Students persevere to produce film on environmental activism at Penn State

June 11, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Despite the challenges posed by COVID-19 and the University’s shift to remote work, film-video senior Kai Jiang and a team of student filmmakers collaborated with the Penn State University Libraries to finish producing the recently-released film, “We Are Sustainable: Student Environmental Activism at Penn State.”

Jiang, who was uncertain what his final semester at Penn State would look like, said of the film, “I was really worried that all our progress was going to be wasted. We had a story to tell through the film, and the thought that we wouldn’t be able to finish saddened us.”

The finished film can be viewed on the Libraries' website.

For Catie Grant, director of CommAgency and lecturer in the Bellisario College of Communications, “the most important thing was to take the time to breathe and take it one day at a time, and to make sure everyone was physically and mentally okay,” she said. “In the end, the team wanted to complete the film and after taking a week or so to adjust to their new course structure — as well as figuring out the complications of remote editing — they jumped in.”

The team’s collaborators in the Eberly Family Special Collections Library, Angel Diaz, University Archivist, and Clara Drummond, curator and exhibition coordinator, said they were thrilled that the project could go forward. Thanks to the Kimlyn J. and John M. Patishnock Sr. Student Media Production Endowment in Special Collections, the library was able to partner with CommAgency to collaborate on the short film to accompany the exhibition "Earth Archives: Stories of Human Impact," which explores the intersection of the environment, human activity, and the documentary record.

Diaz and Drummond first met with the CommAgency team in January to discuss the vision for the film. They said they wanted to focus on the history of student environmental activism as well as the student activists doing important work now. Diaz knew that archival materials such as Penn State Eco Action’s records, alumni papers, and past Daily Collegian articles would provide historical context and visual content for the interviews with current student activists, but they left the choice of which materials to the CommAgency team.

We Are Sustainable, student film Photo #1

The CommAgency team does archival research in the Special Collections Library at the beginning of the 2020 spring semester, before the University's move to remote learning.

IMAGE: Provided

In February and March, before the transition to remote learning, the students visited Special Collections to search for materials they could use in the film. This was Jiang’s first experience doing archival research.

“As a first timer, I was intimidated by the whole process, but everyone who worked there made the process seamless and exciting,” Jiang said. “The archival research that we used in the story deepened the audience’s understanding of past environmental events which then let us seamlessly tie the past into the present day.”

The project was the first one for CommAgency to rely so heavily on archival imagery, according to Grant, and required special equipment to allow the students to film the materials in creative ways.

We Are Sustainable, student film photo #2

CommAgency filming and scanning in the Special Collections Reading Room, at the beginning of the University's 2020 spring semester, before the move to remote learning.

IMAGE: Provided

Fortunately, all in-person filming was completed before Spring Break, but challenges remained. These included learning how to stay organized, edit remotely and communicate creative instructions through Zoom, noted Mary Banco, a film-video sophomore and co-director of the film. And like everyone adjusting to remote teaching, learning and working, there were regular check-ins and reevaluations. In the end though, the students persevered.

“I’m incredibly proud of how our team stayed in contact with one another and lifted each other up,” said Banco.

The student filmmakers’ tenacity and skill in the midst of an unprecedented time is on full view in the final product.

“I think it was really cool to share different perspectives from across the university of activism,” said Divya Jain, a chemistry major and co-president of Eco Action who loved the film.

Seeing the images and materials of past Earth Days was a favorite part for Audrey Gabrys, an early childhood/elementary education major and co-president of Eco Action.

“It opened my eyes to how many stories and moments are probably out there about the organization that I did not know about and made me inspired to try to find out about those,” she said. “I loved seeing how the past connects with the present and how it all helps inspire us for the future.”

“I loved seeing these archival pieces,” Jain agreed. “This really made me aware of what types of things the library keeps. It never occurred to me before to keep a record of our artifacts like this. I will be happy to donate such items to the Archives at the end of my term as co-president.”

For Diaz, one of the key outcomes of the collaboration was to engage students, both as storytellers and as possible donors of materials that will allow for future research and creative projects.

“It is very important to me as the University Archivist that it is the students who engage with the archival materials and the students who tell the story as they encounter it,” Diaz said. “This cannot be done without actually having documented the experiences of students throughout the history of the University. Student groups like Eco Action are the driving forces behind initiatives such as campus-wide recycling programs and divesting from fossil fuels, and we must preserve the records of their activism.”

We Are Sustainable, student film photo #3

The CommAgency team interviews Audrey Gabrys, co-president of Eco Action, as part of their project work at the beginning of the 2020 spring semester.

IMAGE: Provided

Originally scheduled for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, an initial screening of the film and panel with the students could not go ahead as planned. These circumstances, however, made the initial viewing of the final film that much more emotional since the filmmakers had surpassed expectations even with all the challenges they faced.

“Their perseverance speaks to how we find purpose in the midst of uncertainty,” said Drummond. “Focus on the projects that excite you, that you feel passionate about, and you will do good work.”

The current moment offers lessons for the student activists, one of which is that environmental activism is part of a bigger picture of interconnected issues that require collective action.

“In the midst of the global pandemic with so much going on throughout the world today, I think one of the main focuses is coming together,” said Gabrys.

By “coming together” Gabrys doesn’t just mean physically.

“This coming together is a form of uniting together to help bring change to the world. It is this uniting together to make change that I think should be the main focus," said Gabrys.

Despite being physically apart, the filmmaking team likewise came together to bring the story of student environmental activism to the screen.

“We increased our frequency of meetings to make sure we were always on the same page as well as integrating innovative post-production tactics to enable a smooth journey editing the film as a team,” said Jiang. “We were ecstatic we were able to continue.”

Last Updated June 15, 2020