February 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 2

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Lights, Camera, Answers!

by Stefanie Joshua

Most sociology students who are seeking their Master’s degree or a PhD toil for months and even years towards the completion of their theses or dissertations. Often the mere mention of these words stirs up the emotional roller coaster that these endeavors usually entail for those who pursue this path. Yet, despite the life-consuming work, I found that as I came to the completion of my master’s degree in sociology, even people who were close to me were only remotely aware of the subject of the thesis that I had been working on for two years. They knew that I was studying and writing a paper, but that was the extent of their interest.

That is, until I made my thesis into a film.

What ensued after the completion of my thesis and degree was a documentary film, titled Bushwick Homecomings. The film toured the film festival circuit in the United States and the United Kingdom in 2007/2008 and was also picked up for a documentary film series on the cable channel BET for its Black Stories series in 2007. With the film debut, my thesis went from obscurity among even my closest friends to the topic of post-screening discussions and e-mails on the subject matter with people who had viewed the film in the Midwest and overseas. What a difference a format can make!

From Thesis…

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My master’s thesis was a qualitative study of the causes of delinquency. In the inception of the project, I thought the subject matter might make an interesting film. I was not married to the idea, but knowing that I would eventually have to transcribe lengthy interviews to paper for my written thesis, I decided to film some of my subjects during a separate set of the interviews. (This format can get a little tricky depending on the subject matter and the relationship that the interviewer has with the respondents, but for the purposes of my project it worked out perfectly.)

The thesis was a study of young men who grew up in and currently reside in a New York City neighborhood that was undergoing rapid development at the time of the project. Prior to the development of the community, this neighborhood had one of the highest poverty, crime, and arrest rates in New York. My thesis sought to examine which factors contributed most prominently to whether or not young men became involved in delinquency/crime. I compiled ethnographies for each of the participants in my thesis. In order to maintain the integrity of my research, I performed separate interviews for the thesis (not videotaped) and the film in order to guarantee anonymity to the respondents in the written paper and to also ensure honest and candid answers. Since many of the questions focused on involvement in crime, this was crucial for both projects. My findings were that the breakdown in the infrastructure of the neighborhood was the greatest contributor to an individual’s involvement in delinquent acts.

…To Film

After completing my degree in spring 2005, I still had not made any progress toward producing a film from my thesis. While working on my research paper, the film aspect was far from my main priorities, as I was submerged in the graduate work for months, solely focusing on completing my thesis. With the reduced stress of having completed the paper and finally graduating, I returned to the project and began to think about the film. After months of additional research and a couple of film classes in production and editing (and lots of trial and error episodes), I put together a documentary in spring 2006. Following the first edit, I debuted the film to friends and family in order to receive feedback. Taking the feedback into account and making a few changes to the film, I finally decided to take the plunge and submitted the film for consideration to a few film festivals. In fall 2006, the film was selected for its premiere festival in New York City. A year later, the film, Bushwick Homecomings, had been selected for more than ten festivals.

Bushwick Homecomings was released to DVD via the film’s website in fall 2008. Because the film has a broad appeal, from general television audiences to the academic/research demographics, it has been screened in investigative reporting courses and sociology college classes in New York City. The response to the screenings of Bushwick Homecomings is a testament to the power of the film medium. I would not trade the process of writing my thesis for anything (the film would not have come to fruition without the research and work of the thesis), but using the medium of film has made the subject accessible to an audience that it otherwise would not have ever reached.

In the age of YouTube™ and endless technological advances, researchers and students can think outside the box in terms presenting their work and ideas. Research is no longer limited to the page. Your imagination is the only limit. logo_small

Stefanie Joshua currently lives in New York City and works as an administrator at an art college in Manhattan. For more information on the film, see www.bushwickhomecomings.com.

 

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