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September 11, 2008

Pitt instructor's film project wins top honors

As Barack Obama collected votes from delegates at the Democratic National Convention to officially become the Democratic nominee for president, a less prominent example of democracy in action put a short film produced by Pitt adjunct film studies professor Jen Saffron in the spotlight.

The film, “Democracy: A Steady, Loving Confrontation,” won the top prize at the Cinemocracy Film Festival held in Denver Aug. 25 in conjunction with the convention.

The short-film competition sponsored by the convention host committee with the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs and the Denver Film Society drew about 120 entries in which filmmakers took on the theme, “What Is Democracy?”

Submissions were posted online (the Saffron team’s film can be seen at and visitors to the site voted on the films. The top 10 were screened during the convention in a film festival at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre.

Judges there chose Saffron’s film to go on to compete in the Starz Denver Film Festival in November, where it is eligible for a $2,500 cash prize.

“Democracy: A Steady, Loving Confrontation,” resulted from interviews filmed as part of Saffron’s six-credit Introduction to Social Documentary service-learning course offered through West Virginia University-based Amizade.

The summer course’s primary goal was to interview civil rights activists and citizens who witnessed such historic events as the Montgomery bus boycott and the Selma to Montgomery march for archives at the Rosa Parks Museum and Library and the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute.

Led by Saffron and social worker Monica Cwynar, Pitt students Keith DeVries, Peter Kusnic, Erin Lanzendorfer, Elaina O'Brien, Gary Wingfield Jr. and Andrea Zimmer and American University student Nick Moreland conducted 30 interviews during a trip to Georgia and Alabama. Among those interviewed were voting rights activist Amelia Boynton Robinson, members of the First Baptist Church of Selma, associates of Martin Luther King Jr. and some of the original Freedom Riders who challenged segregation on public transportation in the early 1960s.

The film’s title is drawn from the recollections of social worker Lynda Lowery, who recalled the words of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. she’d heard as a teen. “He told us that nonviolence was a steady, loving confrontation. Nothing more and nothing less.”

The students’ participation in the Cinemocracy festival was serendipitous — Saffron spotted a flyer advertising the competition on the wall at Pittsburgh Filmmakers as she picked up the cameras students would be using during the trip.

As a result, from more than 25 hours of interview footage garnered over the course of their 16-day trip, the students also produced the five-minute short that reflects on democracy and the impact of Barack Obama’s bid for the presidency.

The tight format allowed no time for narrative, so Saffron said she led her students to focus on compelling, succinct testimony from their interviewees as they chose the selections to include. “People already were saying amazing things, we didn’t need to complicate it,” she said, resulting in the film’s very simple format. “The emphasis is on the faces, the people saying compelling important things. It’s all people talking.”

When the entry was posted online, it drew dozens of comments from viewers, including some racist ones. The blog-style comments posted in response to the entry turned it into a virtual issues forum.

“It reminded us why we made this video,” Saffron said, admitting that the film’s message is antiracist. “It’s a little bit confrontational,” she said.

The short drew sufficient attention to be included among the top 10 vote getters, earning it a place at the Red Rocks screening before an audience of about 2,500. Saffron, Cwynar, Kusnic and Brad Grimm, who handled the film’s post-production, attended the screening.

When their film was announced as the winner, Saffron was somewhat stunned, but Cwynar said she had been convinced from the time of the trip that the material the students gathered was worthy.

The moving experiences of meeting the Freedom Riders, sitting in Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s church in Montgomery and seeing photos in a museum of Boynton Robinson being beaten, then having the priceless opportunity to meet and interview her convinced Cwynar even before the trip was over, “I know we have gold.”

The film has gone farther than anyone initially imagined. While the goal of any film is to reach viewers with a message, “It’s hard to get an audience for social documentary,” Saffron said. This one was different. It was viewed about 1,000 times online before the Red Rocks screening.

"In terms of getting the message out, we've done that and that is the major accomplishment," she said.

Its visibility continues to grow. Saffron said the students are seeking additional competitions to enter. In addition, the museums the students worked with in Alabama are using the film to seek additional funding for further archival interviewing.

Cwynar said the short has been screened at Carlow University and Pittsburgh Filmmakers and has been linked to a news item on the web site of Grimm’s alma mater, Robert Morris University.

“It’s still going and we haven’t finished yet,” Cwynar said.

The trip that took the group to six cities in 16 days is Saffron’s fifth trip taking students into the field. Through the Amizade program, Saffron has taught other service-learning media courses in Northern Ireland, the Navajo nation, Jamaica and Alabama. The 2007 tour to Alabama sowed the seeds for the plan to return and interview civil rights activists for the Alabama archives.

"It’s important to give students access to real content," Saffron said. Although the class is labeled introductory, students learn by doing to discover what goes on in media production. In addition to producing the video, students were required to write a paper and keep a journal.

Prior to departing Pittsburgh, students learned and practiced interviewing techniques and researched civil rights history and the participants they would be interviewing. Reading assignments touched on media production, history, race issues and service learning.

“This is not a consumer course, not a lecture hall,” said Saffron. “Any student who puts himself into this course has got to be socially and politically engaged. These are students who have activated their learning.”

The group, mostly juniors, came from majors including history, film, anthropology and journalism. Because documentary is a versatile format with many purposes, Saffron said she welcomes students from a wide range of studies to the course.

The prevalence of digital media provides most of today’s students with basic understanding of the technological aspects of production.

In the field, they worked in groups, taking turns with camera, sound, directing and interviewing duties.

Students took away more than production skills from the trip. When the students interviewed their first subjects in Montgomery, “they began to understand how much people had fought for these rights and how much these rights are our rights now,” Saffron said. “Students made the connection — ‘this has something to do with me’ — that’s the whole reason I did this trip.”

As the group’s facilitator, Cwynar, a mental health social worker at the Allegheny County Jail who earned a master’s degree in 2007 from Pitt’s School of Social Work, not only was responsible for tour logistics but also handled reflection sessions at the end of each day.

She noted students experienced some culture shock associated with the group’s travels in the South. “They began realizing a lot about the South is still segregated in essence,” she said. Cwynar said the mere fact that the group was made up of blacks and whites traveling as a group made them the target of several negative incidents. While the majority of the group members were white, she and student Gary Wingfield Jr. are African American.

“We have not come as far as we’d like to believe,” she said. Still, as she considered her own family history — her great-grandmother born into slavery, she a college graduate — Cwynar felt more deeply the impact of the efforts of those who contributed to the civil rights movement.

“Gary and I are truly the products they were fighting for,” she said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 41 Issue 2

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