Eco-Friendly Storytelling

Documentary professor Kristy Guevara-Flanagan talks about UCLA TFT's collaboration with KCET and UCLA's Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies

By Noela Hueso

The documentary short Taylor Yard: A Change of Heart in Los Angeles, which recently went live on public television station KCET’s website, sheds light on a parcel of land adjacent to a portion of the Los Angeles River that at one time was a site for Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroad yard functions. It is significant not only because the land, located in northeast Los Angeles and owned by the City of Los Angeles, is polluted with contaminants that have been linked to cancer and learning disabilities in children, but also because of the efforts underway to restore it to its natural state as part of the larger L.A. River Project. Under the umbrella of UCLA’s Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies (LENS) and in partnership with KCET, the story of Taylor Yard is one of three topics that UCLA TFT Assistant Professor Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and graduate student filmmakers Stefan Wanigatunga, Yubo Wang and Jonni Tecle are working on as part of a year-long project alongside other UCLA students and faculty from across the campus. The team, representing the areas of documentary filmmaking, English, anthropology and environmental science, aims to educate the public about regional environmental issues with not only the shorts but faculty- and student-authored articles and interactive web features as well.

Guevara-Flanagan, who heads the documentary program at UCLA TFT, recently sat down to discuss the project and how the collaboration came into fruition.

Were you familiar with the story of Taylor Yard prior to working on the project?
Kristy Guevara-Flanagan: I grew up in Los Angeles adjacent to the Los Angeles River and yet, I didn’t know much about the history of the river nor the industries that once flourished near it. When you grow up in L.A., the “river” assumes a mythic quality because of its intensely un-riverlike and cemented visage. I was very interested in revisiting the river and learning more about its history at a time when the river is such a heated topic of debate.

How did UCLA TFT get involved with LENS?
KCET’s Chief Creative Officer Juan Devis is a friend of mine. He had been trying to get TFT involved in KCET projects but we hadn’t yet found the perfect fit. After a time, he said, “Why don’t you talk to Allison Carruth?” Allison is the faculty director of LENS and an associate professor of English here at UCLA. She and I spoke and became excited about the possibility of bringing my documentary students to help with this narrative strategy, making visible the work that they're doing on environmental writing and thinking. Then Allison and I applied and received a UCLA trans-disciplinary seed grant that would bring us into their already existing KCET-LENS collaboration.

How long was LENS working with KCET before your department got involved?
The partnership between LENS and KCET goes back to Fall 2016, but Allison has been collaborating with KCET in different capacities since 2012.

Up to this point LENS has never done anything with film?
This is a first and it just seems like such a great fit.

How many people are involved?
We brought about 20 mostly graduate students and six faculty together. It’s a small-scale project but it means that each student gets to work very closely with all these faculty.

What are the roles of the UCLA TFT students?
Stefan is our lead producer. He schedules the meetings, shoots and deliverables, coordinating between the students, faculty and KCET and works with the various faculty liaisons. The other two students, Yubo and Jonni, are filming and editing. Stefan also does some editing and sound work.

Is this project being done for a specific class?
Some of the English students are getting credit for it but we decided not to structure this as a class for TFT students, but more of an independent study due to the irregular hours any production demands. As a result, each student gets a stipend, around $1,000 per quarter. We’re trying to rotate through every quarter so a different student takes on the bulk of the work.

What’s the process?
For each story we meet as a group to listen to each lead faculty’s ideas for their story and attempt to translate that visually to film. Then, in tandem with the faculty’s contacts, we schedule interviews and shoots. Our student filmmakers go out and shoot about 5-7 days. We then meet to assemble various cuts, once again working closely with the faculty expert. The editing usually takes a good 30 hours from notes to completion.

Part of the reason that this project is of interest to all the non-film students is because they’re invited to come on our shoots. They’ve been very helpful, too. We’ve spontaneously needed somebody who speaks Spanish; they’ve taken stills while we’re out there; they’ve helped carry equipment; and in return, they get to see what a documentary shoot is all about.

Were there any challenges in creating Taylor Yard?
The first documentary was challenging because there’s a lot of players: It’s a very collaborative process, so there’s not a traditional, single director. Instead, there’s usually one student, myself and the lead faculty point person directing together — we’re all bringing our skills to the table. Figuring out how to wrestle that and what to call it was challenging but I am very proud of that first project.

The other aspect was learning how to be a little more efficient in scheduling. These stories are all on the other side of town. The second documentary, which we’re working on now, is about the wild parrots in Pasadena and we’re getting up at the crack of dawn to shoot these birds before they fly off for the day or go home to roost. So that was one of the challenges: How you pull this off in an academic environment, which I think was new for everybody.

What excites you about this collaboration?
I’m just so proud of our students. Taylor Yard looks gorgeous and they’re getting so much practical experience; they’re learning so much — and they don't have to come up with their own film ideas and concept. What the other faculty bring is a rich knowledge and connections within their field so that the students can really focus on translating what they’re researching into something very visually vibrant and engaging in this documentary form.

Will this collaboration continue once the three docs are completed?
I would love that. [UCLA TFT Lecturer] Steve Anderson, who teaches VR, and I have been talking about doing a VR project next year. These environmental stories would be perfect for a VR treatment, so we’re considering that. Allison is also applying for a variety of grants so that we can continue to work together in some capacity.

Posted: March 19, 2018