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Tony Buba

James Pepper Kelly
May 28, 2020

Life through his lens

Tony Buba interviewing truck drivers for his short film Shutdown
Pictured here is Tony Buba interviewing truck drivers for his 16mm student short film Shutdown, completed in 1975.

Fall 2019 saw the launch of the much-anticipated undergraduate degree in Film program in the College of Fine Arts’ School of Film, a program once open only to students in Ohio University’s Honors Tutorial College. Enter alumnus Tony Buba, MFA ’76, and his wife, Jan. They established the Tony and Jan Buba Film Scholarship to support burgeoning filmmakers at OHIO to allow more voices into the art form. 

In his mind, how does Tony Buba, a 1976 graduate of the School of Film’s master’s degree, believe scholarships help students? 

“This is something to ease the pressure, to let students concentrate on their work,” Buba says. “Too many are working 40 hours a week a outside jobs, and when you do that you don’t get the joy or experience you need.” 

Buba speaks from experience. When he entered Edinboro University in Pennsylvania, he worked for a plumbing supply company during the day and took classes at night, mirroring in part his father–a mill worker for 40 years. To finish his degree before he turned 30, he decided to quit working and devote himself to full-time study, leaning on his savings to make the payments.

“The job I had back then made $35,000 or $40,000 in today’s dollars. I saved enough by working and having a summer job so that I didn’t have to take out big loans. It’s different now,” Buba says. 

“[My MFA in Film is] a cultural insurance policy, in that no matter what would happen, I would be able to do adjunct teaching anywhere. That would cover rent, at least in those days. 

“I know what’s pushed for working class kids: You don’t have to go to college, you can do the trades. Well you can do college and you can do the trades!” He also recognizes what one might miss through a night-class-only education in film, a factor that informed his and Jan’s
decision to establish the scholarship. “…if you’re not around, you don’t get in arguments about who’s the better comedian, Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. You don’t argue about whether Tarantino’s work is derivative. It’s those informal moments of discussion that go on and on, and the insights that people might have there, that really help you learn.”  

Tell what you know

Buba’s love of film emerged in college while on a work-study job at a local TV station. With his eyes focused on a career in film, he reviewed graduate schools based on one simple factor: the cost of the application. 

“In 1971, Ohio University’s application fee was five dollars,” he says with a laugh. Happily, OHIO turned out to be an excellent fit. 

“I didn’t know much about film, the history or anything. But everyone in the department was a little older and from different backgrounds,” says Buba, whose documentary work is renowned and includes The Braddock Chronicles, a series of documentary portraits of people in Buba’s declining, industrial hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania. “The pace was perfect for me. There was no pressure to get into narrative or documentary work. You could do all experimental work; you were able to find your own voice.” 

Buba briefly stepped away from pursuing his degree to work for his brother, another filmmaker. Buba assisted on a series of sports documentaries that was co-produced by Night of the Living Dead director George A. Romero. Buba later returned to Athens, completed his degree, and continued working with Romero on a number of projects, including a small part as a motorcycle-driving raider eaten by zombies in the 1978 film Dawn of the Dead. 

“Over the years, I’ve probably made a lot more money signing autographs for that part than I did for the entire film,”he jokes. 

Buba in attendance at the 2019 Athens International Film + Video Festival.
Continuing his long running celebration of film in Athens, Buba was in attendance at the 2019 Athens International Film + Video Festival. Photo by Daniel J. King

Buba went on to work for Romero and other filmmakers while also pursuing his own work. In addition to The Braddock Chronicles, he’s made more than 20 films exploring working-class issues in this hometown region. His work has led to receiving fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Film Institute, and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others, and countless high-profile screenings. His 1996 film Struggles In Steel: A Story of African-American Steelworkers, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, is an exploration of these workers’ daily lives. It was broadcast nationally on PBS. In 2012, Anthology Film Archives hosted a retrospective of his work, declaring Buba “one of the most singular, and egregiously overlooked, filmmakers in the U.S., a national treasure, the prime representative of the blue-collar, populist, politically committed yet outrageously entertaining American filmmaking movement that’s largely missing-in-action.”

School of Film Director Steven Ross says Buba represents the best of the School of Film. 

“Working in the documentary mode, as an activist and artist, he has made films that deal with local, American, and international issues,” Ross says. “The worldwide recognition that he has received has been a source of great pride for Ohio University and the School of Film. Beyond that, his humanity, grace, wit, and joie de vivre are a constant.”

“He’s an awesome, kind, phenomenal filmmaker who continues to make great work about the community he lives in,” says Director of the Athens Center for Film and Video and the Athens International Film and Video Festival (AIFVF) David Colagiovanni. “Tony’s always maintained a wonderful
connection to Ohio University and the film school here. He comes to the AIFVF every year, stays the entire time, and makes a point of walking around and meeting the filmmakers. ”

Buba says the accolades give him “positive reinforcement to do more and more.” The Tony and Jan Buba Film Scholarship and the Buba’s support of the art of film at OHIO brings more and more film to the screen. 

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