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Still from the film

Still from the film "ReStorying the Anacostia" created by students in Nina Shapiro-Perl's course "Unseen Unheard: Documentary Storytelling for Social Change"

For the past four years teams of Film and Anthropology students spread out across Washington seeking untold stories... and discovering the remarkable. Their films tell stories of people struggling to cope in the ruins of a historic recession: some are immigrants trying to hold onto their dreams. Others are parents in search of safe and affordable housing. Those lucky enough to have housing, struggle to find furniture - as basic as beds, mattresses and linens. Some are children, like a 12 year old middle school girl who found a safe place to talk about "the drama in school that that was causing her schoolwork to suffer. Or the 13 year old Guatemalan boy who chokes up with pride at being Latino. Others are a group of seniors who grew up together in public housing in Southeast Washington where close family ties, fostered, in the words of one elder, "that wonderful self-esteem." Still another is a 70 year old roller skater who performs for the children - extending a hand to those seeking love and connection. Amidst the lives of hardship, discrimination and struggle, generosity resiliance and beauty abounds.

These films tell stories of individuals … and of organizations in the DC area that work for social change. By telling the organization’s story through the voices of the people it serves — the films provide non-profits with valuable communication tools they might otherwise not afford. And they introduce viewers to people and places all-too-often unseen and unheard.

Most importantly, they connect us to each other.

Course Description

Using tools and perspectives from Communication and Public Anthropology, Nina Shapiro-Perl’s Documentary Storytelling for Social Change provides a cross-disciplinary learning experience for students of both disciplines.

In the space of one semester, students create short-form documentary films for non-profit community organizations committed to social justice and social change. Working in small teams of anthropologists and filmmakers, students document the stories of people served by these organizations – stories of the Other Washington: at-risk youth who immerse themselves in the arts; struggling immigrants who find their voice as community leaders; “last-chance” teenagers who build boats and launch new lives; middle school girls who learn “smart” is the “new cool”; elderly fishermen, who treasure their time on the river and reflect on a segregated past. And more.

By telling the organization’s story through the voices of the people it serves, the films provide non-profits with valuable tools they can use in their communications, outreach and fundraising. In the process, students get real-world experience in documentary production. And their work becomes part of a public, digital archive at AU of unseen, unheard Washington.

For more information contact: Nina Shapiro-Perl, PhD, Filmmaker-in-Residence American University shapirop@american.edu