ACE Collaboration: Nonfiction Filmmaking and the Women’s Prison Book Project

19 January 2021

Of all the aspects of college that needed to be reimagined this year, Academic Civic Engagement classes—with their frequent community-centered, in-person components—have been particularly complicated. Students in Professor Laska Jimsen’s Nonfiction class rose to the challenge and found ways to make their limitations into creative opportunities.

For the past six years, the class has partnered with local community organizations to make short videos for which the organization has an immediate use. This year, the impossibility of travel provided the opportunity to look further afield. One student group—Alison Hong ‘22, Ceile Kronick ‘22, Charlotte Rew ‘21, and Sarah Westrich ‘22—partnered with the Women’s Prison Book Project (WPBP), a Minneapolis-based organization that would have previously posed travel difficulties for Carleton students. 

The WPBP is a volunteer-run organization that has been providing books and reading materials to women and transgender people in prison since 1994. They asked the students to make a film to help with fundraising, using a collection of letters written to the WPBP by incarcerated people. With options for filming extremely limited by safety precautions, the students had to get creative. “We had to basically just use what was in our rooms or what we already had,” Sarah says, “so we settled on deciding to record narration of the letters and use the letters to craft our narrative.”

The students made use of their pandemic pod members, having their small groups transcribe and record the letters. “Getting really high-quality audio was hard because we didn’t have access to the same sort of spaces that we would normally,” Ceile says. They filmed B-roll footage using what they were able to access while social distancing—luckily, the abundance of nature could be captured safely and provided a rich dimension to the film.

If the students found their limitations constraining, the final product gives no indication. Ashley Asmus, Volunteer Collective Member at MWBP, calls the students’ work “creative and captivating.” “It was clear from the material that they chose that they brought a real sense of compassion and empathy to the project,” she says, “and it came across in the finished product.” 

Each of the students noticed that working on a community-driven project changed their relationship to their work. “I am so excited to have been able to use my skills in filmmaking to create something that will have a true impact beyond the scope of Carleton and Carleton students,” says Charlotte.

“I think this is the most rewarding film I’ve ever made,” says Alison, “because I know it’s not just about myself, it’s also about other people. I think it’s such a powerful organization; I really admire what they’re doing and I hope I can help more in the future. And I always thought that only professional filmmakers could do something like that—as a student, I’m very honored that I was offered the opportunity to be part of this.”

Ceile found that knowing the film was going to practical use “just completely changed the drive that I had and the motivation that I had to work on it.” He goes on, “partly why I just loved working with Ashley, and I think our whole group really liked it, is because she was just so positive and enthusiastic over the entire project—and it was so clear to us that at the end of the day, it was going to go out there and they were going to use it a lot, and they were really excited to use it. And that was pretty special, I think.”