An Encompassing Lens
Two U professors’ documentary filmmaking program gives ‘invisible’ students a voice.
University of Utah English professor Jeff Metcalf ’s epiphany came eight years ago as he was teaching adult high school students enrolled at the Salt Lake City School District’s Horizonte Instruction and Training Center. Many of the students were dropouts, and none had ever had any contact with a university before. Their education had stalled when life got in the way, and Metcalf worried about them. He was also intrigued. “What fascinated me most were the stories that happened before and after class—stories about people who had come to this country for political asylum, refugees, people who had been on the streets, who were homeless, people who had never had a place for their voice to be heard.”
Metcalf BS’74 MEd’77 wondered how he could provide space in a university setting for people who had never thought their experiences and opinions mattered. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to create a documentary class and teach them how to make documentaries so they felt less invisible? ’ I made a promise to these students that we would do that.” There was only one problem, he says: “I realized I knew absolutely nothing about documentary filmmaking.”
But Craig Wirth BS’73 did. Metcalf had met the fellow professor, an Emmy Award-winning documentarian, once or twice in the hallway at the U’s Language and Communications building. Metcalf ’s office was right above Wirth’s, so he introduced himself and explained his idea. “I told him, ‘You just need to meet some of these students,’ ” Metcalf recollects. “After that happened, there was no turning back for either one of us.”
They created the Humanities in Focus program, which helps “marginalized populations” make documentary films to tell their stories. Each Monday night, Metcalf and Wirth tag-team in teaching a class of 25 to 30 students in the J. Willard Marriott Library’s digital media lab. The program, which costs about $40,000 a year to run, is supported by the U’s College of Humanities and Honors College, as well as University Neighborhood Partners, a U endeavor that brings together University resources and community members in Salt Lake’s west-side neighborhoods.
A Mother’s Choice
Lucia Chavarria’s mother was 27 years old when she became a widow with nine children. She had never gone to school, was living in Mexico, and had no way to make a living. She made a desperate choice and sent nearly half of her children, including Lucia, to live with their grandmother in the United States.
It was a decision that would haunt Chavarria’s mother for years. “Four felt they were given away. That was just tormenting her,” Chavarria says. After enrolling in the University of Utah’s Humanities in Focus program, Chavarria decided to tell her mother’s story in a 2008 documentary, My Mother’s Unheard Voice.
Communications professor and program co-founder Craig Wirth describes the film as “an absolutely unbelievable documentary about a mother’s love for her children.” Wirth says Chavarria, now a paid mentor to the Humanities in Focus class, went from a quiet student to someone “who began to match wits with me. And now she is one of the most amazing documentary-makers I’ve ever seen.”
When she first enrolled in the class, Chavarria says, she didn’t know anything about cameras, was “still kind of afraid of computers,” and often thought, “Please don’t make me talk in front of crowds or I will pass out.” But somewhere along the line, she says, “I got hooked.”
When she was finished with her film, she brought her mother to Salt Lake City from Mexico to see it, and after its screening in 2008 at the Episcopal Church Center of Utah, a member of the audience came up to Chavarria’s mom and said, “You are such a brave woman. I admire you.” The audience member’s comment and the film itself helped the mother accept her life decisions. “After the documentary, she felt she had done the right thing,” Chavarria says. “It’s given her some peace of mind. It helped her start to heal.”
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In the eight years since Humanities in Focus began, more than 350 students have collaborated in making 36 documentaries, and a half-dozen students have gone on to graduate from the University of Utah. The students have ranged in age from 17 to 82 years old. A majority are Hispanic (many coming from the Horizonte center and other programs serving west-side Salt Lake City neighborhoods), and almost all are living below the poverty line.
The first lesson is acquainting them with the video and digital equipment they will use, including iPads, cameras, and videocams. “That stuff is not in their lives, so it begins with this simple task of taking the lens off the camera,” Metcalf says. The next step is helping the students determine what their story is and how they will document it.
“I would say Craig and I could easily work at any carnival,” Metcalf says. “It’s fair to say we’re hustling them the whole time. It’s three-card monte. We’re always sort of creating this undertone of ‘Start thinking about what you’re going to do. What’s the most important story you would tell if you had 15 minutes’ worth of fame? ’ ”
Over the year-long course, the students earn six hours of University credit and become experts in lighting, sound, and editing, as well as writing scripts and interviewing. Perhaps most importantly, Wirth says, they learn how to express themselves—often on very personal levels. “I have not witnessed such pure and true documentary in my entire career,” says Wirth, who has produced broadcast feature stories as a television reporter for more than 40 years. “I can’t think of a better academic lesson but also a life lesson. It’s where academia and life come together in a really bold and new form.”
Tony Aguilar’s documentary includes television news footage of the smoldering remains of a two-story, Dallas-area home destroyed by an explosion. Police determined the man found dead inside was in the middle of a divorce and had committed suicide by blowing up the house. The man was Aguilar’s son-in-law.
