Social justice documentary classes recognized at festival

Deanna Crusco

The Social Justice Documentary courses offered at the University have provided students with the opportunity to not only gain film production experience, but also give a voice to the lives of those their documentaries center around. “All of Us Home” and SREHUP is advised by Stephanie Sena, who started the program at the University after hearing about student run emergency housing for homeless men at Harvard.

“All of Us Home” brings to life the conversations students have had with the men staying in these shelters, and gives a voice to those whose stories are often not heard. The second most recent documentary that students have produced, ,” came to life by a chance conversation.

“My wife was getting her hair done and she was talking to the hairdresser,” O’Leary says. “The woman asked what does your husband do and she said he teaches this really interesting class in social documentary that tries to highlight people that are making a positive change. The hairdresser said she had another client who has this organization called Hand2Paw and I contacted her and we went from there.”

Hand2Paw brings homeless youth and homeless animals together to help get each other back on their feet. It sponsors young adults ages 18 to 21, providing the foundation for a future career embedded in an activity that is close to these youths’ hearts: caring for animals.

The organization teams up with social service agencies to gather volunteers who are trained by Penn Veterinarians in how to bathe dogs, care for cats and perform basic janitorial tasks, according to the Hand2Paw website.

Recently, both “Heel’d” and “All of Us Home” were chosen as official selections of the 2014 West Chester Film Festival. According to the West Chester Film Festival’s website, the mission of the film festival is to entertain, enlighten and educate the public through the presentation of global independent and innovative short film and interactive workshops by hosting an annual International Short Film Festival.     

The West Chester Film Festival occurred this past weekend, and unfortunately neither documentary brought home any awards. “It was an honor to be an official selection of the festival and to be nominated for the Best PA Filmmaker award,” says sophomore Ellie Wright, who helped prduce “Heel’d.” “This festival gets over 500 submissions from highly-esteemed film schools, professional directors and major-budget projects on an international scale so it was amazing that we were even recognized.”

Just a few days ago though, the students that produced “Heel’d” found out they were accepted to the Student Academy Awards in Los Angeles as one of the nine top student documentaries in the entire country. The academy awards divide the country into different regions, each region containing a different number of states. The University is in region two, made up of 25 other states.

“They actually told us we had [a] five percent chance of making it to the first round,” Wright says. “So this is unbelievable.” Each film has been a labor of love-teaching students not only about themselves, but also about the people that live in the greater Philadelphia area.

“I was thinking about the Student Academy Awards and how far we’ve made it in that, and as exciting it is for a group of undergraduate filmmakers to get this kind of recognition, at the end of the day it’s so much bigger than us,”  Wright says. “We made this documentary in the first place to shine a light on Hand2Paw and the change they’re igniting in the Philadelphia community, so the fact that we get to help them spread their message and continue to ignite change is what’s truly important here.”

“It’s great being nominated because it shows the hard work the students put into this film is appreciated,” O’Leary says. “But if they didn’t win, Steve McWilliams, myself and Professor Lewis, who teaches the other section, know the real reward is the experience itself.”

With the new semester quickly approaching, plans to film the next documentary are already being put into place. Students who are considering taking this course should be sure to know what the course is really about. “A lot of students have the misconception that they have to walk into class already having advanced production skills and that’s not true, some students have zero,” O’Leary says.

“There are a lot of assignments in the class that require a lot of different types of skills, maybe organizational skills and so on. What you do have to have is a passion for social justice issues. If a student is thinking of doing this because they’re going to make a film that will win awards, that’s okay, but I’d rather you didn’t take the class, because students need to be committed. There is a lot of work students have to put into this, but we hope it’s worth it.”

The most important thing O’Leary stresses in the classroom is the idea that students are storytellers. They have the power to bring someone’s experiences to life. There is no award or nomination that can express how important this is. People are affecting positive change every day all around us,  and it is up to us students to give a voice to all the positive change that may go unnoticed.