The Accidental Documentarian: Nick Beaulieu's New Love of VideoJun 25, 2021 04:44PM ● By Kim Carpenter
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
Nick Beaulieu didn’t set out to make documentary films. He didn’t set out to be affiliated with vaunted outlets such as PBS. He wanted to be a journalist, and for a while, the 26-year-old, who grew up in West Omaha and attended Millard North, was on exactly the right path.
He attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha and rose through the journalism ranks, eventually becoming the editor of the student newspaper The Gateway before graduating in 2016. He also spent over a year paying his dues on the copy desk at the Omaha World-Herald.
“For a long time, I saw myself exclusively as a writer,” Beaulieu said. “I was on track with UNO and freelancing for a lot of blogs.” As an astute observer of journalism, however, he also was losing faith in the profession as a career path.
“I was noticing at the time how journalism was changing,” Beaulieu said. “Facts are so disputed right now. You can’t get people to agree on objective facts and to accept news that they don’t trust. We’re at an impasse.”
Beaulieu wanted to bridge that gap and find common ground. He believed having empathy and just listening was the way to do that.
“I really liked in-depth storytelling with emotion and conflict,” Beaulieu said. “I wanted to do those kinds of feature pieces. That’s when I realized that I could find that through filmmaking.”
Time in Los Angeles during summer 2015 helped bring him to that conclusion. Originally, Beaulieu traveled to the West Coast for an internship with F.A.M.E.’US Magazine, but, he said, “It didn’t go anywhere.”
Instead, he ended up working as a contributing writer on the documentary The Last Tear, which chronicled the 200,000 women who worked as sex slaves for the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II.
The experience was life changing.
“I was an Omaha kid, and this was the first time that I had stepped outside Nebraska and my comfort zone. I was working with a really diverse team and learned so much. It was really formative. I knew for sure after that summer that documentary filmmaking was what I wanted to do.”
Beaulieu returned to Omaha and did whatever he could to learn about the profession. He interned at Film Streams, where he could view documentary films and meet filmmakers. “Just being in that world—that was my classroom,” he said. “When you want to do something that’s a creative endeavor, you just have to keep going.”
He started paying attention to what kinds of stories he wanted to share. “What’s the biggest story in Omaha that’s untold?” he asked himself. Beaulieu became interested in huge gaps in racial equality and violence in the city and started investigating those themes through the lenses of city, church, and family.
Beaulieu joined an online documentary community last April and began making use of the resources such as weekly meetings, mentoring, and networking, which all helped orient him toward his new career path.
“It was a game changer,” he says.
Indeed it was.
A woman in the group saw that PBS was looking for Nebraska contributions to its American Portrait series, which focuses on ordinary people and their extraordinary lives. She urged Beaulieu to consider it.
He did and he ended up profiling five people from Omaha. His subjects included Gladys Harrison, owner of Big Mama’s Kitchen and Catering, who explained why she wanted to run for Congress; and local artist Watie White, who described his public art project 100 People, which he created to showcase the people who’ve inspired him. In each of Beaulieu’s segments, his intuitive approach of letting subjects reveal themselves through their intimate stories is evident.
The experience was a major turning point for the budding documentarian’s career.
“It’s amazing the doors this has opened,” said the filmmaker. “Contributing to PBS was a huge moment. It’s pretty sweet.”
Author, director, and screenplay writer John Kaye has enjoyed watching Beaulieu’s development. The two met in 2016 after a Film Streams’ screening of American Hot Wax, which Kaye wrote. They struck up a conversation after the Q&A, and over the years became close friends.
“Nick presents himself as ‘West O. Bro’ and as a chill guy, but he approaches everything in a really smart way,” observed Kaye. “He’s very productive in the way he assesses things. He is so open to possibilities.”
Kaye described how Beaulieu offers insightful criticism of his work, and said that keen perspicacity lends itself well to impactful documentary work.
“He watches everything,” Kaye said. “Rather than approach his work in a linear fashion, it’s more like a polaroid. It’s taken guts to do it, because he’s had to reframe and roll the dice on his imagination. It makes what he’s doing really compelling.”
Beaulieu’s main focus right now is finishing the film he’s been working on for the past five years in Omaha. He’s in the editing and post-production phase.
Although not ready to divulge the details of the product, he said he’s on target. “The average time for the first documentary is seven years.”
After that, Beaulieu sees himself branching outside the area in search of more stories to tell.
But, he noted, his storytelling will never be far from home. “Omaha will always influence my work. I take a lot of pride in representing the Midwest. I’m excited to keep contributing and representing Omaha and telling our stories.”
Visit pbs.org/american-portrait to view Beaulieu’s work.