August 18, 2014

SCA Student Stories: Jenna Cavelle

With a background in documentary filmmaking and passion for social change, Jenna Cavelle, MFA Television and Production student, works with the USC Media Institute for Social Change(MISC) to make films for social change.
SCA talked with Cavelle about her projects and the skills she is learning from MISC

Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how that led you to USC School of Cinematic Arts? When I was an undergrad at UC Berkeley, my emphasis was in environmental studies with a focus on environmental problems in developing countries.. I focused geographically on West Java, Indonesia, primarily. Towards the end of my undergraduate career I started to focus on marginalized communities in the state of California as well.

While researching the Native American tribe, the Owens Valley Paiute, I became fascinated by their story, their plight. Before I knew it, I was documenting their ancient irrigation systems using GIS mapping. In doing so, I learned that they were promised water rights by the city of Los Angeles, but that their case had gone unresolved for about 75 years. Through the process of doing community outreach and documenting their water history and cultural landscapes, I came to discover that their story was for the large part, left out of the body of film and literature that informs the LA-Owens Valley water story. This really didn’t sit well with me so I decided to produce and direct a documentary film to uncover their story and mobilize the community to resolve their water rights case. While I had been an activist and journalist for years, this was the first time I’d used film as a tool for social change. The press began writing about my film and people in the community began to take up the issue. Quickly it became evident that I’d stumbled upon something really big and so I decided to pursue film as a tool for social change.

In the process of researching different film schools throughout the country, I found the Media Institute for Social Change (MISC), whose mission clearly aligned with my own, so I reached out to Professor Michael Taylor. I also contacted distinguished professor Mark Harris whose film Into the Arms of Strangers inspired me in deeply meaningful ways. Perhaps most significantly, after meeting with professor Doe Mayer, who focuses on women’s issues and seemed to really get me, I began to feel a real connection to the SCA family and I just knew that it was the right place for me.  It was clear that SCA was making a similar link between social change and film, so I decided to come to USC to study film.

How would you describe the MISC? MISC is made up of industry professionals, researchers, and students interested in weaving messages of social change into media. I think there tends to be this idea that when you have a social change issue, that usually in the world of film, it’s addressed primarily through documentary film. One thing that separates MISC is that we bring social change elements to a story whether it’s narrative or non-narrative. When developing projects or media we consider the social message and how audiences need to engage with the content so that the end result is action and change of some kind. MISC is in the business of shifting paradigms.

What kind of MISC efforts explore social change issues? Post and Text responsibly, a PSA that was recently nominated for an Emmy, is one of my favorite examples of the work MISC does. It’s a great little 30-second PSA that has a narrative. You follow a girl as she’s walking down the street with her family. And through a graphic we see that her father is imagining all the possible points of interaction his daughter might have with her social world, primarily through texting and the internet. The content of the message (issues around texting and posting on social media responsibly) is addressed through this piece, but in a narrative way. It’s scripted, it’s fictional. And most importantly, it makes you stop and think about your role in Internet and social media security as a user and as a parent.

What kinds of projects are you currently working on with MISC? We’re developing a PSA with Save the Children and Jennifer Garner that follows two children, one who receives preschool education and one who doesn’t. We follow them to see how early education in one case and neglect in another case shapes their lives throughout childhood and into adulthood. .The PSA addresses many statistics that show how being a productive member of society becomes increasingly difficult for the neglected child. For example, children who don’t receive preschool education are five times more likely to become chronic lawbreakers by the time they’re 18 than those who receive it. In our development process, we address such statistics through characters and story. We are also working with the Tesla Foundation to create a series of PSAs to build awareness and educate the public about the positive uses of drones. The public tends to think of drones as a military tool, understandably so. But drones are being used in many parts of the world for search and rescue missions, agriculture, scientific research, mapping, delivery, and even anti-poaching efforts. Drones have the power to do much more good than harm. There was a time when the public was terrified by the idea of cars driving on streets and the potential damage that they could do. Well we see how that turned out. Currently, I’m working with our development team to show the ways in which drones carry out peaceful missions and save lives. It’s exciting to be part of a movement that has the potential to shape and inform policy and to shift public perception.

