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We Will Not Turn to Stone

Filmmaker Jesseca Ynez Simmons, whose feature-length documentary, I Can Only Be Mary Lane, is winning awards and accolades at film festivals in the U.S. and abroad, will soon wrap principal photography on her next project with a crew of undergraduate students.

Six students are working with Simmons, assistant professor of communication, and her professional collaborators on her new film, We Will Not Turn to Stone, through a month-long “experiential fellowship” sponsored by the Department of Communication. The students each have a different focus area — such as sound, camera or set design — but they will experience all aspects of film production during the summer workshop.

“These are all practical skills, and one of the best things I can give students is a credit on my film,” Simmons said. “Two years from now, if this film does as well as Mary Lane or even better, students can say, ‘I was part of that,’ to facilitate employment and getting other film projects.”

Margaret Fitzpatrick, a junior communication major from Pittsburgh, is the fellowship’s impact producer. Her role involves creating materials and researching potential partners to help the film reach audiences and achieve its desired impact.

“I hope to get into filmmaking after college,” said Fitzpatrick, who is pursuing a media production concentration and a film studies minor. “I’m not sure in which capacity as of now, but I’m excited to find which filmmaking role calls to me as my education continues.”

We Will Not Turn to Stone is a “hybrid” documentary that combines elements of narrative filmmaking, such as fictionalized scenes, with traditional documentary interviews, research and archival footage. The film focuses on the legacy and political relevance of Medusa, the female Greek mythological figure with snakes for hair, whose hideous face would turn those who looked at her into stone.

Gender and female perspectives are frequent themes in Simmons’ work. The summer student workshop will focus on shooting narrative scenes to accompany interviews that Simmons and her collaborators will continue to film through the end of the 2020 presidential election.

I Can Only Be Mary Lane is a traditional documentary that follows singer Mary Lane — a longtime staple of Chicago’s West Side blues circuit who honed her craft in the company of such blues greats as Howlin’ Wolf and James Cotton, but never gained wide recognition — as she tries to record her second studio album, and first in 20 years, at age 82.

Simmons served as director, co-producer, cinematographer and editor. She created the film as filmmaker-in-residence at Northwestern University, where she received her Master of Fine Arts degree in documentary media. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

To date, I Can Only Be Mary Lane has screened at more than a dozen film festivals — including two in London, England — and at venues that range from the Chicago History Museum to Buddy Guy’s Legends blues club in Chicago.

The film won the Director’s Artistic Merit Award at the 2018 Santa Cruz Film Festival, and third place for feature documentary at the upcoming Indie Gathering Film Festival in Cleveland, Aug. 8-11. Future screenings also include the University Film and Video Association Conference, July 30-Aug. 2 in Minneapolis, and the Macon Film Festival, Aug. 16 in Macon, Georgia.

Originally, Simmons planned to make a historical documentary about the dozens of once-thriving blues clubs on Chicago’s West Side that had since shut their doors. She was told to speak with Mary Lane, who was involved in that scene and could speak with authority about its heyday. After several interviews with Lane, Simmons decided to instead focus on the singer, who still performs nightly.

“I felt like there was something so present and urgent about her particular story that I just pivoted from my original idea entirely,” Simmons said. “I think that happens more than people let on when they make these amazing films. It’s usually something they stumbled upon when they were pursuing something else.”

She followed Lane for two years and completed the film in August 2018, coinciding with the start of her first year as University of Dayton faculty.

As an instructor, she tries to incorporate her film work into the classroom. For example, during the spring 2019 semester she gave her film marketing and distribution students footage from her newly completed short film, … And then there’s Anthony Palmer, to cut into a preview, to teach them about the components of a promotional trailer. She also invites students who are passionate about the work to become part of it, as with her summer filmmaking workshop.

Next year, Simmons plans to lead a spring break study abroad experience in Costa Rica as part of a spring 2020 special topics course on advocacy filmmaking.

“Jesse has brought so much to our program, from more opportunities for our students to gain media production experience on her projects, to elevating our audio production course curriculum, to producing award-winning documentaries,” said Joe Valenzano, associate professor and Department of Communication chair. “Her energy and enthusiasm, technical skills, professional reputation and achievements, and desire and ability to work with students has produced significant momentum in what was already the hidden gem among media production programs in the Midwest.”

- Dave Larsen, communication coordinator, College of Arts and Sciences

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