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The City Journals

Empathy, human connection at forefront of students’ social impact documentaries

Aug 12, 2020 02:42PM ● By Julie Slama

Waterford student filmmakers set up for an interview for their documentary, “DACAmented,” with Kate Parker, holding the sound boom, and Emma Greally, sitting in for their interviewee, so the group could measure sound and set up the camera in their school library. (Photo courtesy Samantha Campbell)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Two Syrian sisters, Salam and Raghad, are captured on film, showing how they’ve adjusted to American life at Hillcrest High after they escaped the bombing of their hometown Khirbet Ghazaleh in 2013 with whatever belongings they could carry and lived more than three years at a refugee camp in Jordan.

“They’re from an educated family and had a good life before the war in Syria,” said Tioné Hoeckner, one of the filmmakers. “They’re not bitter, but rather grateful that they’re safe; they’ve lived where it wasn’t clean and there weren’t good schools. Now, they’re wanting to take advantage of every minute; they have 4.0 grade-point averages and this fall, they’ll attend the U (University of Utah).”

The film, “أمل,” meaning hope, prospect, expectancy, trust, was made as a social impact documentary by Hoeckner and her teammates Isabel Hiestand and Lucza Brewer.

“We included footage of the bombing in Syria and how many have fled since the war so it’s more impactful. You can see photos of their house after it was bombed; it was so sad to see everything destroyed,” Hoeckner said. “We want to educate people what’s happening there since lots of people don’t seem to understand or have empathy. Some people don’t understand why they’re here, how come they look different with their hair covered, and just jump to conclusions about them. We’re trying to show that these educated people were happy before the war and didn’t want to come, but because of these circumstances, they’re here and making the best of it.”

The filmmakers were invited into the girls’ lives where they saw where the sisters went to school, learned their cultural and religious beliefs, saw them teach Arabic to children at a Muslim community center and enjoyed dinner with their family.

“We were invited into their home, their lives and they opened up to us. It has made the film very impactful and with their traditions and background, very beautiful. We’re so grateful they shared their story, their lives with us,” Hoeckner said.

This was just one team of student filmmakers whose mission was to produce a short film that promotes social change as part of a special elective class this past spring at Waterford School. Visiting artist Jenny Mackenzie, who is an Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker, directed the eight students, who were selected from 26 applicants.

In the past, Waterford has hosted an Artist Week featuring students’ work after a guest artist may teach sculpture, painting or drawing. This year, it developed into an artist-in-residence where Mackenzie spent spring semester teaching students how to develop and pitch story ideas, shoot interviews and B-roll, record good-quality audio, storyboard, and produce documentaries.

“I teach what I’m passionate about and if you love and want the next generation to be passionate about it, then you introduce them to it,” Mackenzie said, who worked with Waterford teacher Andrew Patteson in the seminar-style class. 

Mackenzie brought in guest filmmakers and cinematographers for the students to learn from and ask questions as well as attend a showing at Sundance Film Festival. She showed trailers, podcasts and films, including some of hers from the past 10 years, and students had weekly analysis and assignments based on them. 

“Kids nowadays have their world impacted by media, TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat. They’re all about documenting their lives. They’re naturals at it, but we upgraded with better equipment, understanding the value of social-impact documentaries, and allowing them to be present in people’s lives,” she said.

Three professionals also listened to the student teams pitch their film ideas that explored social justice issues, but also shared those through people’s stories.

“The teams came up with three remarkable stories they pitched and pushed their boundaries,” Mackenzie said. “I wanted their films to be character-driven and they did just that. They got to know their subject really well and saw the challenges and obstacles they faced in their lives. These films also connected our students to our community; they are important stories to tell, to show how humanity connects us.”

Besides the Syrian refugee film, a team was inspired by the current DACA debate to create “DACAmented” and featured a Mexican immigrant.

“It’s a touching story about who we are as Americans, what our rights are and our beliefs in education,” Mackenzie said. “The other film is called ‘Kilgore,’ and it’s about a female Salt Lake homicide detective who pushed past the stereotypes, becoming one of only two female detectives and one of the 9% who make up the police department.”

The guests in the films were to be on hand at the films’ premiere in late March, but with schools being on soft closure in response to COVID-19, the date got postponed. A new date has yet to be determined.

“At that point, the teams all had their rough cuts finished and were editing,” Mackenzie said.

Senior Samantha Campbell, sophomore Emma Greally and junior Kate Parker got creative with their editing. 

“We were editing since Feb. 19 and had a good rough draft going when we went from spring break into lock down,” she said. “Once coronavirus happened, it made it extremely difficult. We were able to put editing software on two of our personal computers and then shared a hard drive. We’d get on a video call, talk about what we’d want to do, then Emma would edit it and leave it at my front door. I’d wipe off the hard drive, take a look at it, and we’d talk about it again. Then, I’d edit and give it back to her. Kate’s computer doesn’t support the software, but she was always there, giving us ideas and feedback. It was the way we all could collaboratively work on it.”

Mackenzie said the process was challenging but had “a silver lining.”

“They really learned to work as a team. I’m super proud how they made it work remotely,” she said.

“DACAmented” is about a 27-year-old Kiara, who was smuggled with her younger brother into the United States when she was 9 years old. They lived in Arizona until their mother was able to come a few years later.

“Emma knew her, and we thought it was a perfect time to tell her story with what is going on in the world,” Campbell said. “She’s working hard with two jobs to save to go to school, so she can have a better life. She faces challenges and diversity every day. We talked to an immigration lawyer to learn more about DACA. We followed where it’s at with the Supreme Court and told her story. It’s what we learned in class—it’s much more impactful with a great story.”

That’s true of Amelia Rukavina’s and Clea Whaley’s film “Kilgrove,” which follows Jessica Kilgrove’s story of working her way up the ranks to detective in her 17 years with Salt Lake Police Department.

“We drove around with her, which was super cool, and got footage of her patrolling. She took us to a memorial site where a policeman had been shot. It added another dimension to the story. We incorporated her personal story, how she’s dealt with male officers and conflicts she’s had. We included one story about a comment that was made about her wearing a skirt to an interview,” Rukavina said.

She said it was inspiring how Det. Kilgrove overcame adversity and by sharing her story, it made the film “amazing.”

All three teams are investigating entering their documentaries in area film festivals, if they are being held with COVID-19, and some have grown passionate about filmmaking and want to continue.

“I learned so much from this, how a person’s story can be so impactful and so important,” Campbell said. “I had made some fun films before, but nothing serious like this. I learned more about filmmaking, B-roll, editing, how to meet and ask questions. I learned about DACA and became more compassionate for those people. I didn’t know anyone with such hardship before. I’m so excited to share and tell her story and have it resonate with people. I want people to feel more compassion; maybe this is a way I can continue and help people.”