From the 40 Acres to East Austin
UT students use East Austin Stories to explore community life
By Mae Hamilton,
7:00AM, Sat. May 19, 2018
East Austin is changing, and armed with video cameras and questions, Radio, Television, and Film students at the University of Texas are bearing witness to this change through the East Austin Stories program.
Professor Andrew Garrison began teaching the class to focus on themes of community. It involves taking students on guided tours of Austin, then he welcomes speakers from the community to the classroom, and it culminates with screenings of documentaries directed by the students themselves.
Garrison said he was inspired to start the course when he moved to Austin from Louisville, and found himself in an environment that he didn’t quite recognize. “I expected to see a kind of South that I was more familiar with,” he said. “I was very surprised to land on campus and see very few people of color. I was a newly minted professor and I thought it would benefit my students to do a class where they were forced to get off the campus, and make a documentary, and find stories locally.”
Some students have found that, despite the fact that they’re Austin originals, they’ve come to a deeper understanding about the city they’ve lived in all of their lives. Thea Robinson focused her film on the residents of Primrose at Shadow Creek, an affordable living complex for seniors. She found that many of the seniors, despite being in their sixties, were still advocating for their community. She said even though she had understood what gentrification was before, she didn’t understand it’s full impact until she got to talk to these retirees.
“You can always go into a film thinking that it will be one way and it is never what you’ll expect,” Robinson said. “The most important stories should connect with humanity and there are so many ways to achieve that, but creating these narratives has to come from a genuine place.”
Summer Rizzo was initially hoping to capture a vignette of residents of East Austin relaxing on their porches. She instead found a couple who have been married for 57 years, the Castillos. Not only were they madly in love with one another, they were also community advocates. She decided to focus her film on the struggles the Castillos have faced and the comfort they found in one another.
“Learning English was just a huge priority because there was just so much discrimination,” Rizzo said. “They would get judged based on speaking it in public or speaking it in schools. It's something that held true even when they had their own children. They didn't teach their children Spanish because they didn't want their kids to have a hard time socially or getting jobs.”
Despite the fact that these projects are tied to a grade, the students taking Garrison’s class feel a genuine draw to the art of documentary as a way to tell the stories of people who might be forgotten in the chaos of rebranding Austin. Rebecca Stewart, whose film “Portraits Behind the Paint” spotlights mural artist Chris Rogers (see "12th and Chicon Mural to be Repainted," May 19, 2017), found her subject by happenstance when she was driving through the East side. She said, “I think of documentary as a way to help other people tell their story no matter what they may be.”
For more on the East Austin Stories program, including an archive of the student films, visit www.rtf.utexas.edu/east-austin-stories.