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East Austin Stories: A project with soul

For 10 years, radio-TV-film students and Andrew Garrison, the project coordinator of the East Austin Stories documentary class, have been visually documenting the diverse East Austin community and the people who live, work and play there.

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This year marks the tenth anniversary of the East Austin Stories documentary class in the Department of Radio-Television-Film (RTF), a project that showcases the diversity and vivacity of East Austin neighborhoods through compelling, visual storytelling.

Nine new short documentary films will be added to the East Austin Stories Web site and screened publicly on May 10.

Continue reading to learn more about East Austin Stories from Andrew Garrison, the project’s coordinator, an independent filmmaker and RTF teacher.

Why tell the stories of East Austin?
It was already known as a place with an identity in the dominate media and Austin culture — mostly negatively. I’d been working on films for years set in working class and poor communities. I understood the media bias and knew there was also a wealth of resources, culture and stories there.

What sort of experiences do the students typically get out of creating these documentaries?
Well, first of all, it is a doc class. We talk about story, character, technical issues, context, drama, ethical decisions and so on. The stuff all doc makers must consider. They have full responsibility for their work as filmmakers. But they also have an experience of getting to know their subjects well and the complicated process of telling someone else’s story. I think they grow tremendously as filmmakers. Of course this happens, or should happen, every time we make any film. But in this class, that growth also includes maybe more self-examination about motivation as a filmmaker, what stories attract you, and your relationship with the people in your film.

Would this project work in any other city? What makes Austin and the UT RTF department unique?
Yes, it would work anywhere. But the specific particulars would always be different. I think Texas and Austin are special in many ways. One is the long history of cultures mingling. Being a border state is hugely significant. Another is the geology and water. East Austin is black dirt farm land … it has been a sustaining landscape. And of course we’re the capital and UT has a big impact.

How are you moved by the students’ work? Does it inspire your own film making?
I love the work that comes out of this class. If you haven’t seen the Web site you should take a look. I sometimes learn from the students … ways they have shot or edited that show me a different way of seeing or thinking.

Why did you take on this project? How has it changed since you first started it?
To get my students off the campus and out in the world. To get them to go past stereotypes and dominant media images. To provide them with authentic audiences. To tell stories that build local power and community capability. To build a big ongoing mosaic portrait of the region. It has changed because so many of the neighborhoods have changed. The temporality of these images, the long-lasting value of the stories is more obvious.

What more can you tell us about this crop of new East Austin Stories documentaries?
Some very strong stuff. A beauty on Blues guitarist, Hosea Hargrove. One I think is very sweet about a Kealing Middle School student and a program called Young Cobras. Two terrific pieces about two very different immigration stories. One that has been particularly challenging to me is about a nihilistic bike gang. A very fine piece about Son Jarocho, a musical style from Vera Cruz … and more.

What’s the future of this project?
It’s rich stuff. It only gets more valuable and interesting as we keep going. We’ve got about 120 stories now. Just keep going, I hope.

There will be two public screenings of the new East Austin Stories documentaries on May 10. The first showing is at 7 p.m. in the Parish Hall of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, 1206 East 9th Street. The second is outdoors at 9 p.m. at Kenny Dorham’s Backyard, 1101 E. 11th St.

This semester’s films are:

  • “Day of the Fallen” — Over a hundred coffins, one for each Texas construction work who died last year, proceed down Congress Avenue on the shoulders of their loved ones. Christian Hurtado, a son of one worker, speaks out to prevent further tragedy.
  • “Dub Academy” — The Dub Academy is a school providing DJ education for the public. The film provides new and personal insight into the world of the people who make you move and the ways they make you do it.
  • “Jegnesh” — A man tells the story of his journey from Peru to Mexico, in search of a better life for him and his son.
  • “Llévame a Casa” — A young man arrives at Casa Marianella from Erithrea as another struggles to get well and another dreams of the day he can work again. Efrem, Joel and Omar are only three of the hundreds of immigrants and political refugees Marianella shelters each year.
  • “Low Down Blues” — Hosea Hargrove, age 81, plays guitar in a local Austin blues band. This film explores his life both on and off the stage.
  • “Skull By Skull Now!” — The Skidmarx bike gang play hard and party harder. Have these rebels-without-a-cause abandoned society or has society abandoned them?
  • “Son Jarocho Fandango” — Son Jarocho is a vibrant genre of traditional music from Veracruz, Mexico that has African and indigenous roots. Local group Son Armado discusses how sharing this music through workshops and community fandangos is a means of amplifying both the individual and collective voice.
  • “The XY Zone” — The program at Reagan High School where teen men at risk seek to better their academic and personal lives.
  • “The Young Cobras” — The Young Cobras, a selected group of Kealing Middle School students, attempt to save their program in the face of school budget cuts.