Social Justice Documentary Class Travels to Kenya


Courtesy of @oaktreefilmsvu on Instagram

Fourteen students will travel to Kenya to shoot their social justice documentary.

Chloe Miller, Co-Culture Editor

The Social Justice Documentary program is a hallmark of Villanova University. Each year, a group of students participates in a year long course where they form a production studio and produce their own social justice film. 

Funded by Villanova’s Waterhouse Family Institute for the Study of Communication and Society and the Nord Family Foundation, the Social Justice Documentary Program offers an immersive experience for the students involved. There are both domestic and international Social Justice Documentary courses taught each year. This year, the students in the international course, taught by Hezekiah Lewis, are traveling to Kenya over fall break to conduct interviews and collect footage for their film.

From August to October, the class is in pre-production. Once they return from Kenya, they move into the post-production phase, where they edit and put together the final film. 

During the pre-production period, the class decided on a production group name: Oak Tree Films. 

“Oak Tree Films is the name of our production company for the documentary that we will be making,” student Joe Adams said. “I think that represents us so well, as similar to an oak tree, the group of us students and adults represents resilience and connectedness as a group.”

For two weeks, students in the class will stay in Siaya, Kenya. They will also be traveling to Nairobi, Kisumu and Lake Victoria. Other details the class planned before their trip include fundraising, budgeting, organizing transportation, connecting with local organizations and pitching to investors.

“The class has spent an extensive amount of time conducting research on Kenyan and Luo culture specifically and having group discussions about the directions we wish to take the film,” student A.J. Fezza said. “We learned a bit of Swahili (Kenya’s lingua franca) and Luo (the regional language in Siaya).”

This year, the group has chosen to focus on women’s rights and education in the town of Siaya. In order to properly portray this issue, the class will be working with the Siaya Muungano network, a women’s rights and youth development organization in the town.

“We are there to make this documentary, but more importantly for all of us, we are there to learn, listen, and tell the stories of the women that we are meeting from Siaya,” Adams said. 

Each of the 14 members of the Social Justice Documentary program has a specific role for the duration of the project. These roles range from cinematographer, co-director, producer, multimedia co-director of photography and more. 

Tiane Paris is one of two co-directors of the film and they help provide a vision for the film. Adams, a producer, is in charge of many of the logistics of the trip. These include booking flights, hotel rooms and acquiring visas. 

The hours of preparation are done to ensure things go as smoothly as possible, although it is challenging to predict what will happen in filmmaking.

“Documentary filmmaking is challenging because you cannot quite predict what the final outcome will be,” Paris said. “You are relying on research and a strong vision alone. On the ground, things may not pan out how you envisioned, and you simply have to roll with the punches.”

Participating in the Social Justice Documentary program has already been transformative for many of the students. 

“This class is important for me because it has really caused me to reflect on my privilege as a white male in America,” Adams said. “I want to do whatever I can to tell our collaborator’s stories, and by creating this documentary, I hope that people will watch and wonder, ‘What role do I play in the global reproductive health crisis?’”

Oak Tree Films is just getting started. Departing on Oct. 7, they will fly from Washington, DC, to Doha, Qatar, to Nairobi, Kenya, to Kisumu, Kenya and then take a bus to Siaya, Kenya. 

The final film will premiere in May of 2023. For more updates, check out @oaktreefilmsvu on Instagram.