Monday, May 28, 2012

No Act of Ours--a documentary about how Penn State students' reacted to tragedy

Penn State graduate and documentary filmmaker Kelly Dolak is on a mission. In the aftermath of the now-infamous Jerry Sandusky scandal that erupted in November, Dolak started making regular trips to the State College area. After the charges against Sandusky were announced and the Penn State Board of Trustees removed university president Graham Spanier and football coach Joe Paterno from their posts, some of the students rioted in the streets. Although this was not representative of the student body at large, images from the riot have been replayed and dissected. The student body then came together a few days later to rally in support of the victims of sexual abuse.

Like much of the media attention that focused on Penn State, Dolak filmed the events as they unfolded. But Dolak stuck around campus after the satellite trucks pulled out to talk with the students. She captured much of the fallout and emotions that surrounded the Penn State students during those weeks and is pouring it into the documentary No Act of Ours. Though self-funded up to this point, Dolak is using the crowd-funding website Kickstarter to secure additional backing for the film, which will help pay for final production costs, including a publicist, marketing, and licensing fees. The project has a fundraising goal of $28,000 by June 15.

I spoke with Dolak this week about the film and her hopes for it. Dolak's first feature, "Postcards from Tora Bora", premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. In 2011 she produced the documentary "Our Lips Are Sealed," which is currently in festivals.

Q: You were in New Jersey when the Sandusky case broke. How quickly did you decide that you wanted to film this?

Dolak: Immediately. About an hour after I found out about it, I wanted to be down there.

Q. There are many angles that this could be told from. What made you realize that you wanted to document the student’s point of view?

Dolak: The students are thinking about this situation complexly. They were angry and wanted to protect this central father figure of Joe Paterno. To them, it was like a family member being treated badly. I think if we just sit with that and think about ‘what would we do if a member of our family was treated badly?’ we might think differently about how they reacted.

I’ve talked with students who really believe that the University stands for these high standards and some of them are let down. There’s also anger from some people who feel like the University could have done more.

Q. Have you met with any resistance to the film?

Dolak: I have encountered resistance through postings on FaceBook. Most of the conversations have been really positive, but there is a consistent backlash from some alums who feel nervous about the project. They worry that it’s critical of Paterno or the University and it’s really not. Some people feel it’s time to move on and this film might not let us.

But there are students who have told me that the media destroyed the University in 72 hours. I think it’s important to explore those feelings and give voice to what the students have to say.

Q. How much of the documentary is finished?

Dolak: I’ve shot more than 70 hours so far in seven months and have about six months to go. I’ll be following a student’s perspective as the trial moves forward and his experience being there. I’m also including interviews with lawyers, child sexual abuse survivors, and some professors.

Q. Regarding Kickstarter, have you used crowd funding before?

Dolak: I have not, but I have friends who have done Kickstarter and there have been some great successes in the film industry. I’ve backed about half a dozen projects on Kickstarter myself and it’s made me feel really good when the films have been shown in festivals and find success. You get to follow that film though that whole process, which is very cool.

Backers of No Act of Ours fall into different pledge levels and can receive recognition, signed copies of the DVD when it’s released, and exclusive updates on the project. The generosity we've received so far is truly amazing.

Q. How do you feel about everything that happened?

Dolak: I enjoyed my time at Penn State and I think it’s a great school, but I never thought that bad things couldn’t happen there. No town is immune from these things but it did surprise me. It makes me sad about how so many people’s lives have been affected.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A superhero's scar

Image provided by Alvimann

"Remember, I’m tough as the Hulk."

My tiny 5-year-old never misses an opportunity to remind me how strong he is, whether it’s carrying a heavy box or faux wrestling with me using his Hulk gloves. He leaves a trail of super hero accoutrements throughout the house, ranging from capes and books to action figures and stickers. He was Batman this past Halloween and, five months later, still dresses up to fight the bad guys he imagines lurk around our house.

But, unlike most super heroes who change their shirts to make the transformation from their mortal selves, Ryan needs only to take his off.

In the middle of his chest, where an emblazoned "S" or Spiderman logo might go, Ryan bears an 8-inch vertical scar. This scar reminds me of where Ryan was opened, four times before his third birthday, so doctors could repair his tiny heart. It reminds me of the frequent echocardiograms, holter monitors, X-rays, and daily medication that he submits to, taking it in his stride because it’s simply what he’s grown accustomed to.

It also reminds me of how fragile he is, even as he announces his superiority over the bad guys. It reminds me of his tiny size and how he is a better fit for Mighty Mouse than a bulked up comic book character.

But most importantly, it reminds me of how strong he is. Not just in the physical sense; that much is a given. Instead, I see his scar and think about the accomplishments he has already made—he has been a spokesperson for heart defect research and an inspiration for families of children with congenital heart defects. He has surprised even his doctors with his resilience and ability to weather any health crisis and come out stronger.

But then, there is also his actual lifesaving ability.

When Ryan’s father, Kirk, was 27, a routine doctor visit revealed high blood pressure. In most cases, the recommendation would simply be diet modification and exercise. But given Ryan’s medical history, Kirk’s doctor was overly cautious and recommended extra testing. Surprisingly, the tests revealed that Kirk has a heart defect along with a large aneurysm that would have burst unexpectantly within a few years. Doctors believe the aneurysm would have killed him, almost instantly, with no warning. Before Ryan was born, there was no reason to suspect that there were any cardiac problems in our family. Now, we've all been checked and Kirk is monitored closely for changes in the aneurysm.

Although Ryan knows about this, he takes it in stride as well. “Did you know I saved Daddy’s life when I was a baby?” He asks me, then, just as casually, he shifts the conversation. “Do you think I should be Batman or Spiderman when I grow up?” When I try to hug him and tell him that he’s already my Superman, he squirms and runs away. After all, there are bad guys who need to be caught.

Checking the lobster tank for bag guys. All clear!

Ryan read and approved this column, but he would like me to point out that he is now 8 and not 5.