A professor has chosen to screen two CSUN student documentaries Friday, Nov. 19 at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque at the Armer Theater in Manzanita Hall.
Maria Elena de las Carreras, adjunct professor for the Cinema, Arts and Television Department, wanted CSUN alumni who have made documentaries to come speak to the students in her documentary class about what it means to make a documentary and how to go about the process.
“I choose documentaries where I can have the filmmakers come and speak to my students,” de las Carreras said. “It’s for a practical and educational purpose. It complements the class.”
Paul Laverack, a current journalism graduate student, graduated from CSUN in 2007 with a Master’s in screenwriting. Kate Ryan, an editor for the CBS show “Undercover Boss,” graduated from CSUN’s CTVA department in 2007 as a film production major. Both had kept in touch with Carreras.
“This event is a learning experience for the students and even myself,” said Laverack, a Journalism graduate student.
Laverack’s documentary, “Survive the Night,” is the story of a group of CSUN students who spent the night in the quad in front of the Oviatt Library, as if they were homeless. CSUN’s volunteer program Unified We Serve hosted the event last November.
Laverack attended the event as a participant to create a 10-minute webisode for his Internet show Political Muscle, which showcases progressive activism.
“Once my cameraman and I started shooting footage, we realized there’s a bigger story,” Laverack said. “It was an intense experience that was generating more material that we felt deserved a longer treatment.”
Participants slept on cardboard boxes and ate from an improvised soup kitchen. Homeless people attended the event to speak to the students about their real experiences.
“It was an all-night experience that was just one thing after another contributing to your understanding of homelessness,” Laverack said. “The idea was to understand and experience it.”
There was an estimated 150 participants, but 50 left before the night was over.
“As we were taping, we were seeing emotional reactions of the participants and of ourselves, which was exciting,” Laverack said. “I realized there is something special happening here. This is more intense and fascinating than I imaged it would be.”
Laverack and his cameraman edited their footage immediately. They edited the 10-minute webisode for Political Muscle and walked away for a couple of months. They came back to it recently editing it into the 40-minute documentary that will be screened Friday night.
Laverack, who became a documentary filmmaker by accident, has not had a big-screen screening in five years.
“It was a snowball rolling downhill and gathering force,” Laverack said. “I had an idea to do short, progressive films as an independent project and it picked up from there.”
Laverack wants his documentary to show homelessness in the national context – the American response to homelessness at home.
Ryan’s documentary, “Dark End of the Street: The Untold Story of the Roma People,” tells the story of a small community of Roma people or “Gypsies” who live in Sofia, Bulgaria.
After being kicked out of their illegal housing 10 years ago, they were placed in old train boxcars, with no plumbing or toilets and only one sink for 250 people, while the government promised to provide apartments for them. The promise was not fulfilled and the community still lives in these conditions.
Ryan’s documentary looks at how the people in the community ended up in this situation, why nothing has been done to move them to better conditions and why they are hated by most Europeans.
In November 2009, Ryan traveled to Sofia and spent five weeks there. She started planning and researching her project in 2008. Since coming back, she has been editing, transcribing and translating the non-English material.
“My film is still a ‘work-in-progress,’” Ryan said.
A clip from the documentary will be shown on Friday.
Because Ryan worked independently, she encountered many obstacles.
“Gaining the trust of the Roma people was difficult,” Ryan said. “Because they have been taken advantage of for so many years, they do not trust anyone outside of their culture. Many thought that we were there to exploit them by taking their pictures and selling them for our own profit, and no matter how many times we assured them that wasn’t what we were doing, they didn’t believe us.”
Ryan got inspired to create her documentary after spending a few summers working with an organization that serves the Roma communities in Eastern Europe.
“I went there thinking that the issue was black and white, when really it is many shades of grey,” Ryan said. “I found myself sympathizing with both sides of the argument, instead of seeing the Roma people as ‘good’ and the Bulgarians as ‘bad’. As I edit the film, I am trying to find a balance between both sides to show the complexities of the issue.”
Ryan considers it an honor to share her experiences with other students at CSUN.
“My class is geared towards the future for students who want to learn how to make documentaries with examples shown in the class,” de las Carreras said.
The screening shows students how other filmmakers were successful in completing their films and how they planned it out and responded to obstacles, de las Carreras said.
There are a couple of screenings every semester in the Cinematheque. De las Carreras said she believes the screenings are a good opportunity for other students to tackle the same experiences they may face.
The free screening is open to the public.