ViewFinder’s ‘Season Nine’ presents ‘The Value of a Smile’ and ‘Aging’

By Ally Tobler

ViewFinder, and award-winning capstone class in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, presented its ninth project series on the evening of Dec. 8.

This year, the nine students accepted into the class produced two short documentary-style compilations, “Value of a Smile” and “Aging.” 

“Value of a Smile” focused on the 2017 Mid-Maryland Mission of Mercy & Health Equity Festival: Free Adult Dental Clinic that occurred this past Sept. 8 and 10.

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Summer Bedard and Alex Littlehales introduce the first ViewFinder documentary, “The Value of a Smile,” in Tawes’ Ulrich Recital Hall on Dec. 8. Photo by Ally Tobler

Summer Bedard, a senior broadcast journalism major, produced one story for the film about a woman receiving dentures. She also helped to make the entirety of the documentary more cohesive by working on the music and graphics that ran throughout the duration of it.

Originally, Bedard said she and the team didn’t realize that the free adult dental clinic would reveal a much deeper narrative.

“We thought, ‘We’re just going to do this one, two-day event…and then we’ll focus on something else,” Bedard said. “But we realized that it was such a bigger story, so we were able to talk about healthcare and a broken system of dental. Even when you hear people talk about healthcare, you don’t hear them talk about dental, and it’s honestly so much worse in our country.”

Covering the free adult dental clinic event over the course of two days was a team effort, according to Bedard. Some students in the class stayed at the event overnight to capture time-lapses. Others, like herself, were there all day over the course of the two days.

ViewFinder puts an emphasis on covering underreported stories. As the team brainstormed an idea for their second documentary, the idea of broken systems was brought up, then rejected. According to senior broadcast journalism major Alex Littlehales, the group “went back and forth between aging, gun control, diversity and hate speech.”

“We ended up picking aging because it’s a very underreported topic…Everyone has this stigma that once you get past the age of 65, you just whither out and die,” Littlehales said. “Hopefully this documentary changed that mentality.”

Littlehales, who produced two of the stories in “Aging,” one of which included a 78-year-old man who attends a University of Maryland class for fun, said the hardest part of assembling the documentary was sifting through all of the footage.

“One of my stories was a five-hour shoot, and the five hours ended up being a minute and forty seconds,” he said. “That’s the story with everyone. You just have to pick the best moments, and I think that reflects in the work. It’s everyone’s best moments, best video, best sound, best everything.”

Bethany Swain started teaching the advanced visual storytelling class in the spring of 2013. She said she was inspired by “In Focus,” a multi-platform project she started at CNN in 2007 in which photojournalists produced natural-sound packages. It was aired on multiple CNN outlets, including headline news and CNN International, she said.

“When I joined Merrill College, I wanted to do something similar with the students,” Swain said.

Over the years, the class has won over 60 awards — both regional and national honors for individual pieces and entire projects.

Swain said ViewFinder’s biggest project to date was last year, when they reported on the opioid crisis in Anne Arundel county.

After Dec. 8, the videos produced during the ninth season of ViewFinder will be aired other places, such as UMTV and the Big 10 Network. Some of the smaller videos will also be available from Capital News Service (CNS).

According to Swain, students in ViewFinder spend time outside of class working on their projects.

On the evening before the screening, Littlehales, along with a few other ViewFinder classmates, stayed up from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. putting the final touches on their production.

“We’re all just really passionate about video storytelling and about telling that untold story, so we were there because we wanted to be — not because we had to be,” Littlehales said. “I’ve never really worked on a team before like this…it’s very rare to have this kind of experience.”

Swain praised her students for telling both underreported stories in-depth, carefully and professionally.

“I feel really lucky to have such motivated and talented students who apply to this class and want to be a part of this team, and seeing their growth during the semester and the amazing work that they are able to create,” she said.

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