Student Film “Call Me Joe” Wins Festival Award

Martina Pansze, A&E Editor

What began as coverage of a debate event has evolved into an award-winning student project that challenges the stigma surrounding prisoners.

The documentary “Call Me Joe,” created last year by three Film and Media Studies (FMS) seniors and filmed in the Washington State Penitentiary, tells the stories of inmates in education programs directed by Walla Walla Community College.

Earlier this month, the film won Best Youth Documentary Short at the Harlem International Film Festival in New York City, held Sept. 9 through 13.

The filmmakers, FMS majors Jessica Good, Nick Roberts and Jessica Lawrence all graduated from Whitman in May. The trio collaboratively directed and edited the film, taking turns interviewing, filming and working audio. Over five visits to the penitentiary, they collected over 20 hours of footage.

The idea for the documentary began when Good, Roberts and Lawrence were disappointed when the Film and Media Studies major dropped the requirement of making a film for its thesis.

“We were bummed out because we were interested in making a film,” said Roberts.

An opportunity arose for the trio when they learned of the Whitman Debate team’s collaborative debate education program at the penitentiary. Good, Roberts and Lawrence were given access to cover the culmination of the program, a debate event.

However, they soon realized that access to the inmates opened the door to explore broader, important issues.

On May 2 of last year, the 25-minute documentary was premiered to a packed Olin Hall.

“At the screening, there were people sitting in the aisles. It was very humbling,” said Roberts.

For attendees, the screening challenged existing preconceptions of prisoners, and offered a unique look at the penitentiary’s place in the Walla Walla community.

“I thought it was a compassionate, well-rounded look at the penitentiary and some of the offenders housed there,” said senior Rose Gottlieb, who attended the screening. “I found it awesome that some students and professors were able to forge a community with some of the people in the prison.”

The showing was followed by a discussion led by the film’s creators. Two interviewees attended the premiere and participated in the discussion, one of whom was the documentary’s namesake, Joe Fields.

Roberts thought that the discussion was important to the message of the project.

“It’s important for the community to engage and continue the conversation and talk about what was covered in the film and what wasn’t,” he said.

The group found that once they began talking to the incarcerated individuals, many stereotypes of prisoners don’t hold true.

“Meeting them was fantastic,” said Roberts. “It changed the idea of who felons could be. I saw that they’re just regular people who have made mistakes.”

“I felt so connected to them. The hardest part was that after the project was done, we weren’t allowed back in and there was no way we could see them again,” said Good.

Making the documentary was not an easy process. The Film and Media Studies department failed to provide the trio with any money or equipment, so they borrowed cameras from Walla Walla University to film the interviews. The group also needed financial help to submit the film to the Harlem International Film Festival and other festivals. As a final resort, the three students appealed to Associated Students of Whitman College (ASWC) for funding through the Travel and Student Development Fund. 

Although ASWC doesn’t usually give out the type of grant that is allocated to academic departments, they made an exception with “Call Me Joe” and the funding was secured in a 29-0 vote.

“That shows a lot about our student government,” said Good. “We needed that support.”

The group only found out about their project’s acceptance into the Harlem International Film Festival the day before the event.

“It’s cool that it showed in Harlem, where the message resonates well,” said Roberts.

When she heard the news of the award, Good said she was ecstatic.

“I was overjoyed with the recognition. We wanted people to see this because of the people in it. To me, it felt like those people’s importance was validated,” she said.

They are still waiting to hear from a handful of other festivals they submitted it to.

At Whitman, “Call Me Joe” stands as a successful example of organic and collaborative student work.

“I’m excited about the prospect of more students doing things like this,” said Roberts.