Telling Texas Tales: East Austin Stories Are for Sharing

Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church wasn't your typical venue for a screening of short student documentaries. Then again, the East Austin Stories spring showcase wasn't your typical film-school screening.

As toddlers careened around and the last bit of sunset filtered in through colorful blankets draped over the windows, two dozen documentary students debuted their films for an audience in which many faces were the same ones depicted on the screen. Myrna Meza smiled as The Juan and Only(Melissa Woodward, Laura Kincaid, Helen Gagne, Jack McWilliams, dirs.) detailed the rise of her family's restaurant, Juan in a Million, from dream to Austin institution. The Camacho family proudly watched Daniel Camacho give a tour of the East Austin neighborhood his family has called home for generations. And Roman Rocha, who has terrified and entertained a generation of middle-school Spanish students, enjoyed the tribute paid him in Rocha's Ghost, produced by his former student Laura Kincaid. When the lights came back on, Rocha shook hands and mingled with Camacho, Meza and other East Austin residents who had shared their stories, and said he felt honored to be up there on the screen alongside them. "I thought I was just telling ghost stories," he said. Now, he explained, "I feel part of something bigger."

Sharing stories helps people see themselves and their communities in new ways. This is the premise behind East Austin Stories, a four-year-old project at the University of Texas Department of Radio-TV-Film. In the class, one of several versions of the "Introduction to Digital Documentary" course for undergraduate production students, students get their first taste of shooting and editing on broadcast-quality equipment. The classes, which usually have between 12 and 20 students, have five Sony PD-150s at their disposal, plus sound and lighting equipment. When it's time to edit their short documentaries, they can access the department's two large DV labs, which run G5s and have both Avid and Final Cut Pro. However, Professor Andy Garrison downplays the technological aspects in favor of an emphasis on relationship-building and storytelling.

"The idea is to get enough of the technical stuff down, and then get to the stories," Garrison says. "The real goal of the class is to find stories, shape them in this medium and give them back."

That means challenging the students to do something else many of them had never done before: cross I-35, the highway that traditionally divided Austin by color. Early in the semester, Garrison works with East Austin residents to conduct a tour of the area and discuss the neighborhood's history and current concerns. After the tour, the students write up treatments, present them to the class and then form small groups to produce the class' favorite ideas.

After four years of leading the tours and advising the class, community activist Juan Valadez audited the class this spring and produced Playing Papí, in which he explores the challenges that arise from his decision to take primary responsibility for raising his daughter as his wife serves as the main breadwinner. Garrison ultimately hopes to involve more East Austin residents behind the camera, but other than Valadez's film and some collaboration with a high school class, such an endeavor is still in the planning stages.

The neighborhood's Mexican-American and African-American communities provide rich terrain for seeking stories that are outside many UT students' everyday experiences. That focus is what drew Laura Kincaid to the class. "Often in production classes, everything is within the bounds of UT," she points out. "East Austin Stories is unique because you get into the community and actually tell people's stories."

As urban revitalization programs are bringing new people and businesses to East Austin, many of the EAS documentaries focus on the impact gentrification will have on East Austin communities. Rosewood Restaurants , by Chris Obal and Jennifer Perales, introduces viewers to the owners and patrons of the restaurants on Rosewood Avenue. The film contrasts the slow-cooked barbeque, fried-shrimp sandwiches, breakfast tacos and bustling vibe of the longtime restaurants with the reserved aesthetic of the just-opened Anglo-owned Dandelion Café. When the café's owner comments about East Austin being "ripe for change," the audience is left to wonder how many of the restaurants will survive.

But whether the students' documentaries probe serious issues or simply document the lives and words of characters like a tattoo artist, a champion female boxer, a glass artist or a retired motorcycle racer, they all have one thing in common: From the first day of class, Garrison emphasizes that the primary audience for the films are the characters who appear in them.

"Before I started teaching the East Austin Stories class, the screenings were only for the filmmakers and their friends and family," Garrison notes. "The work didn't have an authentic audience. Now we always get good turnout for the screenings."

Shown within the communities where they originated, the documentaries often spark further discussion and sharing. At one springtime showing in the A.B. Cantú/Pan American Recreation Center, La Casa Lopez , by Andrew Cadelago, Isaac Simon and Lauren Hardy, gave Mrs. Lopez the chance to tell the story of her house, and why she refused to sell the property to developers who wanted to put in a high-rise condo. Instead of subtitling Lopez's Spanish, the filmmakers intercut her words with those of her daughter Mary Helen, who told the same story in English. While the technique was intended to give monolingual audience members a chance to experience what recent immigrants might feel in an English-speaking environment, it produced some surprising moments of humor. At one point, Mary Helen explained how the developers kept sending letters, kept asking, cajoling, even threatening her mother. The film cut to the older Lopez, who gave her take on the matter in a language anyone could understand.

"No, no, no, no, no!" the octogenarian said, shaking her head vigorously. At the recreation center screening, the moment drew laughter, applause and shouts of, "That's right!" When the film completed, Lopez--leaning on her son's arm for support--stood for an enthusiastic standing ovation, with one of the attendees giving an impromptu speech that passionately thanked her for her courage.

Of course, the filmmakers always seek an wider audience. EAS showcases have played at South by Southwest and Cinematexas, and will soon have their own programs in a PBS series produced by SxSW in Austin and another produced by the Dallas Video Festival. The class has developed a local following, with screenings for the mayor's book club, the Texas Commission on the Arts and the Society of Environmental Journalists. Some of the films are in a permanent rotation in City Hall. Whenever the films are screened, the people whose stories are told are invited to answer questions, or to see how people respond to their stories. To Garrison, that's what it's all about.

"The stories that get told are the ones that shape the world," says Garrison. "My hope is that these stories become part of the web that holds together a living community."

The East Austin Stories videos are available on the class website, www.eastaustinstories.org, which is funded by a competitive grant from UT.

 

Rachel Proctor May writes about film for publications including The Texas Observer and Austin Chronicle.

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