"Building Community Awareness Through Long Form Documentaries": Up Heartbreak Hill director/producer Erica Scharf at SilverDocs

"Building Community Awareness Through Long Form Documentaries": Up Heartbreak Hill director/producer Erica Scharf at SilverDocs

Erica Scharf has spent much of her career in documentary film and television. She is currently editing the documentary television show, The Shift, airing on Investigation Discovery.

Date Posted: 
2012-07-09 00:00

Blog Series:


I was honored to sit on the panel, “Building Community Awareness through Long Form Documentaries” at the AFI SilverDocs Festival this year. Moderated by Doug McKenney, Executive Producer of CPB’s Public Awareness Initiative, the panel also included Sandy St. Louis, Project Manager for Frontline’s Dropout Nation, Jacquie Jones, Executive Director of the National Black Programming Consortium and Executive Producer of DC Met: Life Inside School Reform and Tanishia Williams-Minor, the high school principal featured in DC Met. The conversation centered on public media’s multi-year initiative, American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, designed to help communities across the country address the high school dropout crisis.

After presenting several clips from my film, Up Heartbreak Hill, which chronicles the senior year of three Navajo high school students, I spoke about my experience in Navajo, New Mexico. About 1,600 people presently live in the town – and 30% have high school diplomas. Thomas, Tamara and Gabby – the three kids whose stories I followed – all have a strong desire to go on to college and I think this is key to their success in high school. For them, graduating is a necessary step to a larger goal and it is this long-term aim that drives them and sets them apart from many of their peers.

Still, the challenges facing them and their classmates are numerous. They are largely first generation college students and while their families are supportive they are often lacking crucial information and resources to help guide their children through what can be an overwhelming process – one that involves not just submitting college applications but applying for scholarships and financial aide, as well. Finding the time and money to visit college campuses is also difficult and students often have limited information – and sometimes misinformation – about the options available to them.

The Navajo community is also plagued by the legacy of BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) schools, which in many instances cut students’ hair and forbade them from speaking their native language. The teachers and staff at Navajo Pine High School are wonderful and profoundly dedicated to their students – in many cases going well above and beyond their duties to ensure their success – but the memories of the BIA schools are deeply ingrained and one of the many scars they left is a mistrust of the education system.

Many of the obstacles facing students on the reservation are not unique; my fellow panelists discussed a number of the same issues that also affected the schools they were working with. And all agreed that setting students on a long-term trajectory – whether the end goal was trade school, the military, community college or university – was key to their successful completion of high school. The hope with all of our films is to increase awareness and understanding about the problems that exist and to provide opportunities for students, parents, educators and community members to come together to discuss ways of addressing them. POV, which will broadcast Up Heartbreak Hill later this month, has created a discussion guide and lesson plans, which can be used by schools, libraries, youth groups and community organizations.

Thanks to SilverDocs, Doug, Sandy, Jacquie, Tanishia and everyone who attended the panel for helping to facilitate such an important conversation.

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