February 14, 2007

Film Family

USC Alumna Continues Legacy With “Jesus Camp” Oscar Nomination

By James Tella

Despite being surrounded by generations of cinematic artists throughout her childhood, Jenna Rosher had no intention of entering the entertainment industry when she graduated with a journalism degree from the USC Annenberg School for Communication in 1995. 
The nomination of the thought-provoking Jesus Camp for the best documentary feature category in this year’s Academy
 Awards, however, has her following squarely in the filmic footsteps of her grandfather, father and mother.

Jenna Burton braves the cold temperatures of the Midwest on location for Jesus Camp.
“I never knew my granddad, but I felt a deep spiritual connection to him,” Rosher said as she reflected upon Charles Rosher, the first director of photography to ever take home the Oscar for 1927’s Sunrise, and again in 1946 for The Yearling. Cinematic talent was equally evident in the next generation. Her father, Charles Rosher, Jr., is a noted cinematographer (3 Women, The Tenth Month). Her mother, Laurie Burton, is an actress (Remington Steele, Dynasty), as well as adjunct professor in the School of Cinematic Arts production division.

“Despite this legacy, I always had an element in my heart of wanting to do something different,” Rosher said. That something different meant journalism, interning at Los Angeles-area stations KCRW and KABC. “I found journalism to be an incredible experience, both personally and professionally,” Rosher said. But after her tenure in front of the camera, she felt the allure of the world behind it.

The elusive piece of Rosher’s career puzzle fell in place at E! Entertainment Television when she worked her way up from associate producer to producer on the True Hollywood Story. “E! was my first job in long programming and I loved the fact that you had time to tell a story,” she said. In addition to working in a new medium, the experience also opened the door to new people, including Heidi Ewing, who would go on to become co-director of Jesus Camp (along with Rachel Grady).

Moving to New York, where Rosher still lives today, she spent time freelancing at MTV and its sister network VH1. Without an operator to do a profile of young people living with HIV/AIDS, MTV simply handed Rosher a camera and told her to “go shoot.”

“I remember taking it out of the case and something about it felt right. I was instantly comfortable and knew what to do. Like it was in my genes,” she laughed. “I was such a perfectionist when it came to seeing things through that side of the lens and I wanted to spend more and more time behind those images.”
Setting the shot—Burton focuses on her subject.

Rosher’s mother chuckles at her daughter’s realization, and says it’s important for anyone in the industry to explore both sides of the camera, a fact she stresses in her USC courses.

“It’s about communication and presenting yourself,” Burton said, adding that she tells her students it’s critical to also be a good friend to the people you meet along your career path. “You never know where it will lead.”

In making Jesus Camp, Rosher said the co-directors never approached the film with Academy recognition on their minds. Having served as one of two cinematographers on the film, she is nonetheless thrilled to be a part of the movie. “You do your work and hope people want to see it,” she added, noting that despite the controversial subject matter—Jesus Camp explores the lives of born-again Christian children and their quest to become an active part of America’s political future—the crew wasn’t hesitant to tell the evangelical story. “You can’t be afraid in telling documentaries; fear would drive you in the wrong direction.”

Thinking back on her childhood spent on sets and sitting on top of her father’s camera dolly, Rosher is pleased to honor the memory of her grandfather and make her parents proud. Though picking up an Oscar or two along the way would be great, Rosher realizes her work is “about tapping into your heart and emotions.”

With that, she turns to her mom. “See, I still remember what you taught me.”