Making It Right

Austin-based Students of the World strives to make it a better one

SOW's Austin-based team: (back row) Marquise Eloi, Ashley Tsai, Sam Wolson, Adrienne Collatos, and Candice Porter; (front row) Max Collins, Andrew Eisbrouch, and Christiana Botic
SOW's Austin-based team: (back row) Marquise Eloi, Ashley Tsai, Sam Wolson, Adrienne Collatos, and Candice Porter; (front row) Max Collins, Andrew Eisbrouch, and Christiana Botic (Photo by John Anderson)

The editing bay just off East Fifth Street is small but cozy. A few of the young people from Students of the World have gathered to review rushes of footage they shot this past June in New Orleans for a documentary they are creating for Make It Right, the Brad Pitt- and Bill Clinton-fueled nonprofit that's building energy-efficient, sustainable housing in the city's Lower Ninth Ward. The group aims to present this short film in New Orleans for the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina next month.

University of Michigan student Sam Wolson, one of the main filmmakers on both the Make It Right doc and a similar project the team is developing for neighboring Broadmoor Improve­ment Association, is forwarding through clips. "This was on Frenchmen," he grins as he lets one edited section roll. The room erupts with the familiar clamor of a young brass band. Shot from below, the brief cut captures the thrill of a typical weekend along the music venues in the Faubourg Marigny.

"The tuba player," begins Adrienne Collatos, a Harvard grad and the team's producer, "his grandmother lives in a Make It Right house. Some people from the Lower Ninth invited us over for barbecue, and we got to spend some downtime with them, not just working but hanging out."

"So, this," Wolson says, introducing the next clip, "is one of the first residents to move into a Make It Right house."

"One of the big issues that we dealt with is that media has been really intense in the Lower Ninth Ward," says Collatos, describing the invasive drive-by tourists that have become an all-too-common part of life in this decimated neighborhood. "So we spent about a week without cameras, meeting residents, introducing ourselves. We had a foot in the door because of Make It Right, but there's still distrust. When Brad Pitt first came into the community, there was disbelief that he was there to actually do good. Make It Right is sensitive to the residents and careful about giving them space."

The clip begins with a woman in what seems to be her new living room. "Look, the man's name is Brad Pitt; he already got money! Why he would stop doing what he doing to come down here to take money from me like I got somethin'? He already got money, so I know he was coming to help people, because he didn't need nothing from us. He was comin' to help us!"

Wolson smiles. "She was one of the most genuine, charismatic speakers we talked to." I get the sense he is very proud that they've captured on video the essence of their animated friend – and that this was not as simple as setting up some lights and letting the camera roll.

The students continue to eagerly share clips of architects addressing the controversy stirred by Make It Right's mega-modern Jetsons-style home designs and builders proudly displaying the cutting-edge green building technology. As the clips roll, the kids narrate for me not only their filming process but the knowledge earned through the project they have spent the last month absorbing, documenting, and coming to love.

Students of the World is a national nonprofit based in Austin that harnesses young people's idealism and intellectual curiosity, offering college students from seven chapter groups (Brown, Columbia, Duke, University of Michigan, New York University, University of North Carolina, and UT-Austin) the opportunity to partner with and produce media for social justice groups around the globe. The yearlong program begins in the fall, when participating students are recruited and partner programs are chosen. The students then spend the school year in research while raising money for their trips.

"This year, we each had to raise $2,150," says Andrew Eisbrouch, a University of Michi­gan student and his team's events and fundraising coordinator. "That went toward lodging, travel, production costs." The teams then spend one summer month documenting the work and progress of their assigned nongovernmental organization.

This past year, a University of Texas team went to Kosovo and a UNC group went to Tanzania. The New Orleans projects are being tackled by SOW's first-ever national team. "In the past," explains Collatos, SOW "had many more teams out in various countries. This is the new and improved format." Members from many of the different chapters make up this national team.

"Three days before leaving for New Orleans, we met each other for the first time," says Max Collins, the team's photographer and yet another U. Mich. man. "It was a lot to learn on the fly. The first team meeting was like: 'All right, what's everyone's pet peeves? Get it all on the table!'"

This is also the first year that "all of the teams are together in Austin for five to six weeks of postproduction. It used to be just two film members who'd come for two weeks and do the editing," Collatos says. "In addition to the final video project, we're producing short two-minute film vignettes; our journalist is here, writing blog posts every day, doing radio stories; and our photographers are here."

"Neon lights fell on our weary faces and though a 12-hour bus ride had left our half of the team ready for a nap, Bourbon Street grabbed us by the shoulders and shook the sleep out of our eyes."

Candice Porter, a sophomore from Harvard, is the team's journalist. The blog she's been keeping throughout the trip sometimes reads like a love letter to her monthlong home. Her focus is the Broadmoor Improvement Association, but the pens and the lens are often focused on individuals: Mr. Phillips, Mr. Smith, Mr. Coco...

"Sometimes," says Porter, "You want to put down your camera in that moment and just experience it or talk to the people and not have it be a formal interview. I think a lot of ethical questions could be raised, but I never felt like I was probing for someone to share their emotions. We got really lucky having people who were really open and wanted to share their stories."

Ironically, the team was commissioned to produce documentaries about the success and progress in the Crescent City five years after Katrina, while a potentially far greater disaster lurked just an hour south in the Gulf – or, as Porter eloquently describes in one post, the "blanket of concern and distress that has been draped over New Orleans as a result of the oil spill."

Through these assignments, the students come to know firsthand the quandaries faced by working journalists. For example, in 2003, SOW launched a project and sent a team from the University of Texas to explore the progress made in Uganda in its struggle with a catastrophic rate of HIV/AIDS infection. The stories the students brought home reached far beyond their health care-oriented mission, eventually spinning off into a separate feature documentary, UT filmmaker Andy Krakower's The Children's War, about the decades-long conflict in the violence-ravaged African country.

"We're not a professional documentary team – we're students, and to a large extent, we're all thrown into this foreign environment and expected to perform at this certain level," explains Wolson. "So a lot of it – talking to people and knowing what our boundaries were – came through trial and error.

"There's a general tension in any sort of documentary work. As a journalist, you're on this border between having to create something aesthetic and having to create something that will translate well. But you're also dealing with people. This is a human being in front of me who is divulging his life story. How do I wrangle this?"

The Students of the World documentary premiere and mixer is Sunday, Aug. 8, 7-10pm at United States Art Authority, 2906 Fruth, featuring videos, photos, cocktails, and hors d'oeuvres. SOW photo shows will be up at JP's Java, 2803 San Jacinto, and Spider House, 500 W. 29th, through August. For more info on Students of the World and Make It Right, visit and Check out the SOW Make It Right and Broadmoor blogs at and

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Students of the World, Sam Wolson, Adrienne Collatos, Andrew Eisbrouch, Max Collins, Candice Porter, New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina, Make It Right, Courtney Spence, Broadmoor Improvement Association, Andy Krakower, The Children's War

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