Photos courtesy of Robert Sickels

By Jacoby Bancroft

Robert Sickels knew from a young age exactly what he wanted to do with his life.

His passion for pop culture and his desire to create things was a driving factor in shaping where he is today. Now, the University of Nevada, Reno alumnus is an award-winning documentarian. He recently returned to the university to hold a screening of his latest selection of short documentaries and answer questions from UNR students regarding his process and style.

“I wanted to come back to the university and have the chance to do something that both shows my work and shows what can happen to folks who attend UNR,” Sickels said.

The three films that he screened, “Walla Walla Wiffle,” “Sterling Hallard Bright Drake” and “American Lawn,” have been featured in film festivals across the world, including the BFI London Film Festival and Cinequest Film Festival, an Academy Award-qualifying festival in San Jose.

“Every year [the Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival] is really difficult to get in to, and every year it is just a quirky and eclectic festival and playing there has been great,” Sickels said.

While his films have enjoyed a positive reception, according to Sickels, the process of making them has oftentimes been a challenge, as each documentary comes with its own set of problems and obstacles. Sickels noted that “Sterling Hallard Bright Drake” was his most difficult to make. The story, which revolves around a mysterious tombstone, relied on one interview which took Sickels close to six months to secure. Although sometimes demanding, Sickels says he enjoys making films focused on very specific topics and crafting them to have widespread appeal.

“I tend to be drawn to things that are quirky and off-beat that I find still have relevance to a larger audience,” Sickels said. “I typically make films about things that wouldn’t normally occur and use subjects that normally wouldn’t be documented.”

Screening at UNR gave Sickels the chance to view his films consecutively for the first time in his career, something that he says allowed him to recognize certain unique elements throughout all of his works and helped him see how he has grown as a filmmaker.

“I was really struck by how different they are in subject and how similar they are in tone and style,” Sickels said. “I wasn’t necessarily aware that I had a signature style, and I don’t know if that was present in my early films.”

Every documentary Sickels makes follows a similar creative process. Instead of going out and searching for new ideas, he prefers to let inspiration find him.

“I am not a person who sits around and thinks what I am going to do next,” Sickels said. “I know that I am going to do something, but I never know what that is until something strikes me as intriguing.”

Such was the case with “American Lawn,” which started when Sickels read an article in a local paper about a vengeful former employee dumping cooking oil on his boss’s lawn, and it turned into a documentary examining Americans’ relationships with their yards.

For those who want to follow in similar footsteps, Sickels encourages students to not be afraid of developing an original style, instead of trying to imitate someone else. He also stresses the importance of educating yourself in a wide variety of different entertainment areas.

“Watch as many movies as you can, read as many books as you can to completely immerse yourself in pop culture,” Sickels said. “There are many different routes to achieve success, so broaden your definition of what success is, and you are more likely to achieve it.”

Jacoby Bancroft can be reached at thersko@sagebrush.unr.edu.