Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Our Long Walk

I hadn’t seen Chinonye Chukwu since the spring of 2004. We met in my office to talk about how she was performing. Not only was she dropping my class, but also she was leaving the Media Fellows program. As a new teacher I wondered if I hadn’t done something to drive her, one of a few black students in the program, away. I blamed myself.

Frustrated by the corporate overtones of the news media and my own force-feeding her classmates a steady diet of The New York Times, she was feed up. My course was the last straw. A career in news media wasn’t for her.

We lost touch. I went away to graduate school in the fall of 2005. In the meantime she graduated from DePauw with a degree in creative writing in the spring of 2007. I returned to Greencastle in the fall of 2008 and resumed teaching. I had always wondered what had happened to Chinonye (che-known-ye).   I did what most Internet savvy folks do. I Googled her and was pleasantly surprised to discover she had gotten an MFA in screenwriting at Temple University, and that she had gone on to become a filmmaker. She had made some short films and she had won a highly prestigious 2009 Princess Grace Award. Presented by the Royal Family of Monaco, Chinonye was one of six emerging filmmakers in the U.S. to receive this grant from the Princess Grace Foundation-USA.                                                            
Thrilled for her, I discovered that she was on Facebook and sent her a friend request.

No response. The silence confirmed in my mind. She hated me, and partially blamed me for her bumpy time in that program.

Teaching is sort of like dancing. Sometimes you accidentally step on your partner’s toes, and sometimes they step on yours. 

Last October, Chinonye came back to DePauw to screen “Alaskaland,” her first feature-length film. It’s a semi-autobiographical tale of Nigerian immigrants who had relocated to Fairbanks, Alaska to work in the petroleum industry. 

Standing before a packed crowd, in the same auditorium where she had been unhappy as a student, she told of the arc of her growth as an artist and filmmaker. She was poised, graceful and honest about her frustrations as not only a black student, but also an African living in rural Indiana. With her hair pulled back in a bun, wearing a sleek black dress, she moved with a certain confidence – a huge contrast to the frustrated college student who had told me she was dropping my class.  Her dream of becoming a filmmaker had taken off. I marveled. 

The next day I sat in the back of the room where her film made its campus premier. Before the screening she saw me screamed, “Professor Autman!!!!!!! I’m not going to call you Samuel. You’ll always be Professor Autman to me.” It was one of the tightest hugs I had had in years. We chatted a bit and agreed to have breakfast the next morning.

I laughed all the way through the film. Most of all I appreciated the warmth of this African immigrant narrative to the United States, a story so rarely seen on the big screen.

The next morning she filled me in on what had happened in her life during the intervening years. Her shorts were blossoming and now this feature had been its way to the film festival circuit. She had become an adjunct professor in New Jersey. She was amazed that I was STILL in Greencastle and at DePauw. She inquired about my writing projects.  Her interest piqued when I described my manuscript in the works, Sanctified: A Memoir.  One of the chapters, “A Walk Through the Neighborhood,” had been published in a few places.  It’s the story of something I saw happen in my neighborhood as a kind growing up in St. Louis. A father caught his son playing with lipstick. His reaction stunned Chinonye and most people I tell.

As I shared the details, her eyes sparkled. “Oh my God! I would love to shoot that."                    

The script for “A Long Walk” was born. Over the next month we talked on the phone weekly. My four pages of prose were magically transformed into a ten-page script. She seemed confident that as a film it could powerfully move viewers. Although I had taken a screenwriting class in graduate school and had even taught a class called “When the Book Becomes a Movie,” I had never sold or shot a script. I relied on her expertise.

She began sharing the script with film and stage actors and other filmmakers who all found it “stunning” and “amazing.”  I knew it was a strong story, but a film? I figured her friends were being supportive.

Chinonye then revealed her deeper ambition, to submit the script to competitions, most notably Princeton University’s Hodder Fellowship. I took deep breath and gave my blessing. Hodder had never gone to a filmmaker. The fellowship targets writers and non-literary artists of exceptional promise to pursue independent projects at Princeton University during the 2014-2015 academic year. According to Princeton’s website:

“Hodder Fellows are writers, composers, choreographers, visual artists, performance artists, or other kinds of artists or humanists who have "much more than ordinary intellectual and literary gifts"; they are selected more "for promise than for performance." Given the strength of the applicant pool, most successful Fellows have published a first book or have similar achievements in their own fields; the Hodder is designed to provide Fellows with the "studious leisure" to undertake significant new work.”

Here’s my favorite paragraph: “Hodder Fellows spend an academic year at Princeton, but no formal teaching is involved. A $75,000 stipend is provided. Fellowships are not intended to fund work leading to an advanced degree. One need not be a U.S. citizen to apply.”

Far be it from me to squelch somebody’s dreams.

Imagine my surprise the day called and told me that of nearly 2,000 applications, hers was one of four applications being awarded the Hodder Fellowship, primarily based on the script for “A Long Walk.” I completely was floored.

Next month I’ll join Chinonye and a cast of Broadway and film actors (whom I can name in a later blog entry) and professional crew in Camden, N.J. on the set of “A Long Walk” a short film. She has such great ambitions for this little film. I’m going to step back and watch her do her thing.

In the middle of the summer I got to spend time with Chinonye while she was in Greencastle working on another professor’s film project.

“No, I never hated you,” she told me over a meal. “By the time you came along I had already decided that the news media wasn’t for me. I was interested other kinds of media.”

I could never have imagined that a student who had dropped out of one of my classes would reappear in my life and bring such an amazing gift.