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Capturing stories

Student documentary earns spot in international film festival

By Elizabeth Law ('14) Intern Office of Communications and External Relations
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What is life like for the homeless? “Songs of Hope,” a 12-minute documentary film produced by two international Fulbright scholars in Wake Forest’s Documentary Film Program (DFP), explores that question.

The film, which chronicles the lives of a group of homeless women in Winston-Salem’s Bethesda Center shelter, will screen at RiverRun International Film Festival on April 11 at the Hanesbrands Theatre.

Tania Kharchenko and Safyah Usmani had no idea where to begin the required film project for their graduate course. But, the women shared an interest in exploring issues surrounding poverty and eventually decided to do a film centered on homelessness.

For Kharchenko, a late-night walk in her Ukrainian hometown inspired her enthusiasm for the project. Seeing a homeless man standing with outstretched arms and a large smile on his face, she noticed how joyful and bright he looked despite his circumstances.

“Learning about the Bethesda Homeless Shelter made us hopeful and confident that we would have an opportunity to work with and hear the stories of the local homeless,” says Usmani. “And the topic fit both our visions as filmmakers.”

RiverRun International Film Festival

Homelessness is a universal story, and those stuck in poverty are often working hard to change their situation. “In producing the documentary, we wanted to do what we could to offer a different perspective on homelessness,” says Kharchenko.

During the three months they worked on the film, Kharchenko and Usmani traveled to the shelter every other day sometimes to build relationships with their subjects and sometimes to film.

Creating relationships with subjects is pivotal, says Usmani. “No matter how noble your intent is as a filmmaker, your camera can offend people at first sight. Relationships lead to trust and trust allows the subject to behave more naturally while being filmed.”

At the shelter, Kharchenko and Usmani took turns filming and working on sound. But, the time for compromise was in editing their footage. “We shot 20 hours of film and edited it down to only 12 minutes,” Usmani said.

During the production process, the filmmakers relied on their professor and classmates for assistance and feedback — bringing rough cuts of their work to their production class to discuss the challenges of lighting and shooting inside the shelter and capturing their subjects in their daily lives.

Kharchenko and Usmani believe telling stories can make an impact. Some stories are hard to tell, but if you believe in the story then there is no reason to give up.

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