Letter to the Editor: Films and offering plates, DOCUTAH’s shameless fundraising fallacy

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.

Email: news@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2013, all rights reserved.

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10 Comments

  • Typical September 8, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    Sounds to me like just another typical SW Utah rip off. We see it all the time here.

  • Not Guilty September 8, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    Churches place the guilt pressure on you if you don’t fork out the money for church things. Doesn’t matter if you can or cannot afford it, churches expect you to give until it hurts your bank account.

  • Bree September 8, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    Good to know. I will plan to avoid DocUtah this year if this is the case.

  • cimarron chacon September 8, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    I don’t think the critique was in any way about the Heart Walk Foundation or a negative reflection on Tim and Penelope Eicher, who have dedicated their lives over the past ten years to help the people of the Andes. The critique is about the poor film making skills of the writer/director and the inappropriate representation of the project during the festival.

    Knowing that Melinda Thorpe Burt is a reporter explains a lot. The entire story was told from the point of view of the narrator, not of the people, and with many missing details. During the short film Melinda tells us she thought the story was about one thing ( not explained) , but discovers it was about another. We are introduced to characters, but the director speaks for them, we never hear their voice. She introduces John for example, saying that she has heard so much about him and now she is meeting him. What did she hear? Why was John special? what was he like 10 years ago? And the poor boy, who is living alone, the camera lingers on him until he is uncomfortable. The audience becomes uncomfortable. He does not talk, the translator does not talk, only Melinda.

    This was an infomercial told by a reporter in sort sound bites. And why was she in the film at all? in a news cast you watch a reporter with images flashing in the background, in a documentary you see the subject(s) , feel the subjects, the subjects tell the story. This film had absolutely zero qualities of a documentary film and should not have been included in DocUTAH.

    I hope someday that a documentary of this project can be made, because there really is an amazing story to tell here and it deserves to be told right.

  • Melynda Thorpe Burt September 8, 2013 at 2:33 pm

    As filmmaker of “Heart of the Andes” and moderator of the panel discussion, I certainly regret putting any form of embarrassment on the DOCUTAH committee or film festival, or the university. I regret handling the question and answer time in a way that may have reflected poorly on any of the organizers. Following the screening, Christina Schultz, Vice President of Institutional Advancement at DSU, contacted me to inform me that what occurred was in violation of university policy. I certainly regret and apologize for distracting from the high quality of this year’s outstanding festival. They are blameless.

  • Bruce Bennett September 8, 2013 at 11:00 pm

    Greta: You should be made aware that this film was NOT part of the films in competition. In no way did DOCUTAH “pander” to the locals. It is likely that the packed house was due to the integrity of the organization and the stellar reputation of the individuals involved. A little bit of fact checking on your part would have uncovered these salient details. I encourage you to make these points aware to your readers.
    Regards,
    Bruce Bennett
    Judges Panel
    DOCUTAH

  • Shemp September 9, 2013 at 12:20 am

    Melynda Thorpe Burt., It is good of you to accept responsibility for this incident and to defend the DOCUTAH. Not many people would do such a thing..My hat is off to you and I offer respect.. As a former radio host, artist, and hobby writer, accepting criticism of our work can be a very difficult thing. Good luck in future projects. It takes years to hone a craft to perfection and I have personally failed many times while learning mine. Please keep striving to tell a story for without them, we are clueless of the hardships of others.

  • Craig September 9, 2013 at 8:26 am

    Greta, you sound like a whiner and complainer. You need to go talk to Oprah.

  • Mark Heiner September 9, 2013 at 9:18 am

    Melynda, I’m very impressed with your response and for being accountable in these matters. Well done, I hope to see you return to a future DOCUTAH festival.

  • Jessa September 9, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    I don’t feel like they have anything to apologize for. When I was at the viewing of the film the night before this event there was no way to donate money except to go on the website, and the amount of $ they were asking for? 1$ per every person that saw the film. One dollar people!!!! and 100% of that money would go to providing green houses to every family on that gorgeous mountain. These people are selfless and true expressions of love. No reason for them to apologize or to attack them. I’m amazed by the kind of people that actually take time out of their day to b*tch about something someone else is doing from their heart in order to help others. Nothing but love and respect for the filmmaker and the founders of this organization.

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