Vassar Stories

Documentarians Win at Cannes

Elena Gaby ’13 never had a trip to the south of France in mind when she decided last year to tell the stories of four young, undocumented immigrants for her documentary film class.

This is what “ecstatic” looks like: Martin Couch (behind) with Kelly Nguyen, Elena Gaby, and Ashlei Hardenburg at Cannes

But 20 months later, Gaby, who directed Paper State: Undocumented, Unafraid, Undeterred, and three members of her crew – fellow 2013 grads Martin Couch, Ashlei Hardenburg and Kelly Nguyen -- stood on a red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival as the film was named Best Student Documentary at the American Pavilion’s Emerging Filmmaker Showcase.

In the film, four teens from the Hudson Valley talk about their lives as undocumented immigrants, voicing their frustration at being unable to work legally or obtain financial aid as they pursue their goal of going to college and, as one of them put it, “become a part of the American Dream.”

It was the fourth time in the last four years a Vassar film had been honored at the American Pavilion at Cannes.  A short horror spoof, Return of the Loving Dead, directed by Nick Chianese ‘14, was chosen last year. Still Here, a documentary directed by Alex Camilleri ’10, won Best Student Film at the Emerging Filmmaker Showcase in 2010. And Henry & Anthony, a narrative film directed by Spencer W. Richards ’10, was an Official Selection in 2011. Paper State has also been shown at four film festivals in the United States: the Boston-Latino Film Festival at Harvard University, the National Film Festival for Talented Youth in Seattle, the Kingston (NY) Film Festival and the Vassar Film Festival.

Gaby and her crew all say this recognition has opened some doors for them as they launch their professional careers. “Our emails are getting answered a lot more quickly since Cannes,” says Gaby, who is working as a researcher for a New York City television documentary company. But they’re equally gratified that the film’s acclaim is raising awareness about immigration issues.

“Every time I show the film, someone comes up to me and thanks me for educating them about immigration,” Gaby says, adding she hopes to expand the 25-minute film into a full-length documentary.

Winning the award at Cannes has been empowering, she says. “From the day we got there, the message was, ‘Welcome to the club – you’re a filmmaker,’” she says. “We were treated as people in the business, not as students.”

This message was reinforced during intermission of the showing of the documentaries when actress Jessica Chastain, star of the Oscar-winning feature film, Zero Dark Thirty, addressed the filmmakers. “She told us we didn’t get there by accident, that we had earned it,” Gaby says.

Nguyen, who was the editor on the Paper State crew and now works as an editor for a film production company in Los Angeles, says that as she soaked in the excitement at Cannes, she reflected on the hard work she and the rest of the crew had done to make the film. She says she sensed they were doing something special when they began to bond with the young immigrants who would star in the film.  “They were articulate and passionate and committed to the project, and I admired them for their courage in speaking out,” Nguyen says. “But they were also kids about our age who were just a lot of fun to hang out with.”

She says she was “shocked” the students had agreed so readily to talk about their lives on camera, and she was captivated by their passion: “They told us their stories laughing, and they told us their stories crying – it was an emotional experience for all of us.”

Nguyen praised film Prof. Kenneth Robinson for helping to launch Paper State and providing encouragement and expertise. “Ken was a genius in the way he handled this project. He gave us constant feedback but let us follow the path we felt we needed to go,” she says.

Robinson says he is not surprised by the acclaim Paper State is receiving. “One of the things I love about teaching this class is the feedback we get from the festivals and the public,” he says. “For Paper State to impress vast audiences as it does says a lot about our program.”

Hardenburg says she’s grateful to Robinson for recognizing the project needed a producer, a job not usually assigned for films in the class. She says she was happy to take on the job of scouting locations, scheduling shoots and taking on whatever other tasks needed to be done. “When we interviewed Maria (no last names were used in the film), someone had to hold a light reflector, so I volunteered,” Hardenburg recalls. “Maria ended up talking for about four hours, and by the end of it we were all crying, but I was still holding that reflector.”

Gaby and Hardenburg both credited Couch, who acted as cinematographer for the project, with bonding quickly with the two male students interviewed in the film.  “That made it much easier for them to speak to the camera, because Martin was holding it,” Gaby says.

Couch says it was easy for him to become friends with the two students, brothers named Roberto and Mauricio,  “because they were the kind of cool kids I would have wanted to hang out with when I was in high school.” He says he was proud of the film but was stunned when Gaby informed him they’d be going to Cannes. “I asked if she meant the real Cannes or maybe Cannes, India or Cannes, Canada,” he quips.

Taking part in the making of Paper State, Couch says, has made him believe he can tackle other complex issues as he pursues his film career. “I knew almost nothing about immigration policy when I began this project, and now I know quite a bit,” he says. “I think it’s given me the confidence that if I want to explore another issue, I know how to do it now.”

Now that she’s back from Cannes, Gaby says she’s determined to continue to raise public awareness about the need for immigration reform. When the film was shown at the Boston-Latino Film Festival, she recalls, an immigration lawyer stood up during the question and answer period and thanked her for “getting all the facts straight” about immigration law.

“That’s the kind of thing that’s been the most gratifying about what’s happened with Paper State,” Gaby says. “The glitter and excitement of Cannes, meeting all those movie people, that was great. But I want the film to make a difference.”

--Larry Hertz

Posted Thursday, June 5, 2014