It's quite possible that Denise Bennett is one of Idaho's best-known contemporary filmmakers, partly because she's the producer/writer of "Some Lived: An Idaho POW's Story," which aired as part of Idaho Public Television's popular Idaho Experience series. But she has also recently made headlines as the University of Idaho associate professor who was put on administrative leave, triggering a controversial text alert from U of I officials and a series of student-led demonstrations on the Moscow campus.
"The current situation between Denise Bennett and the University of Idaho administration has nothing do with the content of her film," said Jeff Tucker, director of content for Idaho Public Television, who added that the film was brought to IPTV's attention years before Bennet's suspension. "The film stands as a well-told story, one that all Idahoans should have access to."
Bennett has remained mostly silent, per advice from her lawyers, since the U of I firestorm erupted; but she granted an exclusive interview to BW, where she spoke of her passion for telling the truth, her current status with the university and the next film that she's working on (hint: It's about her current tangle with U of I).
As a professor of documentary filmmaking and media production, what's your level of optimism for the next generation of filmmakers?
Oh God, I'm such a cynic. Maybe that's what puts me in touch with documentaries. I don't take anything too seriously, but it's important to tell stories, especially in the Trump era, from people of color, people of different genders, binary and nonbinary. Everybody should be able to tell their story.
Your film, Some Lived, is a very particular story of an Idahoan's miraculous survival in a POW camp, yet it reaches across several generations.
I thought a lot about that. I even asked myself, "Do you really need another World War II film?" It's been done. But if your perceptive enough, sensitive enough and you listen enough, there are good stories everywhere.
What films are you working on now?
I have a film called Gotts Point about the murder of Steven Nelson, an openly gay man and University of Idaho alumnus, who, back in 2016, was lured to Gotts Point in Canyon County. That's where he was robbed, beaten and left for dead. I actually had some archival footage of my own from when I filmed an interview of Steven in 2014 about gay marriage.
What else are you working on?
The working title of my other film is The Bennett Situation. That was actually the title of one of the text alerts sent out across the campus after they put me on administrative leave.
Note: On Jan. 22, Bennett sent an email to university officials, which included expletives, ripping the administration for what she said was the mishandling of grant funds. Bennett was placed on administrative leave, and a few days later, officials sent out a pair of so-called "Vandal Alerts," the first cautioning students that if they spotted Bennett on campus, they should immediately call 911. The text also made reference to alleged drug use and weapons possession, but Moscow police said there was never any investigation to back up those allegations.
You haven't spoken publicly regarding The Bennett Situation yet, so would you like to set the record straight on any misperceptions that may be floating out there about you?
I'd like to set this record straight: Students have rights. Employees are entitled to due process. I can't speak any more to it than that, or my lawyer will kill me.
How are you doing otherwise?
I believe in my First Amendment rights. I think that the United States Constitution will allow me due process.
And your current status at the university?
I am an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho, and I'm on administrative leave.