Student documentary archived by film bureau


Rarely are the missions of Rutgers students caught on film.

But in 2009, three engineering students had their story archived by the Rutgers Film Bureau, immersing viewers in their experience abroad. Now the film documenting their mission has been nominated for a Mid-Atlantic Emmy.  

The documentary, entitled “Thailand Untapped: The Global Reach of Engineers Without Borders,” follows former students Elizabeth Silagi, Carly J. Rogers and Jon Tarczewski on their mission to refurbish a water purification system in northern Thailand, said Dena Seidel, director of the Center for Digital Filmmaking.

She said former students Steve Holloway and Chantal Eyong filmed and co-produced the documentary.

“Steve and I will be going to the awards ceremony, and we are thrilled to be nominated and to represent Rutgers at this event,” Seidel said.

Seidel said she worked on directing the film’s story structure, co-editing the film and shaping the narration for more than a year. The film began in the University’s Writer’s House as part of her filmmaking class, and then moved to the Rutgers Film Bureau in the Mason Gross School of the Arts.

Steve Holloway, co-producer and cinematographer of the film, said previous films produced by Seidel and the Writer’s House and Film Bureau team inspired him to get involved with the documentary.

“I thought they did an amazing job capturing Rutgers research in an exciting and compelling way,” he said.

He said traveling to Thailand was probably the best experience of his undergraduate career. The project illustrates how young people could change the world well before graduating.

“Film has been an effective medium for the Thailand story because of its ability to capture human emotions, giving viewers a more authentic experience,” Holloway said. “Many of the stories that we tell are science-based, and using film to turn science into character-driven adventures is something that anyone can find interesting.”

After airing three times on NJTV’s documentary series “NJDocs,” the film was invited to the Mid-Atlantic Emmys, a regional award ceremony honoring local television, Seidel said.

In the film, the project’s leader Elizabeth Silagi, said the water in Nong Bua, the village where they worked, is loaded with toxic heavy metals and dangerous bacteria. This forced villagers to spend 60 percent of their income on bottled water.

She said Nong Bua had a water filtration system outside the village, but its upkeep was ignored.  The accumulation of metals had created sludge to gather in the system, making the water unsafe for drinking.

Silagi said she and her colleagues were part of a program called “Engineers Without Borders,” an organization that sends students abroad to design and implement infrastructure projects to benefit communities in need. The group had only three weeks to finish the project.

“It was bizarre being filmed, but I don’t think the cameras impacted our actions very much,” Silagi said. “It felt natural having [Holloway] and [Eyong] there with us, especially because they were also Rutgers students at the time.”

The team of engineers was confronted with several unintended technical challenges along the way, and the camera captured the stress the students experienced.

Being in a different country and culture made ordering necessary chemicals a struggle.

“We’re no longer here to just solve an engineering problem, we feel directly connected to these people and each day we’re more determined to solve the technical problems we face,” Silagi said in the film.

The problems were not only technical, but also cultural. Facing a language barrier, the students had to communicate their plans to the officials of the village and educate them on the process, she said.

“Intercultural communication was difficult, to be honest,” she said. “Beyond the obvious headaches of using a translator for every single word, it was a challenge to assert myself as a young female.”

The film ends on a note of success. The team was able to flush the purification system and get clean water to Nong Bua, as well as educate the village officials on how to use it properly in the future.

This last shot features a Thai woman sharing a sentiment of good karma with the students.

“Many good things have come back to me, but I believe I have a lot more work to do before I truly receive any karma,” Silagi said.

Holloway now works as a full-time editor and production associate at the Rutgers Film Bureau and Mason Gross School of the Arts. He and Seidel are currently working on the Film Bureau feature, “Antarctica: Beyond the Ice,” which focuses on climate change research in Antarctica.

“The film is definitely an empowering story for RU students to see,” he said. “If you want to make a difference, all you have to do is go out and do it — that’s what the engineers of EWB did, and it was a success.”


By Cody Beltis

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