Tufts University

A Rewarding Experience

CMSTufts senior Assaf Pines reflects on his time spent in the ExCollege class Producing Films for Social Change.

I’m sitting at my computer smiling. I have just returned from a two-day tour of Los Angeles where three friends and I received a College Emmy award for our film "From the Fryer to the Freeway: Alternative Energy Today." I am exhausted, but reveling in the fact that I met the producers of the sitcom "Two and a Half Men,"got an internship at Walden Media, the innovative film production company run by two Tufts graduates, and hung out at the mansion of the producer of "The Cosby Show." The last time I was in L.A., all I got to do was go to Disneyland. Now I’m schmoozing with Hollywood bigwigs. How did I get here? It all started about seven months ago, when I signed up for a little class at Tufts called Producing Films for Social Change.

The class, the ExCollege’s version of "journalism boot camp," taught me and 15 others how to pitch, research, shoot, write and edit a 10-15-minute documentary about an issue affecting society—doing it all with network news magazine panache. We were broken into four teams and devoted a hefty chunk of our time to produce high quality films that were screened on campus at the end of the semester. After a heavy semester’s workload, four groups produce high quality films that are screened at Tufts. The experience was one of the most arduous I've encountered as a Tufts student, but I learned more inside and outside the classroom than ever before and finished with a new perspective on my future.

"Neither of us wanted to do a boilerplate sob story—we wanted something fresh, something relevant to our time. A story on alternative energy fit the bill."

Let me back up to explain what I actually did. When I joined the class last fall, the only thing I knew was that I wanted to make a film with my friend Phil Martin (A'06). Aside from that, I was a bit lost. When asked to pitch some ideas to the class, everything I came up with had either been done before or was not feasible due to time and resource constraints. But when Phil came to me with an idea to produce a film about people who run their cars on the grease from McDonald’s fryers, I was instantly sold. Neither of us wanted to do a boilerplate sob story—we wanted something fresh, something relevant to our time. A story on alternative energy fit the bill.

When we first pitched the idea to our teacher, Roberta Oster-Sachs, she was admittedly hesitant. "What’s your story?" she asked. "Who’s your main character?" We didn't have an answer, but she gave us a week's reprieve to "wow" her with a compelling tale. Phil and I had heard from one of our classmates that there was a freshman engineer who had purchased a diesel car on eBay and converted it to run on waste vegetable oil (WVO). With a little help from the Internet, we found our main character: Alex McGourty. The story was too perfect—female engineer buys $500 dollar Mercedes on eBay and converts it to run on WVO for her high school science fair.

A little later, Phil and I went to an alternative energy fair in Brookline, Mass., and found two more characters. By the time our other partners, Emi Norris (A'06) and Sean Malahy (A'09), joined our group, we were in full stride. We had our characters; we had some interesting stories and a lot of great visuals; all we needed was a way to tie everything together. As we quickly discovered, this proved to be the most difficult part of the whole project.

Watch the film (Requires Quicktime) | Watch other documentaries

When we first planned our documentary, we thought of it as a much more serious piece that not only looked at WVO, but also its place among other alternative fuels. We were more concerned with headlines about U.S. oil dependence, the Iraq war and rising gas prices than we were with a compelling narrative that drove home a simple and effective message. Although Roberta’s vision differed from ours initially, she was ultimately responsible for shaping our story and making it what it was. She helped us find that "MTV style" that we were sorely lacking. She reminded us that, although this was an important issue, we were not making a one hour documentary for "NOVA" or "Frontline." We had cool characters, great shots of car engines and grease and an idea that not many people knew about. The final product needed to be edgy and funny to get the message across, and looking back I think we achieved that.

"Making this film was, hands down, the best experience of teamwork I have ever had in my life."

Although I learned a lot in this class about the technical aspects of moviemaking, researching and scriptwriting, the most important lesson was the importance of having partners I could rely on. Making this film was, hands down, the best experience of teamwork I have ever had in my life. We were like a well-oiled machine. Sean, our "tech-guy", did most of the shooting and a fair amount of the editing. Phil had come up with the idea for the film and kept us going with his intimate knowledge of the technology we were examining. Emi and I were "the producers" who kept the project organized and on schedule. We cycled through these roles in turn, and tempers never flared. I don’t know if it was just a matter of the right personalities working on the right film, or something else altogether, but whatever the reason, it was an unforgettable experience that has inspired me to pursue filmmaking as a career.

While I am pleased with our documentary, I know that I can and will do better, especially when I think about the professional quality of the films the other College Emmy award winners produced. While they had more resources and formal film training, we had the most key ingredient: an important issue. It didn’t matter that our budget was $100 or that we didn’t use a high definition camera—we had a story and a message, and people saw that.

Profile written by Assaf Pines, Class of 2006

Homepage photo by Melody Ko, University Photographer. Photo of Pines by Aaron Schutzengel (A'07). Movie stills courtesy of the ExCollege.

This story originally ran on Apr. 3, 2006.