Filmmaker Kyle Finnegan thinks monosodium glutamate, more commonly known as MSG, is misunderstood.
“I was so fascinated by the idea that so much culture and history could be contained in a tiny little grain,” said Finnegan, who graduated from the George Mason University’s Film and Video Studies program in 2017. In fact, Finnegan was so intrigued by the ingredient that he decided to make a documentary about it.
“Chef Tim Ma defying the negative stigma of MSG and sharing his culture was really inspiring to me, so I was happy that he trusted us to tell that part of his story,” Finnegan said.
Finnegan’s short documentary film “MSG: Mysterious Savory Grains” was partially funded by Mason’s Young Alumni Commissioning Project (YACP) and was recently screened at the Johnson Center Cinema.
The YACP is a program that provides recent College of Visual and Performing Arts (CVPA) alumni with grants between $2,500 and $5,000 to support the creation of new work.
“‘Young’ in this case refers to how long a student has been out of Mason,” explained Rick Davis, dean of CVPA. “If you graduated within the last 10 years, you can apply. It doesn't matter how old you are.” Sixteen alumni have received awards since the program began in 2019, producing musical works, narrative and documentary films, photography, dance, and more.
“It can be hard to get started in the arts, especially with original creative projects,” said Davis. “A lot of artists get hired to do work for other people, and that's great. If you wanted to do something that's truly your own vision and your own voice, it’s hard to get started until you have a track record.”
Adrienne Godwin, director of programming at CVPA, oversees the project.
“An artist can't just be excellent at their craft and expect to make it today,” Godwin said. “Artists are now having to be marketers, business managers, and have a keen awareness of how to speak about themselves in a way that engages with different audiences. I think one of the great things about this grant is that it gives alums the opportunity to hone in on those skills.”
Even with the support of the YACP, creative work still has its challenges. Finnegan shared some of his at the June screening, where he discussed how his production team still had to troubleshoot various situations during the filmmaking.
“Mason filmmaking has such a spirit of DIY, and we will do what’s needed to get the shot, and that was the spirit every day during this production,” said Finnegan, who works at 522 Productions directing branded documentaries.
He gave an example of when the team conducted a remote interview with an MSG expert who lives in Toronto. “We couldn't travel to Toronto, so we did a Zoom recording,” which was fine until the video feed stopped working, Finnegan said.
“I asked myself ‘What feels right for the time we’re drawing inspiration from—the late 60s, early 70s.’ The tape recorder that we bought came out the same year that [there was a significant rise in] stigmatizing MSG. This felt like the right time period, so we filmed with the recorder running and used her audio over top of it,” he explained.
“For me, MSG makes food delicious, and delicious foods bring people together,” said Finnegan. “If I can communicate that through this film, hopefully people walk away wanting to try it for themselves.”
The YACP program is accepting applications through September 8, and all qualified CVPA alumni are encouraged to apply.
“I've written a lot of grants and I've done a lot of interviews throughout my career, and even if you don't win the award, it's great to get your work in front of this panel because in addition to their work as Mason faculty, they are out working in the field,” said Godwin. “You never know what could come from someone seeing your work, even if you don't win one of the awards.”