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Backing student moviemakers

photo of student filmmakersToward the end of his sophomore year, David LaMattina '03 was sitting at his computer, wrapping up his work in preparation for the summer vacation, when he saw a notice on BC's Web site. "Do You Have an Idea for a Documentary Film on Moral Courage?" the notice asked. Just as he was wishing that he did, a news ticker appeared on the screen. It read: "12-Year-Old AIDS Icon Near Death." Less than a year later LaMattina, a film studies minor, was behind a camera in South Africa, shooting Nkosi's Legacy, his first documentary film. The film chronicles life at Nkosi's Haven, a home and school in South Africa for mothers and their children with HIV and AIDS that was founded by the now deceased child AIDS activist Nkosi Johnson.

Nkosi's Legacy, in the parlance of low-budget filmmaking, was made possible by a grant from the Jacques Salmanowitz Program for Moral Courage in Documentary Film, based in the Fine Arts Department at Boston College. The program was conceived to give students the money, advice, and loans of equipment needed to produce films dealing with the theme of moral courage. Any student may submit a proposal (one current participant is a post-doctoral student at Harvard). Named for a Swiss businessman who helped rescue Jewish refugees during World War II, the Salmanowitz Program is now in its second year at BC. Funding comes from a $31,000 yearly grant to the University from the Foundation for Moral Courage, in Washington, D.C., supported by Societe Generale de Surveillance, a corporation in Geneva.

The Salmanowitz Program began its life at George Washington University in 1999, but moved to Boston College last year. According to Professor John Michalczyk--the chairman of BC's Fine Arts Department and the director of the program--George Washington and the foundation had begun "moving in separate directions." The foundation's officers "wanted to move in a more social justice way," says Michalczyk, who realized that as a Jesuit school with a deep-rooted tradition of volunteerism and social justice, Boston College might be a perfect match. With the help of film major Daniel Yager '01, he put together a proposal to house the program at BC and included a clip of a documentary the two had filmed recently in Kosovo. In March 2001, Sy Rotter, the director of the foundation, presented the University with its first check in a ceremony at Devlin Hall.

"With that first check," says Yager, whom the department hired soon thereafter to be the program's student assistant director, "we were able to buy two digital cameras, editing software, digital tape--all equipment that made it possible for students to execute some really great ideas."

One of those ideas was Yager's own, and led to The Whitest Rose--the first of nine films produced under the program at BC. Yager's film recounts the story of Franz Mueller, the only surviving member of White Rose, a German student resistance movement whose members were caught and guillotined by the Nazis in 1943. A clip from the film can be viewed at the Salmanowitz Program's Web site, www.bc.edu/moralcourage. Yager now works at a postproduction facility in Watertown, Massachusetts.

Since moving to BC, of course, the Salmanowitz Program is no longer only about moral courage; its mission has expanded to encompass the theme of social justice as well. The fruits of this expansion were apparent at a ceremony held in March in Devlin Hall to celebrate the second installment of the Foundation for Moral Courage's grant. Before settling in to watch clips of several student works-in-progress, Robyn Hayes '02 showed off a stack of black-and-white photographs she had taken recently while on a trip to the Pine Ridge reservation, in South Dakota. Hayes, along with Vincent Jacques '02, Sarah Beston '02, and Ronald Marsh, a documentary filmmaker who works at O'Neill Library, spent the spring 2002 break on the reservation, shooting footage at Red Cloud, a Jesuit school for Native Americans. "Most people who go to Pine Ridge concentrate on the poverty and the alcoholism--the negatives," says Jacques, a theology major and film studies minor. "Our purpose was to record the strengths of the Lakota culture, and to show how the Jesuit philosophy is helping to foster a strong community in one of the poorest regions in the U.S."

Jacques was in South Dakota producing his own film, as well--a documentary about Lakota spirituality titled Mitukuye Oyasin, a Lakota saying that means "all my relations." For months he had tried without luck to find residents of Pine Ridge willing to cooperate with his project. He suspects that many expected yet another expose about the underside of reservation life. He was on the verge of giving up when Michalczyk invited him to join the Red Cloud film crew, whose path had been smoothed by the Jesuit connection.

Margaret Oellrich '02, who succeeded Yager this year as student assistant director, says the film department at BC is well positioned for such connections: "BC has a great social justice network, with tons of domestic and international volunteer organizations. We're really trying to coordinate that with the film program." The more the Salmanowitz Program is able to do so, she suggests, the more ambitious the student projects can be. Though ambition, it should be noted, is one quality that is not lacking in the program. Sitting in a coffee shop talking about Nkosi's Legacy, which he hopes to distribute nationwide (with all proceeds going to the South African facility), David LaMattina put his hands on the table and looked up confidently. "This will always be the most important thing I've ever done," he said, and then added, "It's my Schindler's List."

Daniel B. Smith

Daniel B. Smith is a Boston-based freelance writer. His article on the Boston College Citizens Seminar appeared in BCM Winter 2002.

Photo: In the lobby of West Newton Cinema, standing, from left to right: Vincent Jacques '02, Courtney Chapman '02, Susan Legere '02, David LaMattina '03, Robyn Hayes '02, and professor of fine arts John Michalczyk. Seated, left to right: library staff member Ronald Marsh, Daniel Yager '02, and Margaret Oellrich '02.

Lee Pellegrini

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