East of I-35 in Austin, Ann Wolfe, a tough-as-nails boxer, trains local kids at her gym in boxing and in life. Elena Lopez successfully fights off developers to stay in the house she moved to in 1953, even as the rest of her block is razed. Guitarist Clarence Pierce keeps the blues humming with his band the Eastside Kings. Charlie Machado transforms a childhood penchant for racing lawnmowers into a career racing motorcycles that earns him the moniker “the world’s fastest Mexican.”
If the universe is made of stories, as poet Muriel Rukeyser claims, then East Austin’s part of the universe is particularly dense. And its stories are making their way to film through the East Austin Stories documentary film project.
Since 2001, film students at The University of Texas at Austin have collaborated with East Austin residents, businesspeople and patrons to create a visual record of the community through dozens of documentary shorts. The five-to-seven-minute films are seen by hundreds of audience members at local screenings and are available on the East Austin Stories Web site. For Austinites and people across the country, they provide a glimpse into the city’s most culturally diverse and rapidly changing neighborhoods.
East Austin Stories is the brainchild of Andy Garrison, associate professor in the Department of Radio-Television-Film and a filmmaker who encourages his students to see themselves foremost as storytellers.
“Everybody’s got stories—that’s part of what defines us as human beings,” he says. “We are stories, we tell stories, we share stories. There’s an endless cache of stories everywhere. So for stories, this doesn’t have to be East Austin necessarily.”
But it was East Austin that captured Garrison’s interest shortly after he moved to the city in 1997 and forged friendships with community proponents Miguel Guajardo, Juan Valadez and John Williams. With Guajardo, Valadez and Williams, Garrison conceived of a way to get students involved in exploring East Austin while also learning, often for the first time, to make a film.
“I wanted my students to get off the 40 acres, to see the city and meet other people,” he says. “I wanted to do that too. But I also wanted to build a collection of stories that could be useful for the people in the communities from where they came. I’d like the stories to help strengthen communities.”
According to Valadez, who was youth pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe church when he met Garrison, the communities in East Austin are rooted in tradition. Even as the area has started becoming trendy, it has retained the way of life it has known for a century.
“East Austin has been an area where people walk on the street and know their neighbors—whether they like them or not is besides the point,” he says. “They see each other on a regular basis. It’s very open and there are a lot of people who have been there for generations.”
It’s also an area that’s changing rapidly, facing the same kind of massive development that many inner city areas face across the country.
“It’s taken East Austin by storm,” Valadez says. “A lot of people are in culture shock because they don’t know how to deal with it.”
Some documentaries have captured the impact of that change, including “La Casa Lopez,” which details Lopez’s struggle to keep her house from developers. Even as people have knocked on her door month after month trying to buy the house, Lopez has remained firm in her determination to live in her home until she dies.
Attitudes toward East Austin are illuminated in “Tattooing from the Heart,” when tattoo artist Arnoldo Carillo admits that locating his business in East Austin has kept some customers away. The filmmakers, however, allow their audience to get to know Carillo in a way that highlights the integrity he brings to his work.
“I want to beautify the world,” he tells the camera, “not put negativity into it.”
So too at Sam’s BBQ, the venerable eastside restaurant that has been the subject of two documentaries. Family-run for more than a generation, Sam’s has long been a gathering place for locals and a hub of Austin’s African American community. And the Mays family who runs it keeps laughing even while hard at work making up gallons of sauce and smoking countless pounds of brisket.
Students are responsible for choosing their own topics and urged to think about topics they have a personal investment in.
“I am encouraging students in this class to choose a story that has meaning for them. It doesn’t make any sense to pick something that you’re not connected to,” Garrison says. “The documentary filmmakers I respect most are the ones who make a connection to their subject—they don’t just fly in and fly out again.”
To help students identify topics, each semester the class takes a tour of East Austin guided by Valadez or Guajardo. They might walk students through a small area and learn the history of major landmarks like Our Lady of Guadalupe church or the Holly power plant. They also help students make contact with community members who might be helpful for their stories.
From there, the students operate the same way that independent filmmakers do, arranging interviews and securing permissions and facing unanticipated obstacles due to anything from weather to documentary subjects who change their minds about participating.
“We basically have four or five weeks to make a documentary short,” says Christina Kim, who along with fellow students Helen Gagne and Jennifer Perales worked on the film “For Me and Him” this semester. “You form your own group. You do the production. You are supposed to promote the screening. It’s about learning to be a professional.”
“For Me and Him” focuses on two teen mothers who attend Reagan High School and are part of its Parent Effectiveness Program. After collecting eight hours of footage of the girls themselves and the directors of the program, the filmmakers had to determine which seven minutes of film would best bring the world of these two teen mothers to life. They decided on a simple structure that lets the girls tell their stories in their own words.
“We really wanted to do a portrait of the people involved,” Perales explains. “They opened up so much that it would have taken away from what they said if we included anyone else.”
Working in a real life environment instead of strictly in a lab on campus brought some unexpected gifts, such as when Perales popped in a video to occupy one of the girls’ son while his mother was being interviewed. Instead of the Barney episode she’d expected, she discovered a copy of the sonogram the girl had while pregnant. The filmmakers taped it for a while, adding a poignant moment to their film.
On the other hand, the filmmakers faced challenges they hadn’t expected, like needing to secure permission to include music that just happened to be playing when they taped the girls picking their children. And entering the personal lives of their two young subjects proved trickier than they’d imagined.
“We had ideas that we’d get to watch them cook and follow them around their space, that kind of stuff,” Gagne says. “But it was hard to get to see their families. They would talk about their personal lives but not so much let us enter it, which was respectable. We were strangers.”
By the end of the process, the girls no longer felt like strangers. They felt like friends.
“Andy Garrison says he falls in love with the persons in front of the camera,” Kim says. “I think that’s true. There is something about them opening up and letting you listen to their stories that’s really beautiful.”
“For Me and Him” and other new East Austin Stories films will be screened on May 12. Past documentaries have screened at the SXSW Film Festival and the Austin Film Festival. And future screenings are planned for Cine Las Americas, the Americans for the Arts conference, the Dallas Video Festival and a “Faces of Austin” exhibit at the Austin City Hall.
It was always Garrison’s vision that the films made for East Austin Stories would have a life beyond their initial screening. As such, they’re archived on the Web and Garrison hopes to make them available for check out at some East Austin establishments.
This benefits the students, who would usually have to work much longer before having a wide audience for their work. And Garrison believes it has the potential to benefit East Austin communities as well. For an area that is underrepresented in the media in general, getting its stories into the world can build networks and strengthen community.
“These stories are cultural capital,” Garrison says. “They have value, and they belong to the people who gave their stories out. The value is not in holding them. The value is in sharing them.”
[Films from East Austin Stories will be screened Thursday, May 12 at 6:30 p.m. at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, 1206 East 9th St., and at 9:30 p.m. at Café Mundi, 1704 East 5th St. Screenings are free and open to the public.]
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