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Documentary Storytelling

Stellar student Alexis Vasquez left his education behind to work for minimum wage to support his family.

Stellar student Alexis Vasquez left his education behind to work to support his family. Faced with low pay and no benefits, he joins his coworkers in the fight for a livable wage, and finds his voice in the process.

Seeking untold stories....Discovering the remarkable. For the past six years, film and anthropology students, working in small teams have made films that help illuminate the lives of the other Washington. Some are immigrants trying to hold onto their dreams in the face of loss and sacrifice. Some are veterans of tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan trying to heal themselves in the after-war, through the practice of yoga and meditation. Some are children, like a 12-year-old middle schooler who found a safe place to talk about "the drama” in school that that was causing her schoolwork to suffer. Another is a 70-year-old roller skater who performs for children - extending a hand to those seeking love and connection. Amidst lives of hardship, private torment, discrimination and struggle -- generosity, resilience and beauty abounds.

These films tell stories of individuals … and of organizations in Greater Washington 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, anthropology and film 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 union 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