UA students explore other lives and views while creating social-justice-themed documentaries.

By:    Date: 07-26-2017

ARTICLE BY OLIVIA GRIDER

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Kendall Roden says taking the Documenting Justice film class was the best decision she made at The University of Alabama. Roden, a Dallas native who graduated in 2016 with a degree in management information systems, says the course exposed her to people and perspectives she wouldn’t have encountered otherwise.

“It’s so powerful to hear people’s stories,” she says. “It’s easy to hold tight to the beliefs you grew up with and to allow those notions and stereotypes to cloud your views of people and places. It made me reflect and realize, wow, there’s so much I don’t know and won’t know if I don’t take time to connect with people.”

Documenting Justice is a yearlong, multidisciplinary course that teaches students, most of whom are not film majors, to create short documentaries analyzing the many dimensions of culture and social experience involved in stories of justice or injustice.

Students Kendall Roden and Kaitlin Buck introduce their film at the Bama Theatre. photo by Lane Stafford ABOVE: Students learn how to use video equipment in preparation for making their films. photo by Harish Rao

In addition to giving students opportunities to engage with people outside their usual spheres, “it also gives an audience access to lives and characters they don’t normally come into contact with,” says Andy Grace, an award-winning filmmaker who co-instructs the course with Rachel Morgan, lead programmer for Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival.

Documenting Justice film topics have examined the impact of Alabama’s immigration laws on Hispanic residents, the transformation of a low-performing, highpoverty school into one of the state’s most outstanding in just three years and the internal struggle of recovering from sexual assault, among many others.

During the first semester of the course, students learn documentary theory and history as well as the ethics of cinematic non-fiction. The second semester of the course is dedicated to the production of seven- to 10-minute documentaries. Students work in pairs to shoot and edit their films.

Roden and Kaitlin Buck produced “Demolition by Neglect,” which explored the decline of a massive apartment community built in Birmingham in the 1940s and torn down in 2016. Its first residents were mainly white, upper-class returning soldiers and their families. By the had sunk into poverty and gained a reputation as a place for drug deals and shootings.

“When a neighborhood is blighted, people make assumptions about those who live there – it’s their fault, they don’t take care of it, etc.,” Roden says. “We wanted to see if the narrative we had heard about such neighborhoods was the whole truth. And we wanted to do this by focusing on the people.”

Members of the 2015-16 Documenting Justice class presented their films to the public at the Bama Theatre in Tuscaloosa. Scenes from their films are below. photo by Ellen Johnson

Roden and Buck conducted research and interviewed people who lived in the complex during its heyday and afterward. They learned that when whites began moving to suburbs after Birmingham’s steel industry crashed and blacks began moving into the neighborhood, the city stopped investing in the area, the property began changing hands frequently and it was no longer managed or maintained well.

Roden says this is a common story in Birmingham, where approximately one-third of houses are abandoned. While a lot of revitalization is happening, it’s not touching certain communities, she says. “The story we ultimately told was about how racism in Birmingham has affected the way neighborhoods have progressed or deteriorated,” she says. “African-Americans haven’t been prioritized.”

Like Roden, Grace Kyle had no experience with filmmaking when she joined the Documenting Justice class. Kyle, from Homewood, Ala., studied history, French and food studies through UA’s New College and graduated in 2016.

“I wanted to take a class that challenged me in new ways,” she says. “The opportunity to work on a creative project that also involved research related to Alabama and storytelling really appealed to me.”

Kyle and Gail Aronson made a film called “Ma’Cille’s (one of a kind ever) Museum of Miscellanea,” about an eccentric woman who spent her adult life, from 1954 to 1994, creating a museum of oddities in rural Pickens County, Alabama, while raising five children. The museum included self-taught taxidermy, a doll collection, Depression glass and Native American artifacts.

UA student Jeb Brackner edits his Documenting Justice film. photo by Mary Grace Roden

“She saw that Pickens County did not have a museum for children, so she made one,” Kyle says. “Rooms and rooms were filled, more rooms were built by Ma’Cille’s husband, and then those were filled.

“I think the film ultimately tells the story of an alternative Southern woman, in a small town, who lived in a time when most women were not encouraged to forge their own path. She is one of many stories about wonderful women doing what they could where they could to make their world beautiful.”

While Documenting Justice focuses on issues of justice and injustice within Alabama, 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.

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.

Since the 2006 inception of Documenting Justice, a signature initiative of the UA Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility, 131 students have created 66 documentaries 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 Picture Festival’s Best Alabama Film and Best Student Film. All films premier at public screenings in Birmingham or Tuscaloosa. Students develop a lifelong interest in and appreciation for filmmaking and take their new skills into their careers.

“I ultimately learned about channeling creativity and about collaborative storytelling in a whole new medium,” Kyle says.

Marshall Anderson, who’s from Papillion, Neb., and earned a degree in geography in 2016, says he learned to pay close attention to details. “Grist, Alabama,” the film Anderson made with Josh Wiggins, looks into how the closing of Paul Grist State Park affected the people who operated and used the park. “A random shot of the trees couldn’t be random to us; it had to serve a purpose,” Anderson says. “Josh and I would spend countless nights agonizing over a 20-second scene.”

Roden says she fell in love with filmmaking and has created numerous videos as part of her job as a technical consultant with Microsoft. “Every aspect of life involves communicating stories,” she says. “And videography is such a powerful medium to engage people. The excitement of inspiring people through a visual medium is something I wouldn’t have realized without this class.”

Grace says he is continually proud of how much time and effort his students put into the filmmaking process. “That we produce so many exceptional films is a testament to the work students put in year after year,” he says.

Anderson says of all the projects he’s completed as an undergraduate and now graduate student, he’s most proud of his Documenting Justice film. “Not because our film was perfect,” he says, “but because I know how hard I worked.”

Watch Documenting Justice films at vimeo.com/documentingjustice. For more information, contact Andy Grace at 205-348-8245 or agrace@ua.edu.