Monday, May 5, 2014

My First Documentary Production: Real People, Real Hope

Dear friends,

Before this semester stared, I knew that the communication course I was going to take with the one professor I loved would be challenging. When we showed up to the class the first day, Prof. Joanne proposed a documentary idea, which is to give voice to the undocumented population at PLU and educate PLU community on what it means to be undocumented.

I loved the proposal and wanted to make it happen, and so I volunteered to be the producer. Well the challenge with that is, I have never been a producer before. Neither have I thought about being one. I was clueless from the start and didn't know how to begin, but thanks to the fact that it wasn't just my one-person show. Joanne was overseeing the progress of the entire project, and I have Storm Gerlock, who is the co-producer, with me the entire time. And she has a lot more experience in documentary production than I do.

Stage 1: Identifying Subjects
Our very first step was to reach out to those students studying at PLU and see if they were willing to share their stories openly. I contacted an admission office staff to reach out to those students. Because I wasn’t given their contact information for confidentiality purpose, if they decided not to get back to me, it would have gone on a completely different path.

Thankfully, they got back to me the same day the staff wrote them the email, and they told me that they were very interested in participating and wanted more information. So at that point, I knew we had our stories.

Stage 2: Tasks Distribution
The class was divided into different groups, and every group was in charge of a specific area. For example, we had the researchers, reporters, videographers, promotional team, the narrator, the person who was in charge of facilitating the panel discussion after the viewing, and so on.

Stage 3: Pre-Interviews and On-Camera Interviews
What I did next were some pre-interviews with the two students to get a sense of what their stories would be like, and then we discussed about our storyline for the documentary in class. Essentially this is a class project, so that it was important for us as a class to discuss about different issues we encountered during the process of making this documentary. 

After we were all settled on a rough story outline, we came up with a list of people whom we needed to interview on camera. Then organizing interview and shooting schedules, conducting interview questions, and planning to be present at every interview appointment was essentially where I spent the majority of my time working on before we moved onto the story development stage.

At one point, we decided a name for the documentary -- Real People, Real Hope. We were getting excited as the premiere day approached.

Stage 4: Journalism Talk - Ethical Discussion on Name Using 
But as a student carrying 16 credits and working at two jobs, I tried to keep a balance among all my commitments. I decided to prioritize this film to the top of my list. Because it is more than just me, the film is made for a greater cause. It was rough and stressful keeping everything thing on track along the way, but the learning experience was incredible.

The issue of the undocumented students is a very sensitive topic to handle. While we had a good intention to give the voice to the student advocates, it may result in serious consequences such as increasing the risk of deportation for their family members who are not protected. But it is never in our best interest to threaten anyone's life.

This is where our ethical decision-making process began. At one point, we had our three-week-long discussion about whether or not we should make them anonymous because of the fact that once their names and faces are shown in the film, they would get identified more easily. Not only have we been constantly reminded of the real consequences and the potential threats presenting the stories will bring to their families, but we have also ensured that they understood consequences and knew that we had different alternatives for them. Such as having their name removed, or showing only their backs and hands instead of their real faces.

But if they feel strongly about speaking up and having their stories told, we shouldn't interfere to diminish their power of their voice. For journalists, it is always difficult to try to balance the benefits and the harms.

Stage 5 - Story Development and Final Editing
After we finished interviewing everyone and gathering supplemental footage, we made some adjustments to our initial story outline and decided to add a call to action at the end, which is to encourage institution to create and develop a support system for the undocumented population no matter how small the community is. 

It was faster to edit once we knew what we wanted to be the ending message. But the editing process was still long. The day before we turned in our first draft, Storm and I were in the studio from 8am to 12pm with several breaks and some class times in between, we went over the interviews we had left and put pieces together to come up with the very rough draft for class review and revision. And later we came up with the second draft, the third draft, and finally it was ready for the premiere. 

Stage 6 - The Premiere
The premiere was a success because we had a very diverse audience. At the end, they all seemed to be moved by the stories of the students. I think the general message that Angelica and Wendy are trying convey is that, perhaps you won't be convinced after hearing their stories, but it is OK. Our goal is to bring this issue to your attention so that more people are educated on both sides about this issue. You can still believe what you would normally believe, but it is important that you give a chance to see the world through a different lens. At least it will challenge the way you think because so far I haven’t found anyone who can be 100% and absolutely correct on everything.

After two months of intensive work load, I am happy that this has finally come to an end. But when the summer comes, I will travel to Namibia and complete another documentary. I will tell you more about it next time.



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