Filmmakers in Residence share stories of faculty-led trips around the world
This summer, Wheaton faculty will lead students around the world to conduct research, study and gain skills in unique programs that further expand their education. Traveling alongside them, helping to tell the stories of the people and places they’ll experience, will be four student filmmakers, funded through Wheaton’s Filmmaker in Residence Fellowship.
Since January 2018, student filmmakers have joined five faculty-led trips—to Rwanda, South Africa, Trinidad and twice to Ghana—capturing footage to cut together into a final film after returning to campus. This summer, filmmakers will attend programs in Tanzania, Puerto Rico and Ecuador.
The idea for the Filmmaker in Residence Fellowship was sparked about two years ago by a conversation in a faculty working group, Assistant Professor of Filmmaking Patrick Johnson said.
“We were talking about these international faculty-led trips and how it would be great if we had footage, and it planted the seed that there are all these amazing experiences that students and faculty are having together but there wasn’t really a focused effort to document those experiences,” Johnson said.
He decided to allocate a substantial portion of the Caroline C. Edwards ’70 Fund for Film and Visual Studies, a fund utilized to purchase film production equipment, to send student filmmakers on as many trips as possible. The Filmmaker in Residence Fellowship sets up students with all the equipment they’ll need—packed for easy travel—and covers all their travel expenses.
Oriana Camara ’20, a double major in film and new media studies and Hispanic studies, was the first to receive the fellowship, accompanying President Dennis M. Hanno and students to Ghana for “Innovation and Social Change in Emerging Economies,” a combination course and teaching opportunity in which students work with high school students and adults in the western region of Ghana to develop solutions for challenges in their communities. Camara said she signed on for the fellowship because she was “itching” to step outside her comfort zone and to build her portfolio.
“One of the most valuable benefits is the real-world experience this fellowship provides,” Camara said. “Although my final film was being turned in to the film department, consisting of professors I know personally, it was almost as if they were clients that had hired me. My application for the fellowship was like an application for a job or internship, the work I did in Ghana was as if I was out on a shoot, and submitting the final film was similar to sending over the film to a client.”
This June, Camara will be heading to Ecuador for “From the Andes to the Amazon: Intersections of Culture, Food Systems and Biological Diversity,” a course led by Assistant Professor of Biology Jessie Knowlton and Assistant Professor of Sociology Justin Schupp. The second fellowship is an opportunity for her to combine her two majors, as she will be taking the course as well as documenting it.
While the initial idea was to record and share these study abroad experiences with the Wheaton community, Johnson said he sees the program evolving to allow students to tell unique narratives, and possibly even develop fictional pieces.
“While there’s the opportunity to publicize Wheaton as an institution and the amazing things that happen here, I see the fellowship more as a cornerstone experience on the students’ evolution as a filmmaker, to push them and incentivize them to work in countries that they may never have thought of, in conditions that are really difficult, to see what happens, and then continue the evolution by using the film festival submission fund to get it out in the world,” Johnson said.
Ben Danielson ’22 said he enjoyed that creative liberty when producing his film on the January 2019 trip to Ghana.
“From the start of the project, I knew I wanted to focus the video on the perspectives of Ghanaian students. While the whole Wheaton group was in Ghana teaching entrepreneurship at the local schools, I would visit a different school each day and interview the Ghanaian students,” said Danielson, who intends to declare a film and new media studies major. “I filmed over 10 in-depth interviews with Ghanaian students to structure my video around.”
While lugging film equipment around in 90-degree weather was difficult, Danielson said the real challenge came in piecing together the footage into a final cut.
“For me, producing a video is like solving a puzzle—you know the parts fit together somehow, you just don’t know how at first,” he said. “Especially when the video is in a documentary format, you have a certain vision of the video but, by the end, it could very well be drastically different. I love the creative process between that original vision and the final product that emerges months later.”
The fellowship teaches students a range of skills, including developing a narrative, balancing goals against resources and time, and overcoming obstacles such as language barriers. It also helps them stand out when applying to jobs.
“I am able to tell people I filmed a documentary in a foreign country. Not many people get to say that. It’s definitely a resume builder, but also a real growing experience as a filmmaker,” said Heather Fischer ’18, a film and new media major who followed music instructor Julie Searles and students on the “Innovative Music Traditions of Trinidad and Tobago” course in January 2018. She currently works at VideoLink, a video production services company based in Boston.
Johnson said he plans to continue to make room in his budget to send a few students every year on a Filmmaker in Residence Fellowship. And he sees value in sending students back to places others have already gone.
“They can always make that film about the Wheaton experience, but I want to really incentivize and push students to go beyond that and to try to tell stories of people in a different place,” Johnson said. “I think that’s a really critical 21st-century skill, that ability to land in a place, see it for what it is, and then tell compelling stories about it.”