Students document life at GVSU for film festival

GVL / Courtesy - Mark Bykerk

Mark Bykerk

GVL / Courtesy – Mark Bykerk

Daniel Goubert

Even though the giant explosions and car chases of blockbuster films can be captivating, sometimes truth can be stranger and more amazing than fiction. By entering their class-made documentaries into a Michigan film competition, a group of current and former Grand Valley State University students are showing how eye-opening art can be made by stepping outside campus, as well as outside one’s own shoes.

A new contest hosted collaboratively by the Detroit Free Press’ Freep Film Festival and MovingMedia Student Film Competition, the Student Documentary Competition allows for Midwest students to submit documentary films for public vote. The film with the most votes then goes on to screen before the film festival’s opening night feature at the Detroit Film Theatre.

Two of the 10 submitted documentaries were made by GVSU students. Though neither was selected for the March 31 grand prize screening, each presented an interesting and objective view of an issue important to students.

“Everyone knows any good journalist doesn’t gunk up stories with their personal views, and I believe the same should go for most documentary film,” said Chad Rodgers, a 2015 film and video graduate. “But don’t ask Michael Moore that.”

Alongside editor and current GVSU senior Mark Bykerk, Rodgers produced “You Are Going to Hell,” as a class project. The film follows street preacher Brother Jed Smock as he and his associates speak to and condemn passing students at the University of Cincinnati.

Bykerk said seeing Smock give similar, controversial sermons at GVSU inspired the two students to create an objective film about the preacher.

“We wanted to do a documentary that wasn’t necessarily trying to piss people off, but was something that was controversial that students could relate to,” Bykerk said. “It was our mixed feelings towards (Smock) that kind of wanted us to pursue it. We were just curious on what he does and his belief system.

“It’s really crucial, especially for documentary filmmaking, to just be observant (and) not to project your feelings when you’re filming someone.”

Rodgers and Bykerk entered “You Are Going to Hell” into the Freep Film Festival’s Student Documentary Competition. Rodgers said mixed reactions to the film’s premiere at downtown Grand Rapids’ GVSU Student Showcase inspired him to submit it for a larger audience.

He said multiple students asked him “what side” he was on in regard to Smock’s preaching practices, prompting him to remain adamantly objective as a documentary filmmaker.

“This film is very controversial, from the way it’s shot, to the structure, down right to the nitty-gritty of the content, language and material shown,” Rodgers said. “It’s explicit, and unlike anything a film student at GVSU has ever made.”

Film and video graduate Alexia Feier also entered a class film into the Freep Film Festival’s competition. Feier’s film, “Pretty,” follows GVSU student and amateur drag queen Ginger Ambrosia as she contemplates entering a local drag pageant.

Feier said filming Ambrosia allowed her to create “a dialogue about LGBTQ oppression, feminism, depression and more,” even though the candid nature of making documentaries took her out of her comfort zone.

“Documentary filmmaking is inherently awkward, and me with my introverted personality is no help,” Feier said. “Filming at Rumors, the gay club downtown, was extremely challenging for me, because everyone there was so social and I was just this nervous, extremely sober girl trying to be a fly on the wall while pointing a camera in strangers’ faces.”

Rodgers also said leaving familiar areas is important for any student to make groundbreaking documentaries, as making “You Are Going to Hell” required Rodgers and Bykerk to travel five hours each way to film in Ohio and Kentucky.

“Get involved in the things happening within, but more importantly outside the university setting,” Rodgers said. “(Film students) need to be brave. They have to want to go places, do things and see things that no one from GVSU has ever experienced before. That’s the only way they will grow as people, adults, citizens and make GVSU a bigger and better school than ever.”

“You Are Going to Hell,” “Pretty,” and all other entries can be viewed in full at