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American Today

Television and Film

Students Turn Camera on “Unseen and Unheard” Washington

By Sally Acharya

Frances Garcia can’t yet say much in English. But she has a lot to share, and a lot of people to help her share it – from her young son to a team of AU students.

Matlhodi Sebolai is only 10, but she loves the nonprofit where she goes after school, Momie’s TLC, and wants more people to know about it. Now they can, with the help of another team of students.

Sebolai and the Garcias were some of the stars at a film screening of work by film and anthropology students in the interdisciplinary class Unseen and Unheard: Documentary Storytelling in the Other Washington. Taught by filmmaker in residence Nina Shapiro-Perl, it teaches real-world skills to students while providing a service to small local nonprofits and the people they serve.

The students worked in teams, with the filmmakers bringing their storytelling savvy and technical skills, anthropologists contributing their insights, and each group learning from the other. At the heart of it was a joint effort to capture the stories of ordinary Washington people who are striving to make a better life with the help of area nonprofits.

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Stories

One is Frances Garcia, a housekeeper and nanny who goes each Saturday to an English class that is part of the Montgomery Coalition for Adult English Literacy (MCAEL). The students who set out to reveal the story of MCAEL found two articulate stars in Garcia and her 13-year-old son, Gabriel, who opened their home to the students for long hours of filming.

Then there was Sebolai, a 10-year-old from Washington, D.C. who came with a large group of children from the Momie’s TLC after-school program to watch themselves on screen. “I really like the place. Everyone feels like family,” she said before the screening – which showed exactly what it is, from the meditation time to the black history projects, that makes Momie’s TLC a special place for at-risk children.

Student filmmakers captured the perspective of a gang member turned boxer in “Flores,” about Keely’s Boxing Club and Youth Center.

They took on the challenge of showing the H.I.P.S. Syringe Exchang program for transgendered prostitutes who couldn’t show their faces on film in “Looking Both Ways.”

And they learned how difficult it can be to craft a documentary with pre-existing footage from half a world away, as a group of film makers did for Prevent Human Trafficking, a nonprofit founded by class member and SPA graduate student Christina Arnold, SPA/BA ‘04.

The films will be used by the local nonprofits on Web sites or for awareness raising and fund raising. Frances Garcia hopes the film will make a difference. With her son Gabriel translating,she  expressed in Spanish what she hopes someday to be able to say in English: “I hope,” she said, “that it will persuade parents, especially older parents, to keep on pushing and studying to learn English. It doesn’t matter if you’re older. You have to keep on going.”

It’s the voices of people like Garcia that the students sought to capture – and, in the process, help the nonprofits who are working to help them.