Arts and Culture

Film takes students beyond the classroom


2015 Won't Pipe Down Documentary

What started out as a project for a documentary film class has now taken four students on a journey far beyond what they expected.

When Abby Riggleman found out that the proposed Dominion Pipeline was to cross through her family’s backyard in Nelson County, she felt that she had to do something about it. She told her friend Danny McNew, who happened to be in a documentary film class. McNew then proposed the idea to his two group members, Art Pekun and Marley McDonald, as the topic for their class project.

“All of us came up with ideas, and all of them were really, really good,” Pekun recalls. “We went with this one because it was the biggest one, and it turned out to be much bigger than what we expected it to be.”

“It was supposed to be a three-month project,” McNew states. The four are now entering their eighth month on the project, “Won’t Pipe Down,” after collecting days worth of footage and spending countless hours in editing.

The group started their education about the pipeline by attending an open house about the issue.

“From there we just made more contacts,” McDonald says. “With documentary the nature of it is that the story keeps evolving as you keep gathering material.

From there the students went to meetings, talked to Shenandoah Valley residents and attended protests.

“There’s just so much going on that this could be a full-time job for somebody,” Pekun says. With classes, homework, and everything else that goes along with being a college student, these four filmmakers just haven’t had the time to do everything. But what they have had time for has been extensive.

“We have so much footage, we have hours and hours of footage,” McDonald says with a laugh. “It’s so hard to find what parts we want to include and what parts we don’t want to include.”

Last semester, the students produced a 17-minute version of the documentary for DOCfest, which showcases JMU student-produced documentaries. They also submitted the documentary to film competitions, receiving an honorable mention from the Broadcast Education Association and winning Best Documentary Film at the Film and Renewal: William and Mary 2015 Global Film Festival.

“We’re award-winning documentary filmmakers,” McDonald says. “It does sound silly when you say it…outside industry people have recognized us for our work.”

“Getting that award really pushed us to do the final version,” says Riggleman. The group is now working on a 30-minute version that will premiere at Court Square Theater on May 4.

Since the beginning of this semester, the students have been working with School of Media Arts and Design Assistant Professor Shaun Wright, who also works as a documentary filmmaker

“There was a great sense from the team that they needed some more time to flesh out the story,” Wright recalls. “They approached me about doing an independent study to continue it.”

Wright was able to help the students build contacts through local non-profits, such as Wild Virginia, and giving them advice on documentary filmmaking overall.

“It’s not like you’re getting someone who used to do this 30 years ago. You’re getting someone who’s like ‘I’m doing this too, let’s talk about both of our projects and help each other,’” McDonald says.

In addition to the help from Wright and the use of SMAD filming equipment, the students have benefited greatly from working within a university environment.

“We’ve worked with other students who are making some graphics, and a class is making the website for us for free,” Riggleman says. “It’s really great to see SMAD come together to help us.”

“Definitely the time to do it is while you’re in SMAD and in college, because you’ve got that structural support,” Pekun says.

“It’s a way to connect the concentrations,” Wright says. “I think it can inspire other students to realize that students can make really quality work.”

Wright calls the “Won’t Pipe Down” team a “perfect storm” of dedication, hard work, passion and creativity. He says that the classes will provide widely applicable skills, but that this team’s success largely boils down to their passion for the piece.

“It’s not easy,” Riggleman says. “You definitely have to go searching for it.”

Even outside of their own experiences, the team is making an impact.

“The people who saw our first version actually loved it,” Riggleman recalls.

“It becomes kind of an educational tool as well, to create awareness about what’s going on,” Wright says. “It’s empowering in a way to be able to use your media skills to change things.”

“Doing this has really opened the doors to documentary filmmaking for us,” McNew says. Now the experience is the first thing on his resume.

“None of us wanted to be a documentary filmmaker before we started this,” McDonald recalls. Nearing the end of the experience, however, things have changed. “I want to be a documentary filmmaker,” she says now.

The students will be premiering their final, 30-minute version of the documentary at the Court Square Theater on May 4 at 7 p.m.

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April 28, 2015

By Jessica Bur (’15)

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Published: Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Last Updated: Monday, January 25, 2021

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