Christopher Grimes was not thinking about becoming a filmmaker when he enrolled in Northwestern’s Master of Arts in Public Policy and Administration (MPPA) program in 2005. “I thought the degree would be my best tool to go into a government job on the policy side,” says Grimes, who won the MPPA Distinguished Thesis Award in 2008 for his study of how the U.S. Army reports to families the deaths of soldiers killed by friendly fire.
But as Grimes gathered the data that would fuel this thesis, a different path began to emerge. “I was sitting in a living room in Canton, Ohio, looking at documents spread out on a coffee table about a soldier’s death, and I thought, ‘This is a visual project.’” His thesis became the basis for A Second Knock at the Door, an award-winning documentary that Grimes produced and directed with help from family and friends. The filmmaker is now working on three more documentaries. “They’re on diverse topics,” he says, “but the common thread is public policy.”
Grimes was in his early 30s when he completed a bachelor’s degree in political science and history at Northwestern in 2005. Married and working in retail, he looked for a flexible, affordable graduate program in public policy and chose the MPPA. “My professors were on the front lines of public policy,” says Grimes, “and that informed their teaching.” Favorite classes included national security with Jonathan Schachter, who served as Grimes’s thesis adviser. “I loved the thesis process,” says Grimes. “It was like solving a mystery. I wanted to find out how these families were let down by institutions.”
Switching his aim from working in government to filmmaking was in many ways a natural extension of his work in the MPPA program, says Grimes: “The most important thing I gained from the MPPA program was the ability to think critically. With critical thinking skills, it doesn’t matter where you land. You’ll have the skill to analyze information and act on it.”