For over 10 years, students with Villanova’s Social Justice Documentary Program have been tasked with establishing a completely student-run production company to create and promote a short documentary focused on a chosen topic within social justice. No group is the same, nor is the work or mission.
Two years ago, Riptide Pictures produced “Sankofa,” a film that won a gold medal at the 2019 Student Academy Awards. Last year’s company, Glass Rose Films, established a large following on campus and eventually shattered fundraising records within the program.
Despite being forced to work from home at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, just months before the film’s premiere, the group has managed to raise over $90,000 for building fresh water wells in the Tanzanian villages featured in their film, “From the Ground Up.”
The same obstacles last year’s group had to overcome at the end of their term have now extended completely into the timeline of this year’s group, which works under the name Watershed Pictures. In September, the students began unveiling their project via Instagram with @watershedpictures and have continually released content teasing the focus of this year’s film.
“The mission of work is to explore the lives of young Indigenous women in the contemporary setting of 2020,” senior Teddy Hovivian, one of the film’s writers, said. “Of course, current circumstances like COVID-19, the election and social issues such as BLM have been incorporated into our research, since they have all been largely important for testing the climate of the country. It also provides a window through which to see the continuation of the large-scale continuum of the treatment of indigenous people in the U.S.”
Given that many courses and activities have been forced to meet exclusively online, the group’s approach to production has been adapted to constant unforeseen obstacles. Efforts to promote the film and fundraise have been largely reliant on online platforms, especially social media.
“The multimedia team and I know that is our job to really drive this film once it’s done and really gather the audience for the premiere, so we really want to make a large interactive space for the audience across numerous platforms,” Multimedia Director Julie Russo said. “This approach will include behind the scenes information and constant communication with various special guests and experts on our topic to keep the audience engaged, and help to fill in the blanks as the film is produced.”
Typically each year’s group spends much of the fall semester deciding on a topic, fundraising and traveling to their chosen location during fall break to film and collect research for the film.
That timeline and format have been completely stalled by nationwide social distancing restrictions, as well as the University’s policies encouraging students to refrain from unnecessary travel in an effort to protect the community’s health.
“Our class has an entirely online option, so that if anyone is uncomfortable living on-campus or physically coming into class, a Zoom link is sent before each meeting or session,” senior Michaela Scott, one the producers at Watershed Pictures, said. “For those present in class, we work out of a large studio space with social distancing guidelines fully in-effect. I’ve been really impressed with the way we’ve handled the restrictions put in place and would have never guessed it would be this seamless.
“As for the documentary itself, the pandemic has forced our program into a really complicated situation. We are restricted from international travel, which has been an integral part of this program since it began. At the same time, we have also been challenged to take a closer look at our surrounding communities, particularly places in the United States that deserve just as much focus as some international locations we would have otherwise considered.
“We may still be in the early stages, but working virtually has introduced us to so many amazing individuals throughout the country that we may not have found otherwise. It has been challenging to say the least, especially given the precedent set by previous groups, but I could not be more proud of what we’ve already managed to accomplish. By the looks of it, in May we will be premiering one pretty incredible documentary.”
In response to its own obstacles last semester, Glass Rose films staged an innovative online premier for University students and their families. Depending on the evolving situation around online classes for the spring semester, Watershed Pictures may be forced to do the same.
Although much remains to be seen as the dreaded second wave of COVID-19 continues to loom over the University and the rest of the world, the individuals within Watershed Pictures are resolved to deliver another stunning documentary, despite every hurdle that must be overcome between now and the film’s premiere in May.
It may go down as one of the most unique productions to come out of the program’s long history and a relic of the University’s survival through the global pandemic.