The Heart of the Matter

‌by Amy Wagner

When Steve McCarthy asked the television and digital media students in his documentary class about ideas for course projects, Ryan Miller raised his hand. “He said he wanted to make a documentary about organ donation,” McCarthy recalls. “When I asked for specifics, his answer blew me away.”

It turns out Miller had received a heart transplant while in high school and wanted to travel to Bermuda to meet the parents of Dakarai Tucker, a 15-year-old soccer player whose donor heart had saved his life. “Steve loved the concept,” says Miller, “so we hit the ground running in February 2012.” McCarthy, news producer for the School of Communication and Media, oversaw a crew made up of Miller and 2013 graduates Ian Elliot and co-producer Lindsay Rassmann during a three-day shoot in Bermuda.

The resulting documentary, Ryan’s Heart, is one of several ambitious, professional-quality student documentary projects recently shot in overseas locations – including Tunisia, Jordan, Sweden and Austria – and produced under McCarthy’s expert guidance.

In compelling five-minute segments, Ryan’s Heart tells Miller’s story, from learning that he had an enlarged heart and receiving a transplant to visiting Bermuda and  personally thanking Tucker’s parents for making the decision that saved his life.

By April 2012, the documentary was ready to air on NJTV. “The response was fantastic,” says Miller, a senior.  “The entire NJ Today staff told me this was the best piece that has ever been on their air.” Raw and emotional, Ryan’s Heart made for memorable TV by capturing moments like the one where Tucker’s father placed his hands on Miller’s chest to feel his son’s beating heart inside.

Thinking outside the classroom

During spring break in 2012, McCarthy and School of Communication and Media Professor David Sanders traveled to Tunisia with four broadcasting students to shoot location footage for Arab Spring, a one-hour webcast that aired that April.

Students Tanja Rekhi, Jacquelyn Loder, Robert Dickerson and Ian Elliot each produced a different segment of the program. “It was exhilarating to be in a country that had so recently undergone such change,” says Rekhi, who reported on media censorship. “I interviewed bloggers and journalists who weren’t allowed to report on the uprising. I interviewed a young man who put videos of the uprising up on YouTube and, in turn, was physically tortured by the government for battling media censorship.”

The experience charted a career path for Rekhi. “The biggest takeaway for me has to be when I realized that I really could do this for the rest of my life,” she says. The 2012 graduate is now working as a local television news reporter in upstate New York, where she shoots, writes and edits her own stories.

“These reporting trips are unique and valuable experiences for both faculty and students,” says Sanders, chair of the Broadcasting Department. “The hours are long and the situations can be unpredictable, but working in a different culture, in unfamiliar surroundings and dealing with language barriers, challenges and excites the entire crew.”

McCarthy, who joined the faculty in 2011 after spending 25 years traveling and producing news stories and documentaries for such programs as 60 Minutes, Today, Dateline NBC and 48 Hours, commends the passion and dedication of his students. “They are eager to travel and learn how professionals produce international projects,” he remarks. “Real learning occurs when I can work with students day after day to help them get the process down. Learning to communicate through translators, getting around a foreign country and learning about the culture and history of the countries we visit are important lessons as well.”  


The sound of music

This past June, NJTV aired American Voices, a short film produced by 2013 graduates Kenneth Spooner and Robert Dickerson, which documents the Montclair State University Vocal Accord’s 2012 European tour. Under the musical direction of Professor Heather Buchanan, the 24-voice chamber choir spent two weeks performing and studying in Vienna and Graz, Austria, and in Venice, Italy. “It was a truly spiritual and emotional journey for all of the students involved,” says McCarthy, the film’s executive producer. Now that they have graduated, both Dickerson and Spooner plan to continue making documentaries.

American Voices was a joint project between the School of Communication and Media and the John J. Cali School of Music, with support from the Office of the President and the Global Education Center. “In all our documentary projects, we go beyond silos to produce the films,” explains McCarthy.

Global Education and the College of the Arts’ Office of Education and Community Outreach provide much of the funding for the overseas documentary projects. “While some students pay all their travel and living expenses, others receive scholarships and grants to cover their costs,” McCarthy says. “I work to help interested students get the funding they need.”

This past summer, McCarthy and a group of students returned to Austria to shoot scenes for a film tentatively titled Overseas Neighbors, about the sister city relationship  between the towns of Montclair and Graz that began after World War II to help Graz recover from the war. The student-exchange program between the two towns that started in 1950 is still going strong today.

Miller, who shot footage in Graz, serves as an editor and producer of the film, which the team hopes to screen on campus and in Graz in January. “This project is neither for a class nor for course credit,” Miller explains. “I’m doing this to show potential employers I’ve got real production experience.”

Creating something of value

Student Jack Smith IV, who also worked as a cameraman on the Graz project, expects to graduate in January. “I hope to find an editorial job at a major news network,” he says, knowing that the experience he has gained at Montclair State has prepared him for such a role.

In January of this year, Smith, Spooner and documentary student Mike Mee traveled with McCarthy and Sanders on their second trip to Amman, Jordan, to film the work of the Swedish non-governmental organization (NGO) Spiritus Mundi’s Hayatune Amman project, which offers arts education and music and dance workshops to disenfranchised, marginalized and orphaned Jordanian children. “It’s remarkable how naturally these children take to things they’ve only just been exposed to: studio recording, dress rehearsal for performances, theater, rap – all of it,” Smith says.

A last-minute opportunity, the team traveled to Jordan with expedited passports and just two weeks’ preparation time and shared housing with a Swedish rapper who teaches the children songwriting.

This past summer, Smith traveled to Malmo, Sweden, the headquarters of Spiritus Mundi, to do some shooting there before heading to Austria. McCarthy, who is co-producing the film with Sanders and Spiritus Mundi, hopes that at least three students will make a projected final trip to Jordan in November or December to film the project’s culminating student performance.

“I am sure the students with whom Steve and I traveled to document these refugee and orphaned children will never see the world the same way again,” says Sanders. “They discovered the common humanity they share with people around the globe, and I have been amazed at the commitment they have shown to this project.”

Smith hopes to be a part of the return trip. “I’ve been tasked with developing and editing the final 30- to 60-minute documentary, which chronicles the struggles and triumphs of both teachers and children.”

For Montclair State students and faculty, documentary filmmaking is a labor of love. “It’s less about reward, or the travel, or credit, or pay, or padding the resume, and more about just doing it,” Smith says, “just putting in the work to create something of value.”

Photos courtesy of Steve McCarthy.

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Visit the links below to see for yourself!

Ryan's Heart

Arab Spring

Hayatune Amman trailer