A Documentary To Make a Difference

Karen Damara

While students throughout campus spend their days writing papers and studying for tests, those in COM 3390 have spent the semester creating short films.

The “Documentary and Film Making” course within the communication department will be screening its video productions on May 1. One of which is a documentary titled “Price of Life,” the film chronicles the life of Robert Childs who currently serves as the outreach coordinator for the National Comprehensive Center for Fathers.

His story, which tells of a life transformed from violence and crime to one of self-realization and integrity, is bound to touch the audience. The second production is a short promotional piece for the NCCF. There will be two screenings of the films, the first one being a formal event, and the second one for family and friends. In attendance at the first screening will be the deans of each school, Campus Ministry members, other dignitaries and individuals who made contributions to the project, whether great or small.

This class was originally the vision of John O’Leary, assistant professor in the communication department, and Stephen McWilliams, director of International and Human Services. It is a six-credit course and is co-taught by O’Leary, McWilliams and Dan Hunt, vice president of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. While each of them is a seasoned film maker and contributes to the course in a versatile manner, each of them also gives the course a unique grounding. Hunt is a professional director and film maker with an extensive background in the entertainment industry. O’Leary gives the course a firm academic grounding in communication.

“The three of us share a great passion for this,” McWilliams says. “Hunt gave so much of his time and energy. He’s given the students an idea of what it is to be a professional in the field of film making.”

The students have spent the entire semester working alongside the NCCF to create two distinct films. The NCCF, which is federally funded, provides counseling and mentoring to incarcerated fathers after their release from prison. The program works to change the characters of the men, reuniting them with their children and helping them find honest and clean employment as opposed to living on the streets.

The first film, about Childs, runs about 30 minutes. It will be submitted for consideration in the short documentary category of major film festivals, including Sundance and Toronto. The ultimate aim is to send it to the Academy Awards. The team is already in the works of receiving grants and donations to make these film festival submissions a reality.

“Our purpose in sending it out is to showcase the values of Villanova,” O’Leary says.

The second film is a promotional piece which will be given to the NCCF to use for potential supporters in the future. This piece, which is around six to eight minutes long, highlights the many ways in which the program works to better the lives of struggling individuals and the bonds of brotherhood that are created through classes and mentoring.

“The promotional piece is a form of gratitude to the organization for inviting us into the lives of the men of the NCCF,” says J.D. Durkin, a senior English major. “Throughout, we were there asking tough questions, taking pictures, capturing footage. It was definitely not easy for them.”

Durkin, who is head writer and unit production manager for the project, also serves as a liaison between the class and the center.

“I’m a senior, and I’ve taken a lot of classes,” he says. “This has to have been the best. There’s no other way I would have rather spent my last semester at Villanova,” he says.

Three main goals were slated for this class- students would be engaged in learning about a social problem and working with people who were actively seeking solutions to that social problem. Second, that the students would learn how to make a film, market it and thereby have a direct impact on that social problem. The third goal was for them to learn to work in a very diverse team and accomplish what is a significant task – film making.

The class of spring ’09, though consisting of only 16 students, is diverse. It is composed of freshman to senior students with majors from the departments of peace and justice, English, political science, communication, engineering and philosophy. The student group represents various backgrounds; some students are writers, others are camera, sound and editing focused, while some bring peace and justice experience to the project.

“I had no experience coming into the class,” says Margaux LaPointe, a sophomore communication major. “I’ve gotten more out of it than I thought I would.”

Most students emphasize how much they have learned through the course.

“It is an all encompassing class,” Durkin says.

Through the course of the semester, students have learnt the technicalities of video editing and working with camera equipment. Apart from the technical skills they’ve been equipped with, the stark realities of life that they have experienced are irreplaceable.

“It’s been a huge learning experience,” LaPointe says. “We asked some really emotional questions, and had to make sure we were being sensitive and weren’t saying anything incriminating.”

