FISHING WITH DYNAMITE with Professor Paul Wagner
Once upon a time, Academy Award-winning filmmaker and Charlottesville resident Paul Wagner was on his way to earning a Ph.D. when he came to an important realization. “I ended up dropping out because I realized I didn’t want to get a Ph.D., but I loved being around universities and the knowledge that you have access to,” Wagner said. “I just think they are fabulous places where smart people are doing important things, and the niche that I found was to be the person in between that university world and the world of the larger public. I feel like I can interface in both directions and therefore be a conduit for the ideas generated on the Grounds here at UVA.”
Wagner is performing that role once again with his latest film, Fishing with Dynamite, a deep dive into the reasons why corporate ethics have become oxymoronic for many in our world today. The film, which premiered last October at the Virginia Film Festival, began its journey to the screen when Wagner was contacted by Jenny Mead and Bidhan Parmar at the Darden School of Business some six years ago. Before ever picking up a camera, Wagner spent a long time soaking in the subject matter and developing storylines around what was behind the public’s deep distrust and disgust in corporations’ maximizing shareholder value at the literal expense of their customers. He also learned about the far more positive and democracy-reinforcing stakeholder approach, which was developed by Darden professor Ed Freeman. “It struck me that this is a really important subject that is well known inside business schools and C-Suites,” Wagner said, “but the rest of the world doesn’t know much about it. So, my mission became to take this kind of hidden knowledge around these issues and bring it to a larger audience.”
Working with his Darden colleagues and his talented production team, Wagner aimed to bridge the knowledge and understanding gaps with his audience by emphasizing, as Freeman does in his research, that business is a human activity. “Part of the problem we have with corporations and businesses is that it is hard to understand that these are human institutions, for better or worse. That alone does not excuse them from anything, but it does mean that corporations are ultimately going to become better only to the extent that the people within them behave better.” Wagner further emphasized this point by incorporating highly organic elements into his production, including the music of Louisville, KY singer-songwriter and cellist Ben Sollee, (Wagner points out that the cello is the instrument that best approximates the human vocal range); and the animation of Charlottesville-based animator and filmmaker Jonah Tobias, whose animation for the film included wooden toys so realistic that Wagner has been asked on several occasions if he and his team built them just for the production.
When it came time to premiere the film, Wagner knew one thing for sure. “There was never any question that our first festival, and in many ways our most important festival, would be the Virginia Film Festival. Not only is it our ‘hometown’ festival, but it has found a unique way to align itself with an institution of higher learning, while also opening itself to a huge broad general public. I find that my own personal filmmaking work, almost by coincidence, is aligned with the mission of the Virginia Film Festival, so it was just a perfect fit for our film.” It was clearly a perfect fit for the VAFF audiences as well, as the film sold out almost immediately. The experience, Wagner said, reminded him again of how fortunate he is to have the VAFF as an outlet. “I have been lucky enough to have had a lot of our films air on public television over the years. And I am always struck by the fact that, when I sit at home and watch, I am thinking how great it is that there may be millions of people watching my film. But it is just empty. When you show it in a setting like the VAFF, there is this rush and excitement you feel as a filmmaker and as a creative person.” Wagner’s Fishing with Dynamite was awarded the VAFF’s 2019 Commonwealth Award for Best Virginia Feature Film.