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market forces: In 'Neither Lost Nor Found,' Sheila Turner examines the ubiquitous corner store for clues about urban life.

Diamonds in the Rough

UCSC students struggle to redefine the social documentary in a showing of the year's work.

By Jonathan Kiefer

A mit it: When you think "student film," you don't think "profound reckoning of the human experience" or "tireless advocacy for social justice." No, you probably imagine cloyingly weird, cringeingly acted, morally callow little trifles involving much nonsense, probably some gunplay and at least a few achingly beautiful shots of things that were perfectly beautiful on their own without all the shooting and the aching. That's fine. It just means you'll be that much more pleasantly surprised by a batch of student projects with more ambitious priorities.

Like the UCSC social documentation students' master's thesis projects being exhibited on Saturday, June 14, for instance. For starters, not all of them are even films--this is a multimedia affair. More to the point though, these students' ventures into audio, video, photography and web design convey a sharp sense of social responsibility.

And why not? Between what passes for nonfiction on cable nowadays--the wannabe-contest chic and other nonrealities of reality TV--and the widening window of big-screen opportunity, now seems like a good moment to be a student of the documentary form. Those who would make it their business to examine the human condition and suss out the unfake have their work cut out for them. And their play.

At presstime, understandably, these projects were in various states of incompletion. Even still, the breadth of their cultural reach was clear. Sheila Turner's Neither Lost Nor Found looks at "working-class culture through the lens of the corner store." Taking stock of a universal urban institution, Turner's 15-minute slide show and photo installation includes a few haunting images as well as some everyday ones. Her pictures of the stores, from various cities, are deceptively simple--and illuminating. Turns out those overstuffed shelves full of Vitamin Water and Friskies can mean many things to many people.

Tadashi Nakamura's thesis project, A Song for Ourselves, profiles the late Japanese-American songwriter, schoolteacher and law professor Chris Iijima--Nakamura calls him "the Bob Dylan of the Asian-American movement--and unpacks his influential cultural legacy in the '60s and '70s. (Nakamura's short video, Pilgrimage, about Japanese Americans repurposing the World War II concentration camp at Manzanar, went to Sundance in January.) Eric Tandoc's Sounds of the New Hope sees and hears hip-hop as a powerful tool for organizing poor inner-city youth in the Philippines and beyond. Not all the young freestylers in Tandoc's video are polished, but their passion is compelling. 

Bradley Stuart also serves as an ambassador of sorts through his multilingual website,, a portal for human rights organizations and indigenous communities. As does Karin Mak, whose video Red Dust introduces us to Chinese migrant workers in a multinational corporation's battery factory, where they're exposed to uncontrolled plumes of carcinogenic cadmium dust. "My family is sick of seeing me take medicine," says "Min." "You think we want to live this way? We just want our rights respected and our boss to be responsible."

The politics of health also play in to Regan Brashear's Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement, which asks: are bionics and pre-natal screening techniques collectively the next eugenics? Meanwhile Sarah Yahm's half-hour audio presentation, Thinness and Salvation, takes a counterintuitive approach to the matter of obesity in America, comparing the respective pieties of California foodies and Christians on diets to wonder aloud about the politics of fatness.

These works do tend to be rough around the edges, technically, but that also means unpretentious. As for the toughest yet most basic questions of craft--what to record, what to include and how to explain--these aspiring media-makers' inexperience sometimes blunts their good dramatic instincts. With methods of presentation increasingly various, storytelling still matters, even when your raw material is real life. It's about the difference between taking good notes and writing a great report. And that's what the trial-and-error laboratory of studentdom is for.

The finessing touch of selectivity will come with time and practice. If at first their projects seem a tad too earnest, well, would it be better not to take seriously the responsibility that comes with pointing a camera at a vulnerable or suffering person and bearing their witness? In any medium, it isn't the knowing that's a rudiment of good journalism; it's the wanting to know.

Movie Times THE UCSC MASTER'S PROGRAM IN SOCIAL DOCUMENTATION presents the Second Annual Master's Thesis Exhibition, Saturday, June 14, 10:30am-4:30pm at Oakes College, Room 105. For info visit

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