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Student documentary depicts Olneyville life

Paring 40 hours of video footage into a 90-minute documentary seems a daunting task.

But that is what Matt Hassett '09 and Abe Halpert '09 plan to accomplish over the coming months to create a documentary about Olneyville - a low-income area on the west side of Providence with a large immigrant population. The two compiled footage over the summer with a $4,000 Starr Fellowship from the Swearer Center for Public Service.

They hope to show the film at Brown and on Rhode Island's PBS affiliate, WSBE.

"It was really cool to be able to direct my own project and focus on what I wanted to focus on," said Hassett, who conceived the project after working in Olneyville as a tutor for English for Action, a nonprofit teaching group.

Hassett explained that the area, one of the poorest in Providence, is an interesting case study in how neighborhoods can change, and how residents deal with the change. Olneyville, with significant open space and many run-down mills, is of high interest to large real estate development companies such as Rising Sun Mills and Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, Hassett said.

Merely acquaintances before early June, when Halpert decided to join the project, the two spent the summer interviewing community organizers, police officers, nonprofits, artists, business owners, developers and people on the streets of Olneyville.

"Our interviews were very broad and we tried to address as many subjects as possible," Hassett said. "But the thing that unites everyone in Olneyville is housing. From the point of view of developers and the point of view of the residents, housing affects everyone and there are a lot of misconceptions about its effects."

"We wanted to talk to anyone who had any stake in the neighborhood," Halpert said.

"A lot of people in Olneyville are skeptical that the influx of money to these developments will not help them, or worse, displace them," Hassett said.

"It's easy to criticize certain organizations that are trying to gentrify the neighborhood or dislocate low-income citizens," Halpert explained.

"But our documentary is not trying to create a dichotomy between the poor and the wealthy developers," Hassett continued, adding that the developers are in fact doing a lot of important and beneficial work in Olneyville, like creating parks and bike paths, restoring buildings and generally helping neighborhoods.

However, the large developers interested in the area were resistant to talking to Hassett and Halpert.

"We don't want to make them look bad, but they won't talk to us to show all the really good things they have done," Hassett said. "But them not talking makes them seem far more worse than they really are in the situation."

Big developers like Rising Sun were not the only organizations to refuse to be videotaped. The Olneyville Neighborhood Association, which has been very vocal in opposing most of the proposed developments, also refused to let its interviews be recorded.

Beyond this resistance by the larger players in Olneyville, which Halpert attributes to the muckraking image Michael Moore has given documentary filmmakers, the two found others very cooperative.

"People were generally really happy to talk because we were asking them about issues that they are most passionate about," Hassett said, an angle that allowed them to discover surprising things about the area.

"Contrary to what people might think, immigrants are generally the victims (and not the perpetrators) of crime," Hassett said, explaining that criminals commonly wait outside banks frequented by immigrants, force them into vans and steal their wallets.

"Illegal immigrants feel they have no recourse with the law because they are in fear of being deported," Halpert added. This leaves many immigrants unable to combat these attacks, he said.

However, crime and violence were not the only aspects of Olneyvile that Halpert and Hassett encountered. A flourishing art and music scene permeates the lives of many of the poorest Olneyville residents.

Halpert remembers finding 200 people living in one of the historic mills of Olneyville. They had turned the mill into a kind of "artistic wonderland playground."

It was at moments like these that Halpert, who joined the project on a whim, felt the value of the summer's work.

"One day when we were driving back from an interview I was just thinking, 'How cool is this?' People in their regular lives don't just call up other people to try and talk to them for no good reason - unless they are crazy. But we got to do it for a whole summer, which is just so great."

Halpert and Hassett were also grateful that the Starr Fellowship allowed them to truly explore and understand an area that they have lived so close to, and that many Brown students never even hear of.

"A lot of people never leave the East Side, but Olneyville is really interesting and really different, which is wonderful to see," Halpert said. "Brown students are so busy and worrying about very abstract classes. Here's a neighborhood that's dealing with such fundamental issues. It was really invigorating to work with issues so present and crucial."

The 40 hours of footage are currently sitting in a drawer in Hassett's bedroom where the two will watch it, pick out the best bits, decide if they need to re-shoot anything and eventually piece it together into a film.

"We are basically fitting two years' work into a couple months," Hassett said.


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