WMU student wins honorable mention for documentary

contact: Mark Schwerin
| WMU News
Photo of Tirrea Billings.


KALAMAZOO, Mich.—A Western Michigan University student in the School of Communication has received an honorable mention in a highly competitive, nationwide competition.

Tirrea Billings, of Saginaw, a senior in the film, video and media studies program, won the award in the 2016 Broadcast Education Association Festival of Media Arts in the Student Documentary category. A record number of 1,538 total submissions were received this year for the entire competition. As an award winner, she is invited to take part in the BEA 2016 Annual Convention April 18 in Las Vegas, Nevada, and will receive an honorary plaque.

"This is a national competition which is very, very competitive," says Dr. Jennifer Machiorlatti, professor of communication in the film, video and media studies program, who has worked closely with Billings. "She earned this award for a really wonderful documentary."

about the project

Billings' film is titled "Painting Dreams: The Story of Johnson Simon." It tells the story of an inspirational, kind-hearted, motivated WMU student who does not look at his cerebral palsy as a setback, but, rather, as a reason to be even more dedicated in pursuing his dreams. It recounts Simon's journey from a youngster relegated to special education classes to a successful college student and gifted painter, who graduated from WMU in December 2015.

Photo of Tirrea Billings and Johnson Simon.

Billings and Simon

The documentary actually began as an assignment in an English class, Thought and Writing. Students were asked to undertake a project, but could choose the genre. Billings chose documentary.

Billings had met Simon in a Bible study group called Collegiate, Black and Christian. She became familiar with his inspirational story and had been impressed with his perseverance and positive attitude in the face of monumental obstacles as well as his use of art to overcome them.

"When I was thinking about what I wanted to do my documentary on, Johnson instantly popped up in my head," she says. "It was definitely an emotional experience, going into more detail about his life and how hard it was for him growing up."

Simon grew up in West Palm Beach, Florida, and his school lacked the accommodations needed for a student like him. He was placed in special education classes and basically forgotten about, even though there is nothing lacking in his intelligence. It wasn't until he was allowed to go to a special art school his senior year that he blossomed as a student and artist.

'Never give up'

The documentary gives Simon the opportunity to convey his message to "never, never give up," shows him at work on his art and interviews University staff and students about what an inspiration he has been to them.

Billings took the original 30-minute documentary she created for her English class and, under Machiorlatti's guiding hand, honed it into a powerful, 10-minute short documentary.

Billings graduates this fall and hopes to work as a production assistant, probably in Chicago or New York, and also has applied for an internship at the TV Academy in Los Angeles. Ultimately, she hopes to create and direct her own documentary films.

As a WMU student, she has worked as an intern with the Public Media Network in downtown Kalamazoo and with Bronco Productions, shooting Bronco sporting events. She now works as an employee for Bronco Productions, mainly filming soccer games and doing instant replay for basketball games. She also is interning as a production assistant for ImageStream-Creative Communications in Portage.

Her time at WMU has given her ample opportunity to pursue her ambitions, and she credits Machiorlatti with shepherding her along the way.

"I asked her for guidance and advice, and she's been a big help," she says. "She always critiques my work. She's definitely my favorite professor and biggest mentor."

For more news, arts and events, visit wmich.edu/news.