National film award inspired by late mom's example

Michael Burnett (center) used his podcast to produce a documentary that won a national award.

By Ashlee Larrison
GCU News Bureau

With pain comes purpose.

That is what Michael Burnett has come to learn after enduring one of the most challenging points in his life.

In 2019, Burnett's mother, Nanette, died of breast cancer after battling the illness for several years.

“Everything happened really fast. I didn’t really have time to process everything,” he said. “When she passed, I was lost for a little bit, I was confused, I was frustrated and I kind of felt like life didn’t have direction.”

At the time, the Digital Film student was about a year into the creation of his podcast “Just a Podcast” while also looking for new ways to build on what he had created. He was finding his footing as a podcaster and wanted to integrate more of his mother's teachings of kindness and positivity into his work. 

It was then that Burnett decided to carry on his mother’s legacy by shaping future episodes around her natural talent of sparking authentic conversations as a way to get to know people.

Michael Burnett and his mother, Nanette.

“In the beginning I used to have a notebook with me and I would have topics on a page … my focus would be more so on the notes that I had for the guest as opposed to the guest,” he said. “I realized that I wanted my focus to be on the guest and not on the notes.”

After the summer of 2019, when his mother had passed away, Michael began to transition away from his notebook/interview format and took on more of a conversational approach, just as his mother had always done.

“I realized that she may not be here, but I have the ability to do what she did with me and have the impact she had on me and others that I sit down with,” he said. “I decided that that was going to be my focus moving forward with this podcast. All the qualities she had, I’m going to carry on myself and do that with what I’m doing with the podcast.”

In addition to trying to implement more of what he learned from his mother into the podcast, he also would discover more reasons to drift away from his interview format.

“I also think that others' involvement with the podcast allowed me to realize how important it was to abandon the old structure I had,” he said. “It was then that I realized having a structured narrative, like topics in a notebook, wasn't ideal.”

Last year, Burnett put together a documentary titled “Just a Podcast Documentary” that showcased his journey as a podcaster and also paid homage to his late mother and the role she would play in developing the podcast into what it is today. Burnett directed the project, Mitch Szpila was the camera operator and Daniel Joseph White composed the music.

Burnett submitted the 23-minute piece to the 2020 Spotlight Documentary Film Awards Festival in Atlanta in hopes of getting constructive feedback.

He had no idea the response it would get.

“I got a notification from a chairperson of the Documentary Film Festival, and they told me that I had won a Bronze Award,” he said. “It was quite a shock because I thought I’d only get feedback and critiques, so getting the email notification was quite a surprise for me.”

It was an accomplishment that Burnett credits to the relationships he’s made over the years and to all the guests who helped make both the podcast and the documentary possible.

“I think GCU had a big impact,” Burnett said. “I believe if I had gone anywhere else, I probably wouldn’t have met the people that I’ve met, and because of them the podcast is what it is now.

Nanette Burnett passed away in the summer of 2019.

“They made it more special than I could have on my own.”

Members of the GCU film community are equally as proud to have watched Burnett continue to grow over the past four years.

“Michael is an absolutely wonderful person, and I am so happy and proud about how well his documentary is being received,” said Lisa Tervo, Director of the College of Fine Arts and Productions Film Department.

So what’s next for the blossoming podcaster/filmmaker? Aside from Burnett’s graduation this spring, he hopes to continue working on projects he’s passionate about and continue to grow in his craft.

“I hope to get into TV and film at some point while still networking with the film students I’ve met here,” he said.

Burnett truly transformed his pain into purpose, and by doing so he has helped share his mother’s wisdom, kindness and positivity with the world.

Contact Ashlee Larrison at (602) 639-8488 or [email protected].


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