How has MISC changed the way you develop films? I came to USC thinking I was only a documentarian.  And so during my first semester there were a couple different doc ideas that I pitched. But the social issues I wanted to address would’ve required me to spend a significant amount of time with the affected populations in order to build trust. I didn’t have enough time because we have to shoot our first semester films in a single weekend. When I worked with the Paiute, I lived on the Indian reservation for a couple of years so I was able to build trust with them but you’re not always able to do that.  There’s also the issue of people not wanting to reveal their identity or not wanting to be on camera. So I was sort of forced to use narrative to tackle social issues around prostitution and gender identity. My conversations with the MISC team helped me see that I could still communicate a socially conscious message even though I was not going to make a documentary. I honestly hadn’t thought it was possible before. Thus, I was very challenged by having to create a script and develop characters while weaving in a social message and it was amazing. It forced me to get inside the psychology and the personal history of a character battling these issues in a way that I never had before. It stretched me creatively and ultimately made me a more sensitive filmmaker I think.

What project did you complete last semester? The film that I wanted to create when I got to USC, in my first semester here, was about college girls who engage in escort websites. Basically they go onto these “sugar baby” websites and have relationships with strangers that are sometimes sexual; sometimes they’re non-sexual and they receive money for it. Sort of a prostitution website, for lack of a better term. A lot of girls are doing this for money although there’s quite a bit of debate about whether it’s actually prostitution. However you view it, the numbers are startling. There are more than 3 million girls across the country who put themselves in unsafe situations in terms of their mental and physical health by being “sugar baby” escorts. I knew some girls at UC Berkeley living in this world and their stories fascinated me.

I wanted to cover the issue because I saw so many of them dealing with the increasing cost of college by escorting.. I noticed a correlation between the two and wanted to do a documentary piece on it. Obviously I needed girls to talk on camera. This was extremely difficult, if not impossible given that we had to create our projects in a weekend. I decided to go back to some of these girls and work with them to write a script that reflected their struggles and that’s essentially what I did.

What has your experience with MISC been like? As I mentioned, I came to USC thinking that I would use documentary film as a tool to create positive social change. While I still very much consider myself a documentary filmmaker, since being at MISC, there have been so many situations when I’ve had the opportunity to address an issue using narrative. Taking these opportunities doesn’t mean I won’t be a documentarian, it just means I will have more tools in my filmmaking toolkit.  The experience of using narrative when creating PSAs for MISC, and the many discussions I’ve had with the MISC team about how to integrate social messages into my work has deepened my commitment to using film as a vehicle for social change. Having MISC behind me, being able to lean into the incredible people running the institute, and exploring new ways of storytelling in the safe creative space that MISC provides, is more than I could have ever hoped for. I feel incredibly lucky to be a part of MISC and I plan on staying around for a long time.

What kind of impact do you hope your films will have on its viewers?  As a filmmaker my mission is simple: Obviously, I want to build awareness but what I truly hope for is something more measurable -  when people see my work I want them to experience a call to action - some sort of physical political action, whether it’s donating to the cause, volunteering, engaging in activism, campaigning, talking to legislators, or beginning a meaningful dialogue with others about the issue.  I don’t want to only make pretty or sexy films, I want audiences to put themselves in the shoes of my characters, to change how people see and relate to the world.  I think when we can view the world from another person’s perspective it often leads to empathy. And the world could use more empathy.

--Cavelle is currently developing various projects with MISC while also developing her first semester short film, “Sugar Baby” into a web series. The series explores the connection between the spike in the cost of higher education and the rise of Internet escort sites sweeping American college campuses. We follow grad student Aurora Howard as she navigates the shame and excitement her secret job as an escort elicits, knowing it's the only way to pay her increasing tuition.