Students tell stories of justice and injustice through documentary films

By:    Date: 12-04-2014

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UA student Christiana Frye practices using professional video equipment during a Documenting Justice class.

Through UH 334 & 335, NEW 434 & 435, ANT 441/541 & 442/542,
TCF 434/534 & 435/535 Documenting Justice, students learn to analyze social and cultural issues while creating high-caliber films

BY TAYLOR VEAZEY

For students willing to step outside their comfort zones, UA’s yearlong Documenting Justice  course offers a rare opportunity to see the world through another’s eyes, says award-winning filmmaker and Documenting Justice director Andrew Grace.

The films most students create require them to interact with people who have vastly different life experiences than their own, Grace said. “The documentary form allows students to get outside of themselves and experience the world from someone else’s point of view.”

It’s an experience students, most of whom are not film majors, come to appreciate and even treasure. Mary Sellers Shaw, a senior majoring in communication studies, describes the Documenting Justice course as extremely rigorous, but the most rewarding experience of her life.

“To have the opportunity to hear someone else’s story is irreplaceable,” she said. “And to then be able to share their stories with others added purpose to this unique learning
experience.”

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2013-14 Documenting Justice students Kenny Kruse and Connor Towne O’Neill film an interview at Metro Animal Shelter in Tuscaloosa.

Harnessing a variety of perspectives from disciplines across the humanities, the course aims to teach students how to use film to document and analyze the many dimensions of culture and social experience at issue when focusing on a story of justice or injustice in Alabama or
internationally.

Since the inception of Documenting Justice, a signature initiative of the UA Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility, in 2006, 100 students have created 50documentaries about life in Alabama. Fourteen students have filmed 12 documentaries in countries around the
world since the launch of Documenting Justice International in 2009.

Many Documenting Justice students have been invited to screen their documentaries at film festivals, and the films have won numerous awards, including the Sidewalk Moving Pic-
ture Festival’s Best Alabama Film in 2011 and Best Student Film in 2012. All films premier at public screenings in Birmingham or Tuscaloosa.

Alabama Documenting Justice focuses on issues of justice and injustice within Alabama, while International Documenting Justice, for those who plan to study abroad, gives students
the opportunity to tell social-justice-themed stories from all corners of the globe.
During the first semester of the course, Grace and co-instructor Rachel Morgan, lead programmer for the Sidewalk Film Festival, teach documentary theory and history as well as
the ethics of cinematic non-fiction.

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Members of the 2012-13 Documenting Justice class outside the Bama Theatre before their films are screened

The second semester of the course is dedicated to the production of seven- to 10-minute documentaries. Students work in pairs to produce, shoot and edit their films.
Documenting Justice Alabama film topics have examined the impact of the state’s immigration law on Hispanic residents, the transformation of a low-performing, high-poverty
school into one of Alabama’s most outstanding in just three years, the effects of sub-prime lending and the physician shortage in rural Alabama.

Students enrolled in Documenting Justice International have explored topics including the relationship between history and culture in post-apartheid Johannesburg, South Africa, the work of Uruguay’s clasificadores, who make a living by digging through garbage to find recyclable materials, and the power of friendship for two Kenyan girls who live in a home
for children orphaned by AIDS. View these films and more at documentingjustice.org.
Christopher Scott, who was a senior majoring in religious studies when he and law student Mary Baschab made “The Chief,” which captures Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice
Roy Moore’s reflections on his controversial life in politics, said Documenting Justice was his most challenging academic experience at UA. “I think education in the U.S. in general could benefit from the example set by Documenting Justice regarding what students can achieve when they’re consistently held to high standards,” said Scott, now a graduate student in Arab studies at Georgetown University.

Judged by a jury of film professionals from around the world, “The Chief ” won Best Alabama Film at the 2011 Sidewalk Film Festival. Documenting Justice students Shaw
and Carlos Estrada, a 2013 graduate who majored in in- terdisciplinary studies, won Best Student Film in 2012 for “Undocumented,” which explores implications of Alabama’s
immigration law.

“It’s a great honor to have films selected for these awards,” Grace said. “It’s a testament to the quality of work coming out of the Documenting Justice program and the dynamic films that are being made by UA students.”

Amy Reisch, a junior and the only telecommunication and film major in the 2012-2013
class, said the diversity of students in the course made it more enjoyable and benefited the films.

“It brought people together from all different backgrounds and areas of study,” she said. “We had a law student, graduate students, creative writing and anthropology students. There are a lot of opinions and people to bounce ideas off of.”

Reisch co-directed the film “Hale County Gorilla,” the story of how a supposed gorilla sighting brought a brief period of fame to a small, economically distressed town in Hale County, Alabama. “The film ended up being about people in town and how they persevere,” she said. “There were a lot of social dynamics. We captured how the people of the town get on with their lives through lens of this story.”

Mary Scott Hodgin, a senior pursuing New College and Spanish majors, directed the film “What it Means to Know,” which follows four sisters who undergo genetic testing to determine their risk of developing breast cancer. Hodgin said she chose the topic because she felt it was relatable.

“It’s important because health is something we all deal with and worry about,” she said. “I wanted to show what it might be like to know information about your health prior to any thing happening, the pressure that it puts on your mind and what you do with that information.”

Grace, who Oxford American magazine named one of “The Most Creative Teachers in the South” in 2011 and whose recent film “Eating Alabama” has won an array of accolades,
says his goals for Documenting Justice are “to continue making better films every year and continue inspiring students to work hard and be thoughtful.”

Documenting Justice is offered annually, beginning in the fall semester. The application process takes place in February. For more information, contact Andrew Grace at
205-348-8245 or agrace@ua.edu.