Salmanowitz Projects Helps Students See Through New Lenses

Behind the doors of Devlin 420 lies an often overlooked gem of Boston College: the Jacques Salmanowitz Program for Moral Courage in Documentary and Film (JSP). Its home base may be Chestnut Hill, but the JSP has brought students as far as New Zealand, Siberia, and India in pursuit of topics ranging from refugee crises to political graffiti.

Three-quarters of a century later, Jacques Salmanowitz’s legacy of moving individuals trapped behind Nazi lines during WWII to neutral countries found a new life at BC. Since its establishment in 2001, the Salmanowitz program has allowed students to continue this work of moral courage through its $25,000 of grant funding annually allocated to student filmmakers. 

John Michalczyk, director of the film studies program and of JSP, works alongside students with wide-ranging social justice interests, empowering them to plan and create a film on their own. The program gives students an uncommon amount of freedom, as it has produced more than 60 films since its inception. 

“They use this experience as a springboard for something they became very interested in,” Michalczyk said. “My idea of the program is to get students to get out of our bubble, to travel, to see another culture with its social issues and get some personal insights into the issue and bring that in a powerful visual form back to BC.”

David LaMattina, BC ’03, was the first student to receive the grant, which he used to travel to Johannesburg, South Africa and examine the legacy of Nkosi Johnson, a South African child activist. Johnson, who dealt with discrimination due to being afflicted with AIDS, founded Nkosi’s Haven, an NGO offering multifaceted care and housing for mothers and children who have AIDS or are HIV-positive. 

“I saw this little posting in the film office about the Salmanowitz grant, and at the same time, there was a little AOL instant messenger news ticker up on my laptop that told the story of this young boy in South Africa,” LaMattina said. “He had died from AIDS, but had been raised by a white woman who adopted him during Apartheid, which really stood out to me as an interesting story.”

With just an introductory filmmaking course under his belt and limited knowledge of documentary filmmaking, LaMattina embarked on the project during his junior year.

“I went in to Michalczyk and said, ‘This is something I want to do,’ and he was like, ‘Cool, let’s write a proposal.’” 

Years later, Solina Jean-Louis, BC ’18, used the Salmanowitz grant to examine the role of art in memorializing tragedy by studying four different Holocaust memorials in Berlin and interviewing individuals involved in their construction.Though she had no prior filmmaking experience, her interest in German studies led to a partnership with film studies major Audra Hampsch, BC ’18. 

“What intrigued me about filmmaking was how it presented information in a way that was much more accessible to those outside the academic sphere,” Jean-Louis said.

Michalczyk’s wife Susan Michalczyk, an adjunct faculty member of the Woods College of Advanced Studies, also advertises the opportunity provided by JSP to students with a directed social justice interest. Jean-Louis, who met Susan through an AHANA+ mentorship program her freshman year and displayed clear interest in the field of German studies, was soon put in contact with Michalczyk.

“Professor Michalczyk has done a lot of films about Germany and WWII or about related topics, so he proposed the partnership and really helped us narrow down our initial idea,” Jean-Louis said.

The combination of Michalczyk’s role as the head of BC’s film department and Susan’s position teaching interdisciplinary classes like Perspectives allows them to find a diverse array of students interested in the grant. With the only requirement for the application being the completion of Filmmaking I by one member of each filmmaking team, the two often propose partnerships between students with social justice interests and those with filmmaking experience, such as Hampsch and Jean-Louis.

“A student who is interested in the topic but doesn’t know how to film or edit and a student who is a filmmaker will collaborate with the other, and they go somewhere,” Michalczyk said.

In 2018, film studies major John Mohler, MCAS ’21, was approached by Michalczyk, who proposed that he make a film about Fr. Douglas Al-Bazi, an Iraqi-Christian priest who fled to New Zealand after being tortured by ISIS. Mohler had reached out to Michalczyk, his faculty advisor, earlier in the year looking to pursue more hands-on opportunities, which soon led to him working alongside Luke Layden, MCAS ’20, to contact Al-Bazi and see if he’d be interested. 

“I was definitely interested by seeing someone continue their faith after such hardships because of it,” Mohler said. “We had the idea, we expanded upon the idea, we drafted a proposal, which we submitted and got revised, then got it approved, then got the flights, then went to New Zealand.” 

Though Michalczyk works closely alongside students from the primary proposal drafting process to the final stages of editing and preparing for the films’ screenings in April, a defining characteristic of the JSP is its focus on letting students take the lead. 

“The fact is Dr. Michalczyk said ‘Here’s a camera, go make what you want to make happen,’” LaMattina said. “With time hasn’t come these crazy restrictions that are definitely in place in other institutions … I think the best part of my BC experience was just being able to go and make all the mistakes myself.”

During Spring Break of his junior year, LaMattina traveled to Berea, a suburb of Johannesburg with a high concentration of mothers and children affected by AIDS.

“[Michalczyk] had suggested that we hire a local fixture, so we had someone pick us up at the airport, but when we got to the location, it was all on me to be like ‘Okay, this is what we’re doing, this is how we make a film,’” he said.

Many of the women and children LaMattina interviewed had told their stories to news crews before, but bigger media sources kept a more rigid distance between the subjects, only extracting the information that they needed before leaving.

