A Camera & A Shifting Lens: Filmmaker Joshua DeFour

by Jonah Dratfield

Film, more than anything else, is about communicating experience. It can be used to show the unseen and shape perspectives on meaningful topics, making it a powerful tool. Joshua DeFour, a filmmaker, former member of the Marine Corps, and University Without Walls graduate, understands this as well as anyone.

In high school in Michigan, Joshua was interested in reading and writing fiction, yet he never felt he had the ability to express his experiences in that medium. “I always ran into this limitation that no matter how eloquent and scripted I was, I couldn’t convey or communicate what I was seeing in my head,” says Joshua. "I felt shackled and I couldn’t describe what I was seeing. It really frustrated me when I was younger.”

As a result, Joshua became interested in film. “My mom was a filmmaker,” says Joshua. “There was a natural pull to do it. But my family never had the money to have a camera, and I never got the chance to make films until I got to college. I won a video camera in a contest and I made two short films in college the first go-round.”

In spite of this, Joshua’s “first go-round” at college was not all that he hoped it would be. He felt disconnected and frustrated with his course of study. “I was going for journalism, and I had a full ride scholarship. On paper it was everything I should want, but I felt like my life lacked purpose and texture. I wanted a radical change.”

So, Joshua dropped out of school and enlisted in the Marine Corps, with the intent of becoming a combat videographer. “I was never supposed to join the Marines,” says Joshua. “I was raised to be a college student. My parents were mortified for a little bit.” As a videographer, the Marine Corps provided Joshua with the equipment and time he needed to pursue film. Film went from being an interest and a curiosity to a passion.

Joshua did eventually return to school, but not without tremendous forethought. He enrolled in the University Without Walls (UWW) program in his second year in the Marines. “I wanted to be challenged.” says Joshua,”I wanted to be immersed in the same quality of study I would be if I was in a brick & mortar situation. The only program I saw out there that, in my opinion, was legitimate enough for my time and energy was the University of Massachusetts Amherst UWW program. On top of that, I liked that they offered the ability to custom-track a focus.” Joshua pursued a BA with a concentration in Writing for the Media. 

Joshua began his studies while stationed in Bangladesh, where he was involved in a humanitarian service project. While Joshua spent his first semester logging in from “the worst wi-fi ever” his studies provided him with many new skills. They also provided him with valuable perspectives from students in similar fields with radically different experiences.

“I had never even written a script before,” says Joshua. "While the courses at UMass weren’t necessarily film school, they challenged me to write a script; they challenged me to analyze films and other forms of art. The best part was that you would interact with a class of other people that were all around the world. I was gaining the kind of experiential knowledge from other people that I wouldn’t have been able to in classes with only 18 year olds. This was true of all my UWW courses, including my experience in Foundations in Arts Entrepreneurship.”

Today, Joshua is pursuing a graduate degree in film from the University of Texas at Austin, one of the most prestigious film schools in the country. Joshua sees his work from the UWW program as being vital to his growth as an artist, providing him with the tools he needed for authentic self-expression. His time in the program was time spent honing his craft.

At UWW, while stationed in Afghanistan, Joshua also began to see his work as having a deeper purpose. He became more political and gained perspective on what it meant to be a documentarian. “I started getting angrier and more cynical about things - my own politics definitely started to appear in my work,” says Joshua. “With my work now, my 'slant' is in there, but I’m trying to not put too much in there, because it’s not my event - I’m only telling the story of it.”

Joshua’s favorite work he created perfectly encompasses this artistic philosophy. The film was made in his first job out of the Marines at Fathead, a sports decal company. The film, “Above and Beyond for Dad," narrates the story of a soldier who, upon arrival home, is surprised with a University of Kentucky Wildcats-themed basement. The film follows the family as they demonstrate their fandom, design the basement and discuss the impact of his service on their lives. “I was really proud of the film we made,” says Joshua. "It didn’t exploit the story. There was one instance of product placement and it was slight. I think it turned out really well and it got picked up by Operation Homefront, a major NGO that provides assistance to both active duty and veteran service members. That was my big moment.”

But, for Joshua, more big moments are soon to come. At the University of Texas at Austin, he is working on his most ambitious project yet - his graduate thesis project, "The 11th Order," based on true events that happened in Ramadi, Iraq in 2008 during the chaos of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The film tells the story of two young Marines who died while preventing a suicide truck bomber, saving the lives of 150 American and Iraqi service members. "The film offers multiple perspectives surrounding this true event of sacrifice, heroism, and above all, humanity in the face of uncertain violence." says Joshua. “This project is the first time I can really take more time on a story, and really express what I’m trying to give to other people. All the other films were leading up to this one - this is my 'go-for-it' project.”

In a way, though, Joshua’s whole career has been a “go-for-it” project.  And, once you go for it, you’re already there. If anyone understands that, it would be Joshua DeFour.