Student films story of homeless city woman

For A-Nam Nguyen, her women’s and gender studies class was more than just an item on her schedule — it became her inspiration for a documentary about a homeless woman in New Brunswick.

Nguyen, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, said she came to Rutgers in the fall of 2009 from Egg Harbor Township in southern New Jersey.

“I’m a first-generation student, and I wasn’t very informed about how to choose a college or what I should look for in a college,” she said.

As the first in her family to attend college, Nguyen said she did not know how to prepare herself, study for different classes or approach professors.

She struggled with depression during her first couple of years, eventually opting to seek out a counselor on campus.   

“I was bewildered by the size and the complexities of Rutgers,” Nguyen said. “It took me a long time before I could get used to it in general and enjoy what this university has to offer.”

The transition to college was not easy since she was so close to her family, and she was not able to see them for long periods of time.

“I hardly saw any of my family members throughout the time that I have been at Rutgers, except for when students were expected to go home during breaks,” she said.

Her opportunity to create the documentary came from an inquiry the Filmmaking Learning Community at Rutgers submitted to the Institute for Women’s Leadership. She was also actively involved with an organization that had planned a spring break trip to New York to help the homeless.

“It’s not just talking about homelessness but showing it by using someone else’s story,” she said. “I didn’t want to just give my opinion of homelessness — I wanted to translate it in a way that would be effective.”

At first, Nguyen faced trouble with publicizing the documentary.

 “What people saw in the documentary was emotionally troubling, but it was also rewarding in that they were able to learn the story of a homeless woman in New Brunswick,” she said.

Difficult moments included scheduling conflicts and trying to find times suitable for her, co-producer Dominique Turner, and Jill Tice, the woman featured in the film.

“The most difficult part was that after we had documented everything by film, we had to edit to create a structure and story around what we witnessed,” she said. “In our minds, as producers, we wanted to be true to her story, so we didn’t want to put in our opinions.”

Nguyen said when the library closed on Douglass campus, she and Turner would travel to the Mason Gross School of the Arts to edit the film, sometimes until 4 or 5 a.m.   

“We wanted viewers to be able to understand what her life was like and not judge her or condemn her because she is homeless,” she said. “We wanted to make her feel human in the film.”

Nguyen wanted people to understand that the homeless are just people who have had unfortunate life consequences, and there is often opportunity to help the less fortunate.

“I don’t want students to have the sense that homelessness is just what she went through,” she said. “I want for people, especially students, to be compassionate and sympathetic to the idea that homelessness can affect a lot of people.”

Nguyen is now trying to create a second documentary on the lives of others who had not been included in her first documentary.

“Besides Jill Tice, we filmed other individuals who are homeless as well. We just weren’t able to put it all together to make a concise story, otherwise it would’ve been overwhelming,” she said.

Nguyen is in the process of arranging a group of organizations that can raise awareness on campus, so by the time she leaves Rutgers, people will still continue to work with the homeless population and feel confident they can enact change.

Jill Campaiola, a professor from the Filmmaking Learning Community, said both Nguyen and Turner had produced the documentary in her course. She thinks it was a wonderful development and appreciates that it is getting attention from the University student body.  

Yasmeen Fahmy, a Rutgers alumna, said she joined the project as a video-editing consultant to help students visualize, storyboard and edit their footage into a strong narrative.

Fahmy believes Nguyen took the smartest approach to capturing the story because she worked extensively with Tice to help the viewer understand what her daily life is like, how she came to her current circumstances and how she hopes others can contribute to ending homelessness.

“Homelessness, when it’s discussed, is often framed as an unfortunate byproduct of a system that otherwise works relatively efficiently. We all know this isn’t true,” she said. “Yet it’s difficult to create a dialogue around it because those individual stories aren’t told.”

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