Daniel Junge: Wyoming's homegrown Oscar winner

2013-02-24T08:00:00Z Daniel Junge: Wyoming's homegrown Oscar winnerBy BENJAMIN STORROW Star-Tribune feature writer Casper Star-Tribune Online

DENVER — Daniel Junge sits in the control room of Postmodern, a Denver recording studio, coaching the voice of the Denver Broncos through a script.

“It’s storytelling,” Junge tells Dave Logan, the hulking man in the sound booth.

Logan nods his head and begins again: “Fifty years ago, Denver had a new football team…”

Junge, a Cheyenne native, is a documentary filmmaker. Last year he won an Oscar for his film Saving Face, a documentary about acid attacks against women in Pakistan. Today, he’s been hired to direct a commercial movie about the history of First Bank. Even an Oscar winner has to pay the bills.

“Read less in a radio voice and more like you’re talking to your niece or nephew,” Junge instructs Logan, a former NFL wide receiver, who has broadcast Broncos’ games since 1996.

“Imagine quotations around Vail, like it’s something we’ve never heard of before.”

Logan tries again: “One of the first branches was in a new ski town called VAIL.”

Junge nods and flashes a thumps-up.



I met Junge earlier that morning at Crema Coffee, a trendy coffee shop on Larimer Street where bars and bungalows mix with rundown industrial buildings. Almost a year had passed since “Saving Face” won the Academy Award, a film Junge co-directed with Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.

Junge, who now lives in Denver, had been nominated for an Oscar before. But nothing compares to actually winning. There’s the Hollywood limelight, the acceptance speech and press conference, the Vanity Fair after party and carousing with the likes of Tim Tebow. (Tebow was a Bronco then. It was still cool.)

“My earliest years were in a trailer park and here I am sharing the red carpet with the George Clooneys of the world,” he said. “That’s utterly surreal.”

Junge considered the impact of his Oscar over a latte. The award affords him legitimacy. Fundraising, a necessity of documentary filmmaking, is a bit easier now. Pitching stories is too, and he does more speaking engagements.

“For my life now, I can put Oscar winner before my name,” Junge said. “It still doesn’t role off my tongue. I’m not accustomed to it.”

Still, making it as a documentary filmmaker is different from, say, directing big budget feature films. It’s not a bad living, to be sure, but not exactly the life of the rich and famous.

Junge is a youthful 43 with a full crop of blond hair styled with a slight peak in the front. It’s easy to imagine him as the former member of the Cheyenne East High School basketball team that won the Wyoming state championship in 1988. (Junge rode the bench.)

“It’s not like Steven Spielberg is ringing my phone off the hook,” he said. “I still have to make a living and feed the family, and so today I’m doing a bank commercial.”


Humble beginnings

Junge (pronounced Young-ee) spent the first six years of his life in a Cheyenne trailer park. The family wasn’t poor, but wasn’t exactly middle class either. Junge remembers his mom waiting tables and counting out pennies on the kitchen table to pay for groceries.

The financial situation was considerably better by the time he reached high school. His father, Mark Junge, was a deputy state historic preservation officer before eventually becoming Wyoming state historian. Junge traces his interest in social justice issues and journalism to these early years, “running around the state” with his father.

“I think I learned a profound sense of justice from my parents. It’s also a western American thing, a Wyoming thing,” Junge said. “The idea of right and wrong and when you see something wrong, do something about it.”

His introduction to film came during his senior year at East High when he took Bruce Robbins’ television production class. He lost track of time editing tape. Nothing had ever consumed him quite like that, Junge said.

Robbins remembers his former student as intelligent, driven and “sort of intense.” As a senior, Junge scored an interview with presidential candidate Gary Hart for Thunderbird Television.

From the start, Hart knew he had a sharp young man interviewing him, Robbins said.

“(Junge) is not a timid person. He’s aggressive and he’s determined and he’ll go after his story.”

