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Nov. 20 campus screening set for ‘on the edge’

November 4, 2010

NIU Communication Professor Laura Vazquez will screen her powerful new documentary on homelessness at 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 20, in Wirtz Hall 101. The event is free of charge, and the public is welcome.

It will be the first DeKalb screening of “on the edge.” The one-hour documentary focuses on the lives of seven women as they reveal the complex and poignant stories of their fall from housing and independence, the traumatic effects on their children and their struggles to escape homelessness.

Vazquez, the film’s director, and producer Diane Nilan, a nationally prominent advocate for the homeless, spent the last four years working to tell the women’s stories. Far from the stereotypes many people envision, the most common faces of homelessness in the United States belong to women and children.

Diane Nilan

'On the Edge' producer Diane Nilan

A premiere screening of the documentary was held recently in Naperville during a tribute to the late Mary Lou Cowlishaw, a longtime state representative who championed the rights of homeless students. Among the audience members were Naperville Mayor A. George Pradel and U.S. Representative Judy Biggert (R-IL-13th).

“Reactions to the film were very positive and generated a lot of discussion,” Vazquez says, adding that the stories provide inspiration. One of the women featured in the documentary is now speaking at conferences on behalf of victims of domestic violence. Another overcame an addiction, earned a master’s degree in social work and launched programs to assist and empower people who are homeless.

“The film demonstrates that it’s essential to help people get back on their feet again because they have important contributions to make to society,” Vazquez says.

The Naperville screening prompted an invitation to enter “on the edge” in next year’s Naperville Independent Film Festival. The documentary also is scheduled to be screened Nov. 8, in Houston during the Annual Conference of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

Vazquez is a veteran documentary maker and professor who teaches courses at NIU in media production. While making the film, she traveled the country with Nilan filming interviews, spent hundreds of hours editing videotape and even lived for a week in a Louisiana shelter.

Nilan, who will be on hand during the DeKalb screening, is a former Aurora shelter director who has spent 25 years advocating for the homeless.

In 2005, Nilan founded the non-profit Hear Us, a Naperville-based organization that aims to raise awareness. That same year, she sold her home, took out a mortgage on an RV and embarked on a cross-country journey, along the way videotaping interviews with homeless children, teens and their parents in places not typically associated with homelessness — small towns, rural areas, resort communities and affluent mid-sized cities.

Upon her return, Nilan first met Vazquez, and the pair partnered to produce a series of short documentaries on the rights of homeless children in public schools. They knew a larger story was in the making.

“We both realized the incredible potential these stories had to enlighten, inspire and reshape the way Americans viewed families and youth without homes,” says Nilan, who continues her cross-country journeys to non-urban communities to chronicle poverty and homelessness.

The work of the filmmakers was endorsed and encouraged by each of the women portrayed in the documentary. DVDs of “on the edge” will be available for purchase at the DeKalb screening. The documentary is aimed at a general audience but also will likely be used in university-level social work, healthcare and education programs.

More information on the new documentary, including trailers and short biographies of the women featured in the film, is available online. To arrange for a screening, contact Laura Vazquez at (815) 753-7132 or [email protected]; or Diane Nilan at (630) 225-5012 or [email protected].