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Documentary by NIU’s Laura Vazquez wins top honors from Broadcast Education Association

February 21, 2011

A documentary directed by NIU communication professor Laura Vazquez has taken top honors in the prestigious 2011 Broadcast Education Association’s (BEA) Festival of Media Arts.

Diane Nilan and Laura Vazquez

Diane Nilan (left) and Laura Vazquez spent four years making the documentary "on the edge."

Vazquez spent four years working with Diane Nilan, a nationally known advocate for the homeless, to tell the stories of seven women and their children struggling to escape homelessness. The one-hour documentary, titled “on the edge,” debuted this past fall.

Fifteen faculty and student works were chosen to receive the BEA Best of Festival King Foundation awards, with “on the edge” selected in the faculty documentary category. Best of Festival winners will be honored at an April 11 awards ceremony in Las Vegas.

During the ceremony, each recipient will be recognized with a high-definition screening of clips and interviews related to his or her winning project, a cash award of $1,000 from the Charles and Lucille King Family Foundation and a gift of Media Composer film and video editing software from Avid Technologies.

The BEA is the professional association for professors, industry professionals and graduate students who are interested in teaching and research related to electronic media and multimedia enterprises.

Its Festival of Media Arts is an international refereed exhibition of faculty creative activities and a national showcase for student work. The Best of Festival winners were selected from a pool of 913 entries from 143 colleges and universities.  

Vazquez’s documentary will be screened on the NIU campus at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 23, in the Cavan Auditorium of Gabel Hall. The screening, held in conjunction with the Latino Film Festival, is free and open to the public.

Making “on the edge” was an eye-opening experience for Vazquez, a veteran documentary maker and professor who teaches courses at NIU in media production. She traveled the country with Nilan while filming interviews, spent hundreds of hours editing and even lived for a week in an Opelousas, La., shelter.

“It feels strange to gain success telling such difficult stories, but it is important to shed light on the issue of homeless women and children,” Vazquez said. “We as a society need to stop blaming the victim. These women do want a better life — I am sure of it — but they need stronger networks, better support and affordable housing.

“It is my hope that this award will move the film to a larger stage so we can begin to open minds and change policies,” she added.

Nilan, a former Aurora shelter director, has spent 25 years advocating for the homeless. In 2005, she 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 an eight-month, cross-country odyssey, logging more than 20,000 miles. Along the way, she videotaped interviews with homeless children, teens and their parents.

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.

“Without a doubt, ‘on the edge’ profoundly affects every single audience,” Nilan says. “It hits all the issues affecting women and children in such a poignant and honest way that people with little or no understanding of the intricacies of homelessness walk away with both open minds and open hearts.”

The documentary is beginning to reach important audiences.

“Perhaps the best indication of the film’s potential to create understanding was when Congresswoman Judy Biggert insisted on setting up an “on the edge” screening at the Capitol,” Nilan said. That screening is scheduled for late March.

The work of the filmmakers in “on the edge” was endorsed and encouraged by each of the seven women portrayed in the documentary. DVDs are now available for purchase online and at other outlets.

More information on the new documentary, including trailers and short biographies of the women featured in the film, is available online.

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