“That just didn’t feel right to us, so we wanted to sit down and get to know them. They offered us a meal that the mothers had cooked,” LaMattina said. 

Ditching their cameras during the meal, LaMattina and his team consciously took the time to build a relationship with the families. The bond they team forged stands today, and he still keeps in touch with multiple women and children he interviewed. The Salmanowitz program’s encouragement of authentic, on-the-ground experiences, he says, pushed him toward these experiences he might’ve otherwise missed. 

The program’s student-led focus forces students to navigate unexpected changes that arise during the actual filming process. For Mohler, he and his partner arrived in Papatoetoe, New Zealand, expecting to predominantly film Al-Bazi, but Al-Bazi immediately began pointing them toward other inhabitants with related stories.

“What we thought would be just his story really turned out to be a community of stories, so it was originally focusing on him, but then we interviewed a lot of people in his town, who were mostly immigrants from Iraq and were Christian, so it became more of a story about Iraqi Christian immigration in New Zealand with a focus on his life,” Mohler said. 

Though initially unaware of the large Iraqi-Christian presence in New Zealand, Mohler quickly became immersed in the culture during his six-day filming period.

“We walked into the door on the first day being there, never having met him, and he immediately sat us down and welcomed us,” Mohler said. “The Iraqi style of life is super hospitable—he brought us in, sat us down, made sure we were happy, made sure we were comfortable, and got us food, got us coffee, kept offering us things.”

Though all six individuals Mohler interviewed in New Zealand embraced the friendly nature of Iraqi-Christian culture, their attitudes toward other aspects of the culture varied. To better understand their conflicting opinions, he conducted six lengthy interviews in settings chosen by the subject where they felt peaceful or spiritually enlightened. For Al-Bazi, this was a garden behind his home. 

Throughout the interviews, Mohler noted the differing attitudes of the subjects. While one woman wanted to drop a lot of the Iraqi lifestyle so her child could be free to pursue her own choices, others strived to retain their culture and live with it.

The opportunities to authentically engage with social justice issues provided by the Salmanowitz program were a major point of attraction for many applicants. However, the student-led process of planning, filming, and editing a film also pushed filmmakers to develop very practical expertise. 

“For me, the experience definitely forced me to learn the skill of project management, since I was basically planning the whole thing,” Jean-Louis said. “I was in charge of scheduling the interviews and coordinating everything we had to put together.”

Most students film for nine or 10 days over Winter Break. Spring Break is another option, but provides only a short six-week turnaround period before all JSP films are screened at the BC Arts Festival in April. The program is also available over the summer and gives students a week or more to film their projects depending on their proposal.

The editing process is often the biggest learning curve, as most students had not produced any documentary films prior to their Salmanowitz project. Michalczyk said a universal struggle for students was finding out how to sort through hours of footage to produce a cohesive and focused film, which he provided guidance with while keeping students as the leaders. 

“We went back and found all the quotes we wanted to include, and color-coded everything,” Mohler said. “There turned out to be so much good stuff that the biggest challenge was figuring out what we really wanted and narrowing it down.”

Since the program’s installation, access to editing technology has vastly improved. Michalczyk has also upgraded the assistance available to students, whether from other film professors or himself, to help them learn to work more artistically. He is also hoping to hire a student who has already produced a film through the program as an assistant next semester.

For many students in the Salmanowitz program, their film is the first they have produced—but not the last. LaMattina now directs Copper Pot Pictures, a production company which he has directed multiple films under, as well as directing TV projects like The Zoo, an investigation into the Brooklyn Zoo which aired as a series on Animal Planet.

“I go back and see it [my first film], and obviously there’s things I’d like to change, but I say to my directing partner now, every film you make you go and look back on and realize things you wish you did differently, but you have to realize that this is the best film you could’ve made at this point in your career and life.”

After graduating from BC, LaMattina went to  film school at the University of Southern California, which he says had standout resources and opportunities, but he credits the Salmanowitz program and BC film studies program for much of his personal growth. 

“I think BC is developing a nice reputation for those working in the entertainment industry,” LaMattina said. “It may not have the name recognition of a top film school, but I think what they do is to be very free with opportunity, which is what I think people pursuing a career in filmmaking need.”

While others don’t continue filmmaking, their career interests are shaped by the grant opportunity. Completing her WWII war memorial film during her sophomore year helped solidify Jean-Louis’ interest in memory as a concept and German history, which her senior thesis drew upon. She now resides in Saxony, Germany, teaching English under a Fulbright grant for her second year.

“As a sophomore, you don’t fully trust your own abilities,” Jean-Louis said. “Working through the JSP and producing a film made me realize I’m capable of more than I think.”

Through the Salmanowitz Grant and LaMattina family grant, started by the family of David LaMattina in 2005, BC continues to expand opportunities for student filmmakers. The LaMattina family grant often works concurrently with the Salmanowitz Grant to fund more expensive undertakings, such as Mohler’s trip to New Zealand. Despite being a serious program led by faculty as distinguished as Michalczyk, the department remains committed to welcoming interested students with no prior experience. 

“The Salmanowitz program gives an incredible head start to students,” LaMattina said. “You could have all the fancy internships you want, but what Dr. Michalczyk and the Salmanowitz program did was to say, ‘Oh great, go do it.’ It was teaching in the purest form.” 

Photo Courtesy of John Mohler

October 23, 2019