Documenting Justice a chance to expose problems in Alabama

Mark Hammontree

About seven years ago, Stephen Black, the director for the Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at The University of Alabama, approached professor Andrew Grace in the telecommunication and film department about creating a new type of class for any UA student interested in making a difference.

Black and Grace created the interdisciplinary course Documenting Justice to allow non-film majors an opportunity to explore and document social issues in Alabama.

“Stephen Black, who runs the Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility saw a similar class at UAB and thought that documentary would be a really good way to engage students in critical thinking and ethical citizenship,” Grace said. “It’s done that for the last seven years.”

The year-long class progresses from the initial teachings about the techniques and methods of documentary filmmaking during the first semester, to the creation of completely student directed, filmed and produced documentaries during the second semester.

Students work in pairs to create a story and the finished products are shown at a public screening in the spring. The class is not designed for only those students who already have the technical knowledge of filmmaking, but rather those students who are used to pulling together knowledge from a variety of fields.

“I think that it’s designed for students who are interested in storytelling and social justice, and maybe, hopefully, even a little bit interested in documentary film, but may have found that majors in creative writing or anthropology or New College are a better fit for their career goals,” Grace said. “The students that get the most out of the class are the ones who are already embarking on interdisciplinary studies, students studying the humanities. I think those are the students who are often naturally best equipped for documentary. Documentary is really an interdisciplinary medium.”

Many students who are drawn to the class are interested in exploring some of the issues that are facing the state. Documenting Justice gives them the opportunity to pursue their passions in a meaningful way.

Junior Madalyn Vaughn is currently taking Documenting Justice.

“This experience has far exceeded any expectations I had for the course. I have gained a skill set and ability to see a project evolve over a year-long experience,” Vaughn said. “It has given me the ability to find a subject that I am passionate about and convey its importance to other people.”

DJ Jackson, a junior majoring in history, took the class last year and said it helped him realize that being an engaged citizen in your community is incredibly important.

“Ultimately, the experience taught me that everyone has a story that contributes to who they are as a person and that if you take the time to listen to other people, you will find a lot more common ground than you ever imagined,” Jackson said.

About four years ago, Grace also began offering students the opportunity to participate in an international version of the class for those students who are spending time studying abroad.

“Ideally, students who take the international section would have already taken the regular class first,” Grace said. “All of our international students are going abroad for their own course of study, but many combine their interest in going abroad with their interest in filmmaking.”

In addition to the public screenings at the end of the spring semester, the films have also been shown every year at the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham. Grace said student films have won several awards including two Best Alabama Films and Best Student Film. However, for both Grace and the students, the true value of the course is not in critical acclaim or festival success.

“We’ve made 49 films in Documenting Justice over the last seven years. I have the privilege to watch the students put in the amount of work into these films,” Grace said. “What is most memorable to me, year after year, is watching students engage with these communities that they otherwise would have no opportunity or reason to engage with and realizing that there’s not really that much difference between them.”

Jackson said the course is the most demanding course he has taken at the University, but also the most impactful.

Students who are interested in applying for this course can do so even after the priority date, March 22, has passed. Interested students can go to documentingjustice.org to find an application. The current Documenting Justice classes will screen their films at the Bama Theatre on April 23.

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