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Documentary Students Take Stories of the Streets to the Silver Screen at Martha’s Vineyard

May 1, 2007 — For filmmakers, an invitation to submit to the prestigious Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival is a rare and proud occasion. This spring, Humanities in Focus documentary students can boast such an honor, having been invited to submit their original films for the summer showings. The remarkable part is that little over a semester ago many of these students had never held a camera.

Humanities in Focus (HIF), a partnership with the University of Utah’s College of Humanities, is a program offering marginalized students free educational opportunities in the humanities. Founded and jointly taught by nationally known screenplay writer Jeff Metcalf of the U’s English department and New York and Los Angeles Emmy Award winning documentary producer Craig Wirth of the U’s department of communications, HIF is in its second semester and seeing remarkable results.

“We talk about teaching the humanities-studying the human condition-but this class is the humanities,” says Wirth, pointing out that this course sees the highest degree of concentrated diversity of any he’s taught.

The students range in age from 18 to 65 and span six nationalities. Two are former refugees, one a recent escapee of a polygamist clan and another is a former female prisoner. All of them live beneath the poverty line and none of them is paying for the course.

Humanities in Focus is exactly that-a course focusing on the human condition. It is unique, however, in the material used-the condition and experiences of its participants.

“These students are telling the stories only they can tell. They know their stories. Now they are learning the medium to tell them,” says Wirth, explaining that this course has been a catalyst, providing an opportunity that many of the students weren’t even aware they were seeking, until now.

Metcalf, an established English professor, describes the experience as educationally refreshing, noting the intense motivation among the group to learn for learning’s sake and to continue doing so even after the course ends, which is how HIF came to be.

HIF grew out of last year’s Venture Course in the Humanities-a program created by Jean Cheney, assistant director of the Utah Humanities Council, and funded by a three-year grant from The Arts, Humanities and the Environment Cultural Initiative, which gave marginalized students the opportunity to earn free college credit at Westminster College by committing to a year’s worth of classes in the humanities.

Students spent a year learning about art history, literature, philosophy, American history and writing. At the end of May, as the Venture course was coming to a close, many found themselves not ready to give up being students. Metcalf, having taught the Venture course and equally unprepared to say good-bye, collaborated with Wirth, and the two established HIF.

“We wanted to continue and weren’t sure if it was insane to try,” says Metcalf, explaining their greatest challenge was not willingness, but funding. Metcalf started seeking money and found it in generous grants from the College of Humanities, Utah Humanities Council, Salt Lake School District, Jarvis and Constance Doctorow Family Foundation and a considerable gift from Glenn Momberger.

When asked why the two chose documentary as the focus of the course, they said it seemed the perfect medium and a natural progression.

Metcalf, who taught writing in the Venture course, explained that one thing he heard repeatedly from his students was, “You should see how hard it is…to get health care without insurance. You should see how hard it is…to get work without a permanent address.” He agreed.

“We should see this. That is why documentary is the ideal medium. It is the perfect marriage of literary and visual expression. It offers the visual argument they need to compel their stories.”

Wirth, an Emmy Award winning documentary producer, has taken the students to the next level, introducing many of them for the first time to cameras and editing technology.

Grouped into teams, 16 students are creating five documentaries on subjects deep from their hearts. The diverse topics range from karaoke, eating with dignity and street art, to a formerly homeless student showing the viewer a day in the life of a homeless person.

Another group’s documentary is about methamphetamine use among the poor-from the perspective of two grandmothers whose daughters use meth and whose children they are raising because of it.

It is precisely this raw honesty that has perked the interest of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival. The Film Festival became aware of the HIF program through media coverage and was intrigued by the diverse backgrounds of the students including those who have been homeless, in prison, in transition, and coming from other marginalized populations.

With an invitation to submit their documentaries and the summer showings around the corner, HIF students have a tangible and fast approaching benchmark to reach.

“This is exactly what they need,” says Metcalf. “This invitation has realized the idea that they are not just playing around in a classroom, but producing something that potentially thousands of people could see.”

Wirth says the pressure, and frankly fear, of such an invitation has only heightened the creativity.

The documentaries, expected to be 90 percent complete at the time of showing, will be screened for the first time on May 7 at the University of Utah’s Language and Communication building (LNCO), room 1110 at 7 p.m. The screenings are free and open to the public.

To learn more about Humanities in Focus, contact Jeff Metcalf at 801-581-5052 or Craig Wirth at 801-979-4476. For additional information on the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival, visit