By Ellin Youse
Audience members listened to sounds of nature, watched University Chaplain Jon Powers deliver his opening prayer before Michelle Obama’s October speech and learned how to make one of grandma’s famous pie crusts at Friday night’s Ninth Annual Documentary Film Festival.
The Department of Sociology and Anthropology and the Ohio Wesleyan Media Center sponsored the event held at the Strand Theater on Friday. The films in the festival were the work of students in OWU’s Ethnographic and Documentary Film and Filmmaking class, taught by Professor of Anthropology Mary Howard and Director of Media Services Chuck Della Lana.
The festival showcased five documentaries. The first was by juniors Maggie Medearis, Max Bruch and Ashley Taylor. The film, titled “VDV: Always Remembered,” reflected on former OWU student Jake Von Der Vellen, who lost his life in a car accident last year.
The film focused on Von Der Vellen’s impact on students and his relationships around campus. Medearis, Bruch and Taylor interviewed Von Der Vellen’s Sigma Phi Epsilon brothers, friends and family for the film and showed their journey through grief over the loss of their loved one.
Because the three students were friends with Von Der Vellen, Medearis said the filmmaking process was emotionally charged.
“We had to make sure our judgment of what was best for the film was not being influenced too much by our emotional attachment to the project,” she said.
“Our professors told us they had a group from a previous class with a similar topic as ours, and they were not able to finish the film because emotionally it was too hard. We were definitely cautious of this when taking on this project, but we owed it to Jake to share his story.”
The filmmakers opening the floor to questions from the audience after each film. Bruch said the experience made the group more connected to Von Der Vellen than ever before.
“We got to know him all over again,” he said.
Medearis said the experience was cathartic for the group, and making the film was “rewarding” in two ways.
“The first was I felt like I became better friends with Jake through film and got to know him better,” she said. “The other rewarding part was having everyone see the film. Having Jake’s family, the Sig Ep brothers and other friends telling me they loved it or how much it meant to them made me feel like I did a good thing, and that we did Jake justice. It was so rewarding hearing some people say they didn’t know Jake, but after the film, they felt like they did. It made me feel like we truly honored Jake’s memory.”
The second film, “Mouthful of Memories” by senior Brittany Vickers, investigated the life and personality of her grandmother through food.
Vickers told the audience the story began as a look at how food helps strengthen a family, but upon hearing the testimonies of her family members she realized there was a much larger story to be told.
Each of her family members’ references to food began with a story of Vickers’s grandmother.
“I was really lost when I first started trying to think of a topic,” Vickers said. “I actually almost did my film on Delaware, but ended up thinking of my interest in health and wellness and how my family has had such a huge influence on me in that area.
“I wanted to know about their food history and how they had grown up with nutrition, but when I started asking them questions they all circled back to my grandmother and how she lies at all of their food memories. But because I never met her, I needed to ask them more questions about her to understand how she affected them. It became increasingly obvious that I needed to change the focus of my documentary to be about her and how she shapes my family even today.”
In her film, Vickers interviewed various family members about food and family to piece together a portrait of her grandmother’s love.
She said the love she was able to recreate for her family to enjoy was the most rewarding part of experience. Since she never met her grandmother, Vickers said she felt she now has access to “these wonderful memories and stories about her that I never would have known.”
Vickers said she finished the film before Christmas Eve, when she showed it to her family at their annual holiday gathering.
“Everyone cried and everyone told me they absolutely loved it,” she said. “It was so amazing to become even more connected with my family through this experience—not only my aunts and uncles, but cousins and extended family as well as my mom, dad and brother. And of course to my grandma.”
The third film of the evening focused on the history and everyday proceedings of OWU’s improv troupe, the Babbling Bishops.
A collaboration by junior Natalie Duleba and senior Dave Winnyk, the film “In Search of The Funny: From Babies to Babblers” interviewed alumni “babblers” and current troupe members about the all aspects of Babbling Bishop life, from the troupe’s founding to the intimidating audition process and the group’s annual trip to Chicago to practice with professional actors.
When Howard announced the fourth film of the evening, she explained to the audience she was “worried the students weren’t going to be able to pull together, but I’m told they did and did so quite well.”
In their film “In a Footstep,” junior Karena Briggs and junior Erika Nininger looked at the ways environments shape music. Exploring places like a serene mountainside and a bustling city, the film showed the audience that music is a reflection of its surroundings.
To prove the point, Briggs and Nininger interviewed a New York City saxophonist named Dusty Rhodes who called the streets his stage. In his interview, Rhodes told Nininger his music was inspired by all the movement around him.
“There is always a lot of rhythm around me,” Rhodes said in the film. “People, pigeons, footsteps. Everything is harmony.”
The film complimented sounds of classical and soft rock music with shots of rushing water and breathtaking tree tops. In their question-and answer segment, Nininger and Briggs said the film was shot locally in Delaware, as well as New York City and San Francisco.
The final film of the night was “Oh Chaplain, My Chaplain!” by junior Anthony Lamoureux and senior Macauley O’Connor. Although they said they would have liked to incorporate all of the wonderful personalities in OWU’s Chaplain Office, they focused on one in particular—University Chaplain Jon Powers.
The Chaplain can be found in his office, in the classroom or even in Chappelear Drama Center as an audience member or performer (he played the role of U.S. District Chief Judge Vaughn Walker in OWU’s production of “8”). With Powers’s whereabouts seemingly changing every day, Lamoureux and O’Connor immersed themselves in interviews to get the full scope of Powers’s personality for the project.
“My one regret is that we couldn’t include all the interviews we conducted in the actual film,” O’Connor said in the question-and-answer session.
The emphasis on Powers’s interfaith journey and his support for the LGBTIQA community during the film revealed the compassionate and empathetic nature of his personality. Powers’s role as a counselor and supporter for OWU’s community is one of the film’s major themes.
Sophomore Kyle Simon said in the film that had it not been for Chaplain Powers, he would not “be here today, or at least be in a much darker place.”
“Chaplain Powers saved my life,” he said.
After the discussion, Lamoureux and O’Connor invited Powers to the front of the room for a comment on the film, but upon reaching them Powers extended his arms and encompassed both men in his embrace.
“I am speechless,” he said. “I only wish the film could have showed the entirety of the Chaplain’s Office, for they are such an amazing and hard working group. But this…this is such an honor.”