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Documentary Class showcases student films

When Yvette Daniels joined a women-of-color triathlon group, she did not know how to swim. But as a member of Team Dream, Daniels, in her 40s, overcame her setback. And Jenny Starrs (BSJ15) was with her for every step of the way.

Starrs chronicled Daniels’s story as part of Medill’s spring documentary classes for undergraduate and graduate journalism students. Over the course of the quarter, groups of two to four students profile a local subject and create a short film.

“It’s really a small miracle to have everyone’s exhibit come together, to make a short film in such a small amount of time,” said Assistant Professor Brent Huffman, who taught the two documentary classes for the undergraduate and graduate programs.

"The students have other classes that they are taking, some of them have jobs, characters can be flaky or not want to be a part of the film anymore, so you have all these potential roadblocks that could happen."

The films all focused on subjects in Northern Illinois, with some students traveling to as far as Crystal Lake in McHenry County. In Chicago, one undergraduate group spent a night in Englewood and a graduate group filmed in North Lawndale for their documentaries.

"In terms of stereotypes about Chicago these are the most dangerous neighborhoods, neighborhoods that are compared to war zones," said Huffman, who commends the class for its ability to immerse a reporter in a neighborhood and a topic.

"They make a short film in 10 weeks, which is an ambitious, difficult thing to do, to say the least."

The undergraduate class produced six documentaries from 19 filmmakers and the graduate class created six films from 16 students. After 10 weeks of diving into the project and building relationships with subjects, the classes screened their films on Tuesday and Thursday of finals week.

"Making a documentary in 10 weeks is very challenging," Starrs said. "But also very rewarding."

Daniels, her coach and other members of Team Dream attended the documentary screening.

"They asked the first questions and they were the last people to leave," Starrs said. "They were really proud of what we created."

Katy Nielsen (MSJ13) also noticed the impact these documentaries have on their subjects. Her group profiled a 20-year-old Evanston resident who had been arrested three times and was enrolled in a program to help at-risk youth obtain jobs.

"Over the course of filming, he changed," Nielsen said about JR, her film’s subject. "He realized that he had value, as the subject of our documentary."

Nielsen’s group began filming three months into JR’s experience at the program. Just before filming wrapped up, he acquired a job at Found Kitchen and Social House, an upscale Evanston restaurant.

"For a lot of the students it’s the first time they get to do that kind of work," Huffman said. "They get really close to a subject and have this opportunity to tell this longer, fleshed-out story about their subjects’ lives."

For Nielsen, the impact of the class goes beyond her subjects’ life. She did not have any documentary experience before the class, but now plans on pursuing a career in creating documentaries.

"My life has been changed because of this class."