When Mary Scherer-Emuds told her students at Proviso Math and Science Academy (PMSA) they would be studying documentaries in their digital imaging class, she got a less than enthusiastic response.
“They complained, ‘Those are for old people,'” Scherer-Emuds said.
To help change their opinion, Scherer-Emuds showed the students the Oscar nominated, 1994 documentary, “Hoop Dreams,” directed by Steve James. Then, through personal connections she arranged for the filmmaker to visit the students for a question and answer session earlier this month.
The freshman and sophomore students in Scherer-Emuds’ class are working on their own documentaries which, when completed, will be three to five minutes in length. Not everyone enrolled in the class is banking on a future behind the camera, but for some the experience opened up new possibilities.
“I was inspired to go after what I dream about,” Dominique Ellison said.
“Hoop Dreams” follows the lives of two boys from the near Westside of Chicago as they struggle to achieve their dreams of becoming professional basketball players. Once they watched the full-length film, Scherer-Emuds found that her formerly reluctant students were now excited about making documentaries.
“I think the students liked ‘Hoop Dreams’ because it is about boys their age and has many local connections,” Scherer-Emuds said.
When it was released “Hoop Dreams” broke new ground for the genre both commercially and artistically. Previously, few theaters had shown documentaries alongside big-budget Hollywood films. Because “Hoop Dreams” was so well received, documentaries continue to be regarded as more commercially viable by the movie industry.
“Hoop Dreams” also created a stir when reviewers pleaded for it to be considered in the Best Picture category at the Academy Awards instead of in the separate category for documentaries. The film ended up with a nomination for an Academy Award in Best Film Editing.
Both Proviso East and St. Joseph high schools are featured in the film.
Academy students wanted updates on the boys in the documentary. James answered that William Gates and Arthur Agee, now in their 30s, never made it to the NBA. Gates currently lives in the Austin area of Chicago, has completed his college degree and is a pastor at a church in Cabrini Green. Agee, meanwhile, spent a number of years playing semi-professional basketball and is now launching a “Hoop Dreams” line of clothing.
When asked why he became a filmmaker, James said he intended to have a career in radio, but he followed his girlfriend (now wife) to Southern Illinois University, and enrolled in a filmmaking class where he fell in love with documentaries.
“I had the idea for ‘Hoop Dreams’ in college,” James said. “It was a great way to combine my two biggest passions, basketball and documentaries.”
Chicago was the natural place to set the film.
“There’s no place with better basketball at a high school level,” James said.
Sophomore Valen Sparks, who was filming the session for her own documentary on a day in the life of a high school student, said meeting James was very moving.
“I was so surprised when I found out he was going to visit us,” Sparks said. “And I when I met him, I was so impressed with how down to earth he was, especially since he has an Oscar nomination.”
Sparks said she is interested in telling other people’s stories and making a documentary is a good way to do that. Through the class she is learning to find the heart of her short film.
“Editing is hard because you need to take out things that you like in order to focus on the central story,” Sparks said.
Outside of the classroom Schere-Emuds has worked in television, video and radio. In Chicago, she worked at WGN and WBBN. In Germany, she managed a cable station for the American Embassy and was a reporter for European Journal for Deutsche Welle. Her class at PMSA is very hands-on and project-based. The students recently finished working on commercials and public service announcements. Editing is done on computers using iMovie software.
“The program is very accessible and easy to learn,” Schere-Emuds said.
Because PMSA has an inquiry-based approach to learning, Schere-Emuds has instructed her students to find a question to answer while making their documentaries. While making their movies, the students are also discovering their own personal interests. Students are working on a number of topics for their films ranging from pets to an exploration of what a “normal” high school student is.
Schere-Emuds encourages her students to be aware that while creating art, sometimes a project will take a turn they didn’t expect, a point that James also stressed.
“Initially, ‘Hoop Dreams’ was going to be 30 minutes long and focus on one inner-city playground,” James said. “But once we began to follow Arthur and William and their families, the project grew to include 250 hours of footage shot over five years.”
James has directed many projects since “Hoop Dreams” including documentaries, “Stevie,” and “Reel Paradise.” He directed a segment and edited the TV series “The New Americans” and co-wrote and directed the dramatic movie, “Prefontaine.” He has other projects in the works.