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Students take documentary production to the next level

April 24, 2015

What began as a group assignment for their telecommunications class turned into a long term project for 11 documentary specialization students. They were split into two groups and created films highlighting current issues affecting people all over the country.

Since they started working, it has been more about the final product than getting a 4.0 in the class.

“This is the quintessential college group project, but on steroids,” journalism senior Gabriela Saldivia said.

Saldivia is one of two producers for the film “Unchecking the Box,” which started as an idea from the form that is required when applying for jobs, for example, where people have to check a box identifying with a specific race. Their intention is to start the conversation about race and cultural sensitivity about the topic.

Most of the students working on this film are white and don’t really think twice about checking that box, interdisciplinary humanities senior and director Caitlin Parks said.

“We want to use this film as an educational tool because the race conversation is changing,” Parks said. “I think it’s more of getting people to acknowledge the more subtle issues that we have with race now .... maybe there aren’t as obvious as instances as there would have been 50 years ago for racism, but since it’s less obvious, people (might) think that it doesn’t exist.”

The film focuses on three main characters that have identified with a minority or feel that they do not fit into a box.

“It seems like everyone that is of a minority race or is multi-racial has had that (difficult) experiences,” Saldivia said.

The other student film, “Gay from Gaylord,” focuses on marketing sophomore and producer Chris Ryan, a gay comedian who struggled with coming out in his small town. Gaylord, Michigan, is a area that lacks diversity and acceptance with the LGBT community, putting Ryan in a difficult situation growing up.

“I grew up very shy and depressed due to the fact that I was bullied a lot through high school for my sexuality,” Ryan said. “I started to solely find my voice via silly YouTube videos, musical theaters, but I was still dealing with all the issues of suicide, depression, struggles at home.”

After he came to college, Ryan connected with the student body and began performing stand-up comedy. The documentary is about his coming of age journey through comedy and how the outlet allowed him to find himself.

“We thought it would be a really interesting perspective — it’s not something you generally see documentaries about,” arts and humanities junior and director Danielle Dillon said.

In addition to Ryan’s touching interviews and performances, the film features his parents, his ex-boyfriend from high school, another gay student from Gaylord, his high school drama teacher and Gaylord’s city manager.

Media and information junior and editor Dakota Johnston said that they have about 20 hours of footage for “Unchecking the Box,” which they have to edit down to 25 minutes.

Both groups have been working on their films since the beginning of the semester and are closing in on crunch time. The documentaries will be shown at a formal premiere at Studio C in Okemos on April 28 starting at 7 p.m.

To make admissions free, both groups fundraised and entered contests to raise money to pay for the premiere.

“Unchecking the Box” won in the digital media category at University Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum last week, winning money to go toward the debut.

“I’m really excited and really nervous — this has kind of been our baby,” Ryan said. “In this film, I talk about the highest of my highs, the lowest of my lows, so it’s just airing it all out there so I’m just really excited to see how the audience perceives and takes it.”

Once the groups show their films, they plan to submit them to a number of festivals, including the Traverse City Film Festival. The creators of “Gay from Gaylord,” intend to showcase their films at LGBT festivals. They want to reach out to pride organizations and expose their message to those who can relate to Ryan.

“I’ve never seen anything I’ve worked on on that big of a screen,” media and information Lindsay Benson said. “This is just the best class I’ve taken in college. ... It’s like the epitome of what we want to do and getting real-life experience.”

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