KALAMAZOO, Mich.—A documentary by a Western Michigan University professor, shot with the help of 15 students and depicting the changed lives of two former gang rivals, will receive its world premiere this weekend at the Waterfront Film Festival in South Haven.
"Peace During War," profiling the lives of Yafinceio Harris and Michael Wilder, was produced and directed by Dr. Jennifer Machiorlatti, WMU professor of communication in the film, video and media studies program. It will be unveiled at 2 p.m. Friday, June 13, and 4:30 p.m. Saturday, June 14.
The short documentary runs close to 17 minutes and introduces audiences to the two former gang leaders' work of helping steer youths away from violence and life on the street. Harris and Wilder served as co-producers.
"It was amazing and transformative working with them," Machiorlatti says. "They became friends with a lot of the students. It's almost like we formed an extended family."
Machiorlatti was already familiar with their story before being asked to film it. She was driving home one dark winter night about three years ago when she tuned in to the National Public Radio program "The Story" with host Dick Gordon. Gordon was interviewing two gang members and drug dealers, Yafinceio "Big B" Harris and Michael "Too Short" Wilder. Once on opposite sides of a street feud stemming from the shooting death of Harris' cousin by Wilder's friend, they shared how, after encountering one another in a community college classroom, they had turned their lives around and co-founded Peace During War, a Kalamazoo-based youth mentoring program that diverts youths from paths leading to prison or death.
"I heard this fascinating interview with these two men who had been gang rivals and thought it would make a great documentary," Machiorlatti says. "But I never pursued it."
That changed nine months later when Machiorlatti was contacted by Sam Bailey, a WMU graduate who now works in the Center for English Language and Culture for International Students at WMU, about filming their story. Bailey had been the professor in the class where Wilder and Harris reconnected. With the help of Bailey and Bill Reed, of the Forum of Greater Kalamazoo, Harris and Wilder obtained funding from the Fetzer Institute to start their organization, create a website and make the documentary.
Machiorlatti began shooting the film in summer and fall of 2012 and hired several WMU students as crew members. Other students received Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities awards from the College of Arts and Sciences.
"The students got really great experience working on the documentary," Machiorlatti says. "It just all came together. There were students ready to work on this professional project, having completed advanced training in video production and post-production. We created a very supportive team. Everyone brought wonderful enthusiasm and work ethic to the project."
Students came through
Machiorlatti says the students did not disappoint her.
"They all came through," she says. "Media production is extremely hard work, but this one was easy because of the teamwork we had."
Alyssa Masters, who graduated in summer 2013, was the project's lead editor and worked long hours to piece together the final product. She also was the story editor, coming up with how the documentary would be presented. She continued to work on it after graduation and even helped shoot some of the footage. In all, she worked on the project for a year, logging well over 100 hours.
"It was really a great experience," Masters says. "It was the most professional project that I had been able to work on while I was at WMU, or anywhere else."
Usually students work on projects with crews of two or three people, Masters says.
"This had more of the feel of a professional project," says Masters, who now lives in Saginaw and works as a freelance video editor. "I'm hoping the experience will help me get a job in the profession."
Masters says she's proud of how it turned out.
"I was kind of intimidated at first," she says. "But I think it turned out way better than I expected. I'm really happy with the end result."
For more information on the Waterfront Film Festival, visit waterfrontfilm.org.
To learn about the Fetzer Institute's other initiatives, see fetzer.org.