NIU filmmaker Laura Vazquez to collaborate in documentary project on campus sexual assault

Laura Vazquez works with students in the editing suite.
Laura Vazquez works with students in the editing suite.

When one door closes, another one opens.

Laura Vazquez, an associate professor in the Department of Communication in the NIU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, was reminded of this adage when she received an email in February from a colleague.

Ned Eckhardt, professor of radio, television and film at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., shared the good news that the project they had originally proposed more than a year ago received grant funding of $200,000.

Their first application had been turned down by one organization, but the second submission had been accepted by the Wyncote Foundation of Philadelphia.

“In that intervening time, everyone goes on with their lives, you know,” Vazquez says. “Ned takes on the responsibility of rewriting the grant, and gets it funded.”

“Laura was selected because she is committed to the documentary form and believes in the power of social problem documentaries to provide young people with the awareness they need to make the right decisions in times of danger and temptation,” Eckhardt says. “She is a proven teacher and just the kind of motivated, engaged teacher/documentarian the project needs.”

The grant will allow five universities to collaborate on student-produced documentaries that address the problem of sexual assault on college campuses. Each group will create a short-form film (10 to 20 minutes each) that tackles different aspects of the issue.

The multi-phase project will officially start in June at Rowan University, where members of the group will meet and talk about the project with nationally recognized social problem documentarians Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (directors of “Jesus Camp” and “12th and Delaware”). At NIU, the research part of the course will take place in fall 2012, with the production phase beginning in spring 2013.

In conjunction with the documentaries, a social media campaign will support the project.

This campaign will include a website containing student and teacher resources, social media sites, webinars, college radio documentaries and PSAs, expert commentary and downloadable applications. The films and social media tools will provide colleges and high schools with resources they can use to get the information out to young adults. Grant money will be used for travel and production support.

Laura VazquezAs the students’ guide in this project, Vazquez is planning a two-semester course composed of graduate and undergraduate students.

“The first semester will be about understanding the problem . . . the second semester will be the making of the film. Students need to understand the scope of the problem first; this is not an easy subject to cover. The students will do everything – write, direct, edit and so on.”

Vazquez says making the film and working with students will pose difficult challenges.

“How do we talk about it without being alarmists? How do we get students to make intelligent choices? Survivors of these crimes are embarrassed and scared. They need to know the law. NIU has a policy about interpersonal violence that is very, very strict. I think students need an education about [laws and university policies] in order to make intelligent choices,” she says.

“If we can find someone who will talk about an experience – a young woman or a young man – how do we talk to them so they aren’t being further victimized by it?” she adds. “Student filmmakers need to know about how to do this to make a good film. It’s my hope, my goal that they’ll learn.”

Carrie Williams, assistant director of the Women’s Resource Center, and Andrea Drott, health educator in Health Enhancement in the Division of Student Affairs & Enrollment Management, also will be involved with the course. Drott’s student peer theater group, Pause Off!, also might be drawn into the project.

Donna Schoenfeld, director of Health Enhancement, calls this interaction the “Power-of-the-Peer Voice.”

Pause Off!
Pause Off!

“We’re hoping that voice is loud in the prevention of sexual assault,” Schoenfeld says.

“The collaboration between academic and student affairs staff reflects the message that the prevention of sexual violence and services for survivors is a campus-wide initiative,” she adds. “Pause Off! students communicate as peers with other students – like the film students will with their documentary. It is the best kind of interaction with students because it resonates.”

Statistics about rape are startling.

According to the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), 80 percent of people who are assaulted are younger than 30 (women between the ages of 18­ and 25 are at the highest risk), 90 percent of incidents are linked to alcohol (especially vulnerable are people who are separated from a group), and 84 percent know their attacker.

Men are also victims of these crimes. RAINN reports about 3 percent of American men (1 in 33) have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault (ICASA) reports that an estimated 90 to 95 percent of males who are assaulted do not report the crime.

by Rachelle Korth

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