LETTER TO THE EDITOR – What does a documentary film festival and religion have in common? Apparently an offering plate.
Last night I went to see, “Heart of the Andes,” with some friends. There was a performance outside the Dolores Eccles building with native music and dancers. An evening thunderstorm rolled in and as large rain drops began to fall, everyone made their way into the auditorium. It was a packed house and I commented to that effect to a friend of mine as we walked in. We both thought it was great, a sign that DocUtah is gaining momentum and support from the community. As we took our seats we were told that Mayor McArthur was in the audience and got a warm introduction by the college president. I couldn’t believe how many people had come to this show. It must be really good I thought.
The film starts out with Melynda Thorpe Burt introducing the story that she says she finds herself telling over and over again. It then goes into the plight of the Q’ero people who live high up in the Andes. Like the Irish before them, they suffered starvation when the potato, their only crop, was wiped out. When they could get no help from the government a local organization stepped in to help them. The film transitions to the Heart Walk Foundation and what they have done for the Q’ero people. I’m with the movie here.
It transitions to a boy living away from his family in order to attend school. His parents have sent him so that he can go to college one day and help his family and his people. We see the harsh living conditions this little boy endures for the hope of a better future. He cooks his own meals, washes his own laundry, and has an old bicycle wheel hanging on the wall where he hopes to collect enough parts to build his own bicycle one day. It is heart rending and emotional. After this episode of the boy the screen goes black, statistics come up, and the film is over. My first thought was, “That’s it?”
Next the enthusiastic film makers appear at the front of the room for a Q&A. Most of the questions centered on donating to the foundation. Melynda Thorpe Burt told us how to donate, and then informed us that people would be walking the aisles with donation envelopes. It was awkward. I thought I was at a film festival? Surely if people are moved enough by the film they can go home and look the foundation up and make donations, but an offering plate at a documentary film festival? A heart wrenching story followed up by a donation plate is expected at church, possibly a political rally, but not at a film festival. My phone vibrated. I looked down to see a text from my friend sitting next to me, “I loved the message but found the film disappointing. It was an infomercial.” I shook my head in agreement.
With all the films that got submitted to be in this festival, I couldn’t help thinking that this one got accepted because of who made it. They are all locals. It was appallingly apparent why the auditorium had been packed, why the mayor had attended, and why the introduction was from the President of the college. I wondered if a better film had been turned down in order to allow this one in. I couldn’t help thinking that this reflected poorly on DocUtah and the University. I walked out thinking that if, “Heart of the Andes,” wins an award it will be down-right shameless. The film wasn’t a documentary; it was a short emotional appeal to raise money. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with raising money for a good cause, and it is a good cause, but doing it this way is disingenuous and makes a mockery of the purpose of a film festival in which real documentarians submit real documentaries.
My friend and I stayed for the next showing, “We Women Warriors,” with the caveat that if it was bad, we would leave. We moved closer to the aisle so as to be able to make a quick retreat if necessary. To our surprise, the follow-up documentary was phenomenal, just as heart-breaking if not more so than “Heart of the Andes,” and told a compelling and interesting story from start to finish. The congregation had dropped to a third the size of what it had been for “Heart of the Andes,” and no offering plates were passed around for the women and children living in a Colombian war zone. I was relieved that a real documentary made it into the festival, but the contrast was borderline embarrassing.
I don’t know that I would have shown those two strikingly different films back to back except to showcase the difference between a good documentary film and a poor one to would be film students. If Dixie State University, and DocUtah want to be taken seriously, they have got to stop pandering to the locals (remember Liquid Desert submitted by the Washington County Water Conservancy District a couple of years back or the fact that a local won best documentary film last year). It looks bad and is painfully obvious to anyone paying attention what they are doing.
I love documentary films and attending the festival and have seen many great ones at DocUtah, but singing the praises of a local film in order to raise money is exactly what it appears to be. Let’s hope this is the last year that DocUtah passes around an offering plate at their festival.
Submitted by: Greta Hyland
Ed. Notes: Letters to the editor are presented as received without edit. The opinions stated are those of the writer and not representative of St. George News. Melynda Thorpe Burt is an occasional contributing writer for St. George News. Greta Hyland is the wife of St. George News columnist Dallas Hyland.
In response to this letter to the editor, filmmaker Thorpe Burt said that the St. George community has been supporting the people of “Heart of the Andes” for 10 years. She said she knew people would want to give and she knew that DOCUTAH does not want them to accept donations, so they had a plan in place to provide envelopes for those who wanted to donate.
“The very first question that was asked of the panel was, ‘how can I give?’” she said. The panel offered the ways to do so via the website from home, purchasing DVDs, or using a donation envelope, she said, and then one of the volunteer ushers at the screening brought envelopes into the theater, was jumping up and down in the back, and then they were passed around. She said she was both thrilled for the donations and concerned that they were not supposed to do that.
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