The UI cinematic arts student discovered his desire to tell stories, and has applied his talents near and far.
Emily Nelson
Tim Schoon

Skyler Knutzen’s curiosity is endless. Sometimes that curiosity requires him to take chances that scares him or put himself in situations that may be slightly out of his comfort zone. But the University of Iowa cinema major, who will graduate this month, says when you allow your curiosity to take over, great things can happen. 

“When you go to those places and do those things, it gets the ball rolling,” Knutzen says. “You meet people, and those people introduce you to other people, and the next thing you know you’re catching lobsters in Panama.”

Skyler Knutzen

Hometown: Des Moines, Iowa

Areas of study: Cinematic arts

Graduation: May 2018

Plans after graduation: Knutzen plans to stay in Iowa City for a few months while he works to secure grants and other funding sources to continue a documentary about the Guna, an indigenous people who live in the San Blas Islands off of Panama.

Activities and honors:

  • Created documentaries on the Oakdale Prison and on the Guna people and where they live 
  • Interned in New York City with cinematographer Josh Goleman
  • Worked with Ondi Timoner on her feature film Mapplethorpe

How the Des Moines, Iowa, native ended up filming a documentary in Panama is a long story, one that first took him from Iowa City to Ames and back to Iowa City, and from majors in physical education to advertising and, finally, to cinema.

Knutzen enrolled at the UI without a declared major. He says he thought about cinema but was scared to try it at the time. After his first year, he decided to transfer to Iowa State University to study physical education because he wanted to make a difference in kids’ lives, much like an influential physical education teacher made in his. However, he soon realized he didn’t love it, so he switched to advertising. In a video production class, he realized what he really wanted to do, so after a year at ISU, he returned to the UI.

While Knutzen came back to the UI to study film, it was a photography project that cemented his career path.

Knutzen says soon after moving back to Iowa City, he was sitting in his room surrounded by sticky notes with ideas and quotes written on them trying to come up with a new project idea when lightning struck. He decided to walk around downtown, photograph senior citizens, and ask them what they wanted to do when they got older. The Des Moines Register wrote a story about Knutzen’s project and published his photo essay. 

“It changed my life. It was then I realized I might actually be decent at this and that my ideas are valid,” Knutzen says. “This is what I want to do with my life: meet strangers, get to know them, and tell their stories.”

Knutzen’s final year at the UI has been busy, primarily with two projects. The first began as simply filming a conference kicking off a pilot certificate program at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center, more commonly known as Oakdale Prison. Knutzen and UI senior Mary Mathis got to know some of the people involved, and the project turned into a documentary focusing primarily on one inmate as he prepared to leave prison and resume his life outside. 

“This has emotionally been the most draining project I’ve done, but also the most rewarding,” Knutzen says. 

Jason Livingston, lecturer in the Department of Cinematic Arts, says the prison project illustrates some of Knutzen’s best qualities.

“It’s not often we get students who take that extra initiative to pursue a project like this,” Livingston says. “It means walking into a situation beyond your comfort zone. It’s deeply ambitious, socially relevant, and it takes tenacity to get the permissions to do it. It also requires curiosity and maturity, both of which Skyler has in spades.” 

Skyler Knutzen working on a project

The second big project Knutzen started this year came about because of a chance meeting during a summer 2016 internship in Panama. Knutzen met a man whose family was from the San Blas Islands, a group of nearly 400 islands in northwest Panama on which the indigenous Guna people live. Due to rising sea levels, the San Blas Islands may be rendered uninhabitable sometime this century. 

“I want others to know about these people, their culture, and how they live,” Knutzen says. “They soon may not be able to live the way they always have and how they want to continue living.”

Knutzen traveled to the San Blas Islands over spring break in 2018 so the man he met could introduce him to residents of the islands. One family in particular welcomed Knutzen, taking him lobster fishing, showing him around their yucca farm, and inviting him to stay with them.

The documentary isn’t part of his coursework, and Knutzen financed the trip himself.

“I felt like it was something I wanted and need to do,” Knutzen says. “So, if I had to use my own money and go into debt for a bit, I felt like it was worth it. It’s really nothing compared to what is happening there.”

Knutzen says he hopes to use the footage to secure future funding and resources to continue the project.

“You don’t spend four days with someone and say you know how they live; that’s unrealistic,” Knutzen says. “But it’s a starting point. Down the line, something big is going to happen to this community, and someone needs to be telling their story. I want to use my privilege to do just that.”

Knutzen says he has thrived at the UI being surrounded by people who are creative and eager to learn.

“There’s an energy with a university that inspires people to strive for more,” Knutzen says. “It’s why I’m motivated to keep working on more projects. I’ll see someone’s work and think, ‘I want to do something that cool.’ I love that feeling when something someone makes impacts you, and I hope I can do that for somebody else.”

After graduation, Knutzen’s plans are in flux. He plans to stay in Iowa City for a few months while he works to secure grants and other funding sources to continue the documentary he started in San Blas. Later down the line, he says there may be job possibilities through contacts he made during internships he had last summer in New York City with cinematographer Josh Goleman—in which he did quite a bit of work for Spotify—and director Ondi Timoner on her feature film Mapplethorpe. He says he’s not sure where exactly he wants to land, but right now is devoting his time to finding a way back to Panama. 

“I’m young, and I don’t want to put myself in a place I don’t need to be,” Knutzen says. “In the meantime, there are stories everywhere ready to be told. It’s just a matter of observing and taking the time to notice life and appreciate it.”

“He’s open to the world. That’s something other human beings recognize and respond to, and I think that’s really at the heart of being a filmmaker.”

Jason Livingston
Lecturer, Department of Cinematic Arts

Livingston says he has enjoyed watching Knutzen develop as a filmmaker and that he sees Knutzen finding success in a variety of areas.

“He knows to put himself into situations that lead to more work or building new skillsets,” Livingston says. “He’s open to the world. That’s something other human beings recognize and respond to, and I think that’s really at the heart of being a filmmaker.”

In the meantime, Knutzen will continue to follow his own advice: “Put yourself out there and be vulnerable. Use your inner curiosity and push past those simple human fears. Going into a situation that is different than yours may be uncomfortable, but you get an opportunity to understand and see how relatable things that feel different actually are. You see the humanity. I tell stories so other people may also have that interaction with something they otherwise wouldn’t have. That’s always the goal: to see something in a new light.” 

Experience the spring 2018 inspirational stories.