Film class turns camera onto community


Nicole Cheese didn’t know what she would discover when she looked through her camera’s viewfinder. What she captured amazed even her.

Offered by the Faculty of Arts & Humanities for the first time last semester, the third-year course Special Topics in Film Studies: Service Learning took students out of the classroom and into the community where they spent nearly four months at a number of community-based organizations.

Cheese and three classmates volunteered at My Sister’s Place, a London-based drop-in centre offering shelter, meals and counseling to women battling homelessness, addictions, mental illness and other issues.

“We didn’t know what to expect, it was so different,” said Cheese, who interviewed more than 25 volunteers and clients at the Dundas Street location. “To be honest I thought it was going to be sad; but it wasn’t at all. The people there were so great to talk to. They were so happy and their stories were wonderful.”

While Cheese wanted to put together a solid documentary piece, she was cautious in her approach not to stir up difficult emotions in sharing the client’s stories.

“The hardest thing was responding to them, because who am I to say ‘I know how you feel’? I don’t,” Cheese said. “There was this art therapy group, and before they start doing their art they say what they’re grateful for that day. They go around and say ‘I’m grateful I had a home to stay in today,’ ‘I’m glad to have food today’ … It was definitely a learning curve for me.”

Film Studies professor Juan Bello, who created the course, said his goal in sending students into the community to work with one of seven organizations was to encourage them to open their eyes, ears, mind and heart.

“It’s an important learning tool because students have the opportunity of gaining knowledge and apply it to real-world situations,” Bello said. “The course is about getting involved with the community. Students have the opportunity of providing a service, but it’s also a chance to learn from people who are able to contribute to their academic and personal development. Service learning is a transformative element of the educational experience at Western.”

Cheese and her team spent hours poring over footage in an attempt to shave it down to an eight-minute video that would tell a great story.

“The women were nervous at first, with all of us walking in with all this equipment. But by the end, everyone wanted to be in the video,” Cheese said.

The experience was more than just making a movie; she didn’t realize how much of an impact it would have on her.

“Getting to speak to the volunteers and the others to hear their stories – they taught us so much. It was more than I expected. I wasn’t planning on getting that much back from it. I figured it would be like my other production courses where you go in, make your movie and that was it.

“It turned out to be so much more.”

Bello said the Department of Film Studies and Arts & Humanities are responding to the challenge of establishing a closer relationship with the community through this course.

“The films that were produced cover a broad range of issues and are different in style and content,” Bello said. “The results went far beyond our expectations and the feedback has been great.

“We’re looking forward to the next edition of the course.”