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Humanities in Focus

Humanities in Focus is a yearlong course at the University of Utah that connects undergraduate honors students with community members from marginalized populations to produce groundbreaking documentary films. Led by Jeff Metcalf and Craig Wirth, the program builds community, fosters a commitment to social justice, and allows all involved to develop confidence and a range of skills.

Diego’s Dream is an award-winning Humanities in Focus documentary directed by Peter C. Davidson. The film tells the story of Diego, a young man who immigrated to the United States from Mexico as a child. Video courtesy of Humanities in Focus.

“Humanities in Focus is a documentary-based community program designed to create access for people who have never had the opportunity to go to a university,” Metcalf explains. “We focus on social justice films. All of the films focus on community members… on the poverty level. It’s absolutely free to them and it’s taught in English and Spanish. They learn everything from taking off the lens of a camera to how to film, how to interview, how to edit, how to use Adobe Premiere. And then they make documentary films.”

It Starts with Dinner

Each weekly class meeting begins with dinner, which comes at no cost to participants.

“Breaking bread together is the great equalizer,” Metcalf observes. Over the meal, honors students and community members have an opportunity to connect and to discuss their work informally.

In the Humanities in Focus documentary about the class, Voices of Film, participant and documentarian Nadia Rivera explains: “We get together, we eat together, we talk to each other about our documentaries, and most of our documentaries have to do with our personal lives so we get to share our personal stories and we become kind of like a family.”

Jeff Metcalf, Craig Wirth, and participants reflect on the impact of Humanities in Focus. Video courtesy of Humanities in Focus.

Participants work in mixed teams of students and community members, each of which produces a film over the course of the year. The process begins with brainstorming and debating potential documentary subjects.

Humanities in Focus participants learn approaches to narrative and storytelling, documentary techniques, and computer skills. Participants operate cameras and lights, and conduct, log, and capture interviews. Working with film editing software, they create and edit the documentary film and add music.

“We get together, we eat together, we talk to each other about our documentaries”

Both honors students and community members earn university credit and acquire valued skills, but something fundamental also develops in Humanities in Focus.

Humanities in Focus participants from marginalized populations report improved confidence and a deep sense of satisfaction. While honors students are often from diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, they often report that the opportunity to build relationships with people of different backgrounds has broadened their horizons and their understanding of community. “There is a beautiful exchange,” Metcalf observes.

In March, the community comes together to screen the year’s documentaries. “That's the payoff, members of community and honors students show up with their families and their extended families,” Metcalf explains. “Now it’s kind of a big deal, something one doesn’t want to miss.”

All films are available for free on the Humanities in Focus YouTube channel.

Films created in Humanities in Focus have also screened at festivals, including the Martha’s Vineyard Documentary Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival.

In 2017, Diego’s Dream premiered in the FiRe Films Panel at the Sundance FIlm Festival. Directed and edited by participant Peter C. Davidson, the film tells the story of DACA recipient and undergraduate student Diego Joaquin Catalan’s border crossing from Mexico into the United States.

“Many people, including powerful political figures, are quick to judge and condemn others based on their race or country of origin. I believe that this judgment comes primarily from a lack of understanding that these people are human beings, with hopes, fears, and dreams,” Davidson explains on the film’s Vimeo page. “It is my hope that sharing Diego’s Dream will begin to eliminate this lack of understanding and help those who might be inclined to hold prejudices to instead feel sincere concern for people like Diego.”

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