Motyl's Passion for storytelling and film leads to Netflix

Southern Illinois University



Motyl’s passion for storytelling and film leads to Netflix

By Pete Rosenbery

While growing up in Pittsburgh, Pa., H.D. Motyl would go to a crowded theater and sit in the aisles, watching images on a large screen, and be transported somewhere else.

Now, years later, Motyl, the Interim Chair in the Department of Radio, Television, and Digital Media, gives audiences the opportunity to be involved in stories through his own work. His 2013 feature-length documentary, “American Rodeo: A Cowboy Christmas,” has been on Netflix since fall 2016, and gives viewers a glimpse into the lives and struggles that four professional steer wrestlers faced traveling a dizzying circuit of 30 rodeos in 19 states and covering more than 2,000 miles over eight days leading up to July 4, 2009.

It was Motyl’s passion for 1970s and 1980s country music – when many songs featured the romantic side of a rodeo, such as George Strait’s “Amarillo by Morning,” that attracted Motyl to rodeo. He sees parallels between rodeos and filmmaking, and in some ways, any kind of artistic endeavor.

“It is really about a passion that these guys have. There is a passion in their souls that says, ‘I have to do this and I can’t quit.’ I think filmmakers are the same way and an artist is the same way,” Motyl said.  

The film has earned several honors, including “Best of the Festival” at the 2014 Broadcast Education Association Festival of Media Arts; Best Feature Documentary at the 2013 Madrid International Film Festival, and the Platinum Reel Award from the Nevada International Film Festival in 2015.

Motyl worked with a distributor on the film, and one of the results was Netflix. Motyl said he believed the 75-minute film could touch audiences. The film is also available on DVD, Amazon Prime and iTunes.

“I hoped that people would see something that would appeal to many different audiences,” he said. “There is a niche; a subculture of western culture. But I believed this has a lot of things going for it. We really don’t see a lot of rodeo stories and if we do, it’s not a day-to-day type of thing. And it’s about people who are big winners. These guys, at the time, were not the cream of the crop.”

One of the steer wrestlers featured, Matt Reeves, finished second in the world at the National Finals Rodeo in December.

Motyl came to SIU in 2007 and teaches media production and writing for TV. He earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in film/video production and screenwriting from Northwestern University in 1990, and his bachelor’s degree in English from Penn State University.

His work also includes numerous writing, production, and directing efforts on documentaries, including several for National Geographic Channel, The History Channel, and the A&E Channel, including “Jonestown Tragedy,” “Waco Tragedy,” “9/11,” “Warrant to Kill,” “Lincoln Assassination,” “John Glenn, An American Legend,” and “Image of An Assassination: A New Look at the Zapruder Film.”

Motyl, who became interim chair Nov. 1, came to SIU Carbondale because of its strong reputation.

“I love it here. Even in these troubling times, these hard times we are having, it is still a great place to work,” he said. “There is a camaraderie among the faculty, between different departments in our building that I didn’t really experience as much as at other schools. I think part of that is because we are a small town and we are our social network.”

Motyl said he is driven by a passion for telling stories and filmmaking, and wants to instill that in his students. As a teacher, “seeing ‘that moment’ when you see a student getting something and you know they understood it” is gratifying.

His own filmmaking experiences, such as nuances learned in dealing with distributors, is also important to share with students.

Last spring, Motyl taught a class in collaboration with Thomas Kidd, Chair of the Department of Theater. Motyl’s directing and Kidd’s acting class met together for one class a week time, where Motyl’s students directed Kidd’s actors.

 “We are two different colleges but it doesn’t make any sense why we are not working together,” Motyl said. “It took us a while to get to actually doing it but once we did it last year for the first time the students loved it on both sides so we are doing it again this spring.”

Motyl wants to continue interdisciplinary projects with faculty members in other departments within MCMA and other colleges on campus.

“One of my challenges is how do we work together and best work together to teach students how to tell the story,” he said. “How do I tell a story in a video documentary, how is that similar to and how can I work with somebody who tells the narrative story in cinema and photography?”