The class would go out to shoot in Philadelphia at least three times a week.

“We learned so much from just listening to their stories,” Durkin recalls of his encounter with those at the NCCF. “To see a guy cry while sharing all the turmoil he’s been through – it’s been life changing.”

Each student was delegated with certain responsibilities, which he or she had to fulfill diligently in order for the final product to materialize. “My responsibilities ranged from making phone calls, organizing everything, scheduling,” says junior Trish Campbell. Campbell served as the head of production for the documentary piece. “I basically had to pull all the loose ends together.”

“At first I was line producer and would take care of the shots,” LaPointe says. “Now as director, I sit with the editors and approve what they’re doing.”

“Everyone is indispensible in their own way,” Campbell says.

With regard to his responsibilities Durkin says, “I realize my work toward this project may not be over even after I graduate. Down the road, one of the professors might call me and ask me for my input on a project that they may be working on in the future.”

But as practical and outside-of-the-classroom as this course may seem, it is ultimately a college class with an underlying grading scheme. There is a midterm research paper and a final – 60 percent of the grade is project participation.

“We haven’t had a class in the classroom for nearly three weeks now. We’ve been elsewhere, working hands on our respective projects,” Campbell says. The class meets twice a week, but the students say the work for the class is really seven days a week and requires immense dedication. Activity within the class may vary each day. Apart from lectures, guest speakers are invited to speak to the students at times; they’ve watched exceptionally made documentaries – films that take years to create.

“I think one of the biggest challenges we faced was short time constraint,” Durkin says. “We only had one semester to put it all together.”

The course is going to be offered once every year, in the spring. O’Leary and McWilliams eventually want to turn the class into a study-abroad program.

“Hopefully, the students will then be able to go to a foreign country, do intense research on a subject and make a film out of it,” Campbell says.

The journey down this new road has been one filled with memories for everyone involved in the project.

“My most vivid memory was the other day when Childs was describing to us how his niece came up to him and told him that she loved him,” Campell says. “This guy who was an ex-convict had tears in his eyes, and with resolve, he said, ‘I will always stand up for her! She’s the reason I live. She’s what I’m fighting for.'”

Not only have these students formed ties with the exemplary people at the NCCF, but they have also built bonds with each other.

“We’re all a family,” LaPointe says. “We go to each other’s events on campus. We eat most of our meals together. We go to formals together. It’s been more than a class.”

A further goal of the project is to gather grants to send the documentary to prisoners across the country for rehabilitation purposes.

“Many of them have seen a lot of hopelessness, and have tried out other programs that didn’t help them,” LaPointe says. “It is more of a self-realization rather than finding a job. So the ultimate aim of distributing copies across the country is to send out a message of hope.”

“Childs says if he can change one person’s life through his story, his job is done,” Campbell says.

Finally, the voices of satisfaction and accomplishment echo from the faculty as well.

“We’ve been able to give them a great practical experience,” McWilliams says. “They’ve been in neighborhoods they would have never gone to. They’ve heard things they never would have in a million years. They’ve had to confront their own stereotypes and prejudices.”

Clearly, taking this class will teach one more than how to hold a camera or work with fancy software. It will prod students’ thoughts and cause them to consider the issues of social justice. It will then show students how they can make a difference, in this case through the art of film making, which in itself has the potential to spread that hunger for social justice tenfold.

“The students really stepped up”, O’Leary remarks. “Their commitment, their dedication, work ethic made the entire experience worthwhile for all of us. It really has embodied the spirit of Villanova.”

“They know what life on the streets of Philly is like. They’ve seen the cycle of poverty, the lack of father figures,” McWilliams says. “If they hadn’t had this personal experience, there’s a chance they would have stereotyped Childs. They now understand better that he wasn’t a bad human being. Rather, he was a good human being in bad circumstances. We need to remember forgiveness. With love, forgiveness and support, it will become clearer that every single person out there is worth saving.”