years to win the award. Johnny Symons, assistant professor in the School of Cinema, called this track record “unprecedented.” SF State is one of the top 25 film schools in the United States, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Prince Rainier III of Monaco established the Princess Grace Foundation – USA to honor his late wife, American actress Grace Kelly. The foundation helps fund emerging talent in the arts through scholarships, apprenticeships and fellowships.
Chein, who was nominated for the award by the School of Cinema, said he’s thankful for all the support he’s received as a student in the School of Cinema. “It’s not an easy career path, but I’ve been able to take advantage of all the opportunities given to me as a student at SF State and I couldn’t ask for more,” he said. He plans to finish the documentary next year and enter it into film festivals.
The documentary follows Çağdaş Ermis, a dancer from Wuppertal, Germany, who as a gay, Turkish German in a renowned modern dance company is searching for his identity. The son of Turkish immigrants, he was raised by his mother after his father abandoned them. In the film, Ermis considers reconnecting with his father, whom he hasn’t seen in 30 years. The film paints a portrait of a man with a complicated and painful history that he channels into his performances. He uses his art to heal himself and come to terms with his difficult past.
Chein was introduced to Ermis by a mutual friend and was so captivated by his story he decided then to make it his thesis project. Part of what drew him in was their similarities. “We both felt like outsiders growing up. We’re also both children of immigrants and come from families with secrets that don’t really get talked about,” Chein said. In 2016, with elementary German and no grasp of Turkish, Chein flew to Wuppertal and began filming, spending several weeks getting to know Ermis. He gathered compelling footage of Ermis performing with his dance company and intimate moments with him as he went about his daily life, which won over the cinema department and the Princess Grace Foundation.
Chein studied anthropology as an undergraduate at SF State and came to documentary filmmaking because of his interest in people. “I’m curious about the lives of people,” he said. “With documentary filmmaking I’m able to capture a part of someone’s life and show it to audiences that share my curiosity.” And, said Symons, Chein has a clear gift. He’s calm, patient and able to get people to open up and share their stories, he noted.
— Jamie Oppenheim