By Andrew Cluley
The Cinetopia International Film Festival brought some of the top films from across the globe to Ann Arbor and Detroit. Some of the most touching stories however were produced by students at Skyline High School and starred seniors from the community discussing a life-defining time.
This is the fifth year Skyline’s Communications, Media, and Public Policy magnet students have produced short documentaries about area senior citizens. This year’s topics included May Watanabe being forced into a concentration camp for Japanese Americans during World War II, senior athlete Joan Berman, former Huron High School Principal Joetta Mial, and Bill Murphy talking about his desire to be a good father after his dad was abusive.
Over the last five years over 120 Skyline students have worked on a total of 39 documentaries. The final project is a short film, but students spend four hours interviewing seniors about their entire life, with the last hour focused on one particularly important subject. Legacies Project Co-Funder Jimmy Rhoades says Skyline students have recorded about 120 hours of first person oral histories. “That puts Ann Arbor at the forefront of preserving its institutional, social, and community memories and CMPP students are leading that effort,” Rhoades says.
Rhoades says the final physical product is important, but the process of bringing together people from two different generations and sitting down and talking is valuable as well. He says seniors are often willing to share stories with these students that they may have been unwilling, or unable to tell their own families.
Skyline student Sam Waterhouse says working on the project has changed the way he thinks about older people. “Hearing from seniors and having the privilege to hear their story and how they grew up and all the different things that influenced their lives and their stories was really important to me,” Waterhouse says. “I think it opened my eyes to how many different things can go into how you turn out, and what your life is like.”
Morgan Hall says the Legacies Project is a great way to learn about history. “It was really inspiring to hear how they told their stories, it was different than hearing it from a book like a textbook in school, so it was really nice to hear personal stories,” Hall says.
The value of preserving some of the personal histories of Ann Arbor residents led Mayor Christopher Taylor to making a proclamation recognizing CMPP Lead Teacher Pat Jenkins and the project. Taylor says the oral history project has had a positive impact on the culture at Skyline High School. “One that celebrates the value of seniors as important resources for cultural knowledge, lived experience, and accrued wisdom,” Taylor says.
U-S Representative Debbie Dingell also attended the Cinetopia screening of the Legacies Project. She encouraged students to continue seeking knowledge from seniors and not take anything for granted. “We do have so many seniors that haven’t told their stories and have so much to teach us,” Dingell says.
Dingell also asked the students to consider doing an oral history project starring her husband John Dingell. She says the World War II veteran has never really opened up about his experiences in the war or fully talked about his 59 years in Congress.