Aguilar wanted to make a documentary about his son-in-law’s suicide as part of the University of Utah’s Humanities in Focus program, in an effort to help others. He joined the class a year ago after a colleague at the Utah Transit Authority had taken the course and told him about it.
Aguilar, who works as a bus driver, had immigrated to the United States from El Salvador in 1975. While living in New Jersey, he had worked out of his home as a freelance video producer for a local television station. So he was interested to learn about the U program. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is what I have been waiting for,’ ” he says.
His first documentary was a group project about autism. He hopes the documentary he made this year about his late son-in-law will encourage others to listen to their children and be aware of signs of possible suicide. On the day of the explosion four years ago, Aguilar had read a message that his son-in-law had posted on Facebook, saying, “This could all be over soon!”
Aguilar saw the post and immediately called his wife, asking her to have their son, who was also living in Utah, telephone Texas police. The police, he says, helped get his daughter and her five children to safety. “One call made a difference,” he says. “If I didn’t call, it would have been a different story.”
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The Monday night classes begin with a potluck dinner— “We learned early that a lot of problems would be solved breaking bread together,” Metcalf says—and quickly progress to the work at hand. On one recent night, several former students offered advice and encouragement and talked about the results of their work in the class. Jeannette Villalta, who dedicated her film about AIDS to a friend who died of the disease, mailed a copy to comfort family in Guatemala after learning her own brother had tested positive for HIV. “You never know the impact your stories can have on another life,” she says.
Natalia Solache made a documentary about being homeless and working for 10 years to gain her U.S. citizenship. In 2006, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Salt Lake nominated her as their volunteer of the year, an honor that was recognized by the national organization Parents Anonymous and included a trip to the White House. “I went from sleeping on the floor to getting ready in this fancy room to go have breakfast with the First Lady.”
Stories that Heal
Judy Fuwell BS’10 was perfectly content learning about the literature and poetry that University of Utah professor Jeff Metcalf was teaching to low-income students in the Utah Humanities Council’s Venture Course eight years ago, until he started talking about documentaries. At his behest, she signed up for the inaugural Humanities in Focus class. “I thought we were going to watch documentaries and talk about them and put our stories with poetry,” she says. “When we went, I was a little shocked when they had cameras. I had not used any kind of video camera.”
In the years since, she has made 31 documentaries that include Family in Crisis, made in 2006, about her daughter’s meth addiction; and Hi Mom, My Name is Claire, finished last year, about another daughter’s struggle with pica, a disorder characterized by an appetite for unusual substances, including chalk or dirt.
After the Humanities in Focus class, Fuwell enrolled as a full-time U student and graduated at age 58 with a bachelor’s degree in communications. “It gave me a lot of self-confidence,” says Fuwell, now an adjunct professor at the U.
Fuwell says telling those stories has helped her family heal. “I just didn’t realize how important stories were or how they can help people until I started doing this.”
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Alejandro Miranda, a current student who is working on a documentary about his life, says he endured years of abuse at the hands of his stepfather before moving out of his house in Costa Rica as a teenager to work at a bed-and-breakfast, whose owner pressured him into a sexual relationship. Eventually, Miranda says, he was rescued by a couple who were lodging there while working with a nonprofit organization to save the country’s rain forests. They put him in touch with Metcalf and helped him move to Salt Lake City. Now, Miranda believes he has a voice. “I have a clear idea of where I’m going and what I want. I am not ashamed of myself anymore.”
It is stories like those that captivated Alexza Clark PhD’13, who made the Humanities in Focus program the focus of her doctoral dissertation at the U. Now the communications director at St. Cecilia Academy in Nashville, Tennessee, Clark had worked as a television producer in New York for CNN and Anderson Cooper. After marrying, she moved with her husband to his hometown of Salt Lake City, where she began pursuing her doctorate in communications at the U. She helped Villalta produce her documentary on AIDS and made her own documentary about Humanities in Focus. “I was utterly mesmerized that someone going through such devastating traumatic events in their life would be willing to dedicate a whole year to learning to tell their story and then show others that story.”
Sylvia Torti PhD’98, dean of the Honors College, says honors students became involved in the program two years ago, as part of the college’s praxis labs, which are special year-long courses of 12 students who take on pressing social issues under the direction of multiple professors. The Honors College students also learn about filmmaking along with the students from the community. The program is unique, Torti says, in bringing students and members of the community together in a mix of different socioeconomic, cultural, ethnic, and age groups. “Really, how many courses in college do you have where you’re working on a project and interacting with people from all over the world, some of whom have spent time living on the street, others of whom have been abused or on drugs?” she says. “It really, I think, demystifies the idea of ‘the other.’ ”
Metcalf says the stories are often difficult ones, and documenting them can be transformational. “We all carry stories in our bones,” he notes. “The people who have been very timid living in the shadows, when they discover their voice, it means something.”
—Kim Horiuchi is an associate editor of Continuum.
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Watch Alexza Clark’s film about the Humanities in Focus program, and Jeannette Villalta’s film about AIDS.