After graduation, Junge studied at Colorado College and New York University film school. He spent the next decade working as a film industry grunt in Los Angeles, New York and London.


A career in film

When it came time to make his first movie, Junge returned to Wyoming. He followed the Wyoming Indian High School basketball team for two years, chronicling the personal ups and downs of the players. It offered a view of growing up on an Indian reservation. “Chiefs” won the Tribeca Film Festival’s award for best documentary feature in 2002.

“They tell writers, for your first novel, write what you know, and I think it’s comparable for filmmakers,” Junge said.

Junge’s filmography reads like a list of the world’s gravest humanitarian challenges. There is a documentary about a Sudanese refuge returning to his homeland, “Coming Back to Sudan;” a movie about Liberia’s first female president, “Iron Ladies of Liberia;” and a film about the murder of an American nun fighting to preserve the rainforest in Brazil, “They Killed Sister Dorothy.”

In 2009, he received an Oscar nomination for “The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner,” a documentary about the campaign to legalize assisted suicide in Washington state.

“Saving Face” has garnered considerable publicity in Pakistan, both good and bad, even though it has never been shown in the country. The Oscar for Junge’s co-director, Obaid Chinoy, was the first ever won by a Pakistani and a source of national pride.

It has not been shown in Pakistan because one of its subjects claims Junge and Obaid-Chinoy offered her three million rupees (roughly $30,000) to appear in it, along with a home and plastic surgery. The woman told the Pakistani press that the pair never paid. Her husband, the man who attacked her, expelled her from their home when he saw the movie, she said. The Acid Survivors Foundation, an advocacy organization, filed a court appeal on her behalf blocking the film from being shown in Pakistan.

Junge denies that any promises were ever made to any of the documentary’s subjects.

“How much are you paying me for this article,” he asked rhetorically, the frustration in his voice evident. “We’re journalists. Any journalists would recognize that is utterly ridiculous.

“It’s the most important audience for the film, and it’s being seen around the world and places where acid attacks occur, and we appreciate that. But it has not been shown in its home country,” he said.

The film has produced an active debate in the Pakistani press. Columnists debate the film’s merits and whether it will advance efforts to limit acid attacks. In a country where 150 women are attacked with acid every year, that could be viewed as progress. The government passed a new law in 2011 that punishes acid attackers with 14 years to life, a development “Saving Face” captures.

Ultimately, that is the type of impact Junge hopes the film’s Oscar will have.


Where to put an Oscar?

It’s afternoon now and Junge is at his next project of the day. He’s come to the First Bank Center in Broomfield, Colo., to interview Ed Sheeran, an English pop singer playing a show later in the night.

The young Englishman’s arrival in Colorado represents a bit good luck for Junge. He’s working on an independent documentary about the history of LEGO, the Danish toy giant, and Sheeran is a LEGO lover.

When Sheeran enters the room, Junge exhibits the same easy demeanor he showed with Logan. Sitting on a green couch before a bank of lights and a pair of cameras, Sheeran wonders aloud if his love of LEGOs makes him a geek.

“I don’t think the girls outside are going to care,” Junge says. It’s shortly after four and they are already beginning to line up outside the arena for a 9 p.m. show.

Junge explains his film background to Sheeran, the documentaries on humanitarian issues in Liberia, Sudan and Brazil, among others. The young singer notes that LEGO is a long way from those subjects. Why the big change?

“I just needed a break,” Junge answers.

Sheeran continues to pepper him with questions. Where does Junge keep his Oscar?

It’s wrapped in a T-shirt inside a cardboard box, Junge said. He is between places and hasn’t yet decided where to display it in his new home.

A year later and Junge is still adjusting to life as an Oscar winner.

Reach Benjamin Storrow at 307-266-0639 or benjamin.storrow@trib.com. Follow him on Twitter @bstorrow

Copyright 2015 Casper Star-Tribune Online. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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