Student filmmakers capture story of local nonprofit center, make it Toronto

The documentary short will compete at the Hot Docs International Canadian Docmentary FIlm Festival on April, 30.  Photo courtesy of Kevin O'Donnell
The documentary short will compete at the Hot Docs International Canadian Docmentary FIlm Festival on April, 30.
Photo courtesy of Kevin O’Donnell


BY Collin Dysart

Assistant Scene Editor


The challenge: five days to make a 47-minute documentary short. The result: a winning submission, sending its five participants to Toronto to compete for the top prize.

Five Central film and video studies students, Jonathan Benson, Dylan Hubber, Seth Lonborg, Emily Meyer and Kevin O’Donnell, in partnership with Clearwater Studios, came together during the last week of February to produce, shoot, edit and submit their entry, “Spirit of the West,” for the International Documentary Challenge (DOC Challenge).

The DOC Challenge’s mission is to entice aspiring and present filmmakers to immerse themselves in the world of documentary filmmaking. According to Meyer, senior film and video studies major, instructor Jon Ward was instrumental in making the project come together.

“He had done the competition before and really sold us on the idea,” she said.

The contest serves to highlight how real life narratives are some of the most compelling and, coupled with technological advances, easier than ever to make and distribute.

The short time frame afforded to the filmmakers was, in their view, a benefit rather than a hindrance. The filmmakers are only required to make a brief time commitment, in lieu of months on end.

The studio’s  assigned category was either biographical or environmental. The overarching theme for the festival was “Behind the Curtain.”

The Clearwater team decided to focus its short on Evelyn and Dave Jones of the Spirit Therapeutic Riding Center of Ellensburg. Meyer said selecting the couple and the riding center was a subject the whole group was enthusiastic about.

“They just had this incredible story, and it was right here in Ellensburg at our fingertips,” she said. Thus came the topic and title of the documentary short, “Spirit of the West.”

The Spirit Therapeutic Riding Center opened in August 2006. The nonprofit center provides horse riding for people with disabilities. The center works with clients of all ages, backgrounds and disability types.

According to the center’s website, the benefits of horseback riding include how it mimics the motion of human walking and instills a vital connection between horse and rider. It benefits the body physically through increasing muscle dexterity and awareness. There are also mental benefits, including increased self-esteem and confidence.

Evelyn Jones’s love for horses started early in childhood.

“As a little girl, my love of horses came naturally as our family had a small farm with horses,” Evelyn said on the center’s website. “I have always found ways to be around horses every chance I had.”

The idea for the center came to Jones when she became a volunteer at a similar riding center in Woodinville, Wash. She subsequently went about the process of therapeutic riding instruction by taking workshops in Arizona. After achieving certification, she opened the doors of her center with just one horse, in August 2006.

The center has flourished and now owns five horses and a strong band of volunteers, according to the web page.

Documentary filmmaking provides a unique set of challenges for the people behind the camera, according to Kevin O’Donnell, the short’s director of photography and senior film and video studies major.

“When embarking on a project like this there is really only so much planning you can do,” O’Donnell said. “There was a lot of unexpected changes that we had to overcome on set, and it wasn’t until the last hour of filming we knew what the documentary was about.”

With a finite amount of cameras and personnel, only so much material can be captured.

“They would be inside [the center] filming and I would be standing outside and suddenly realize there was something we had to capture,” Meyer said. “You just can only get so much and there is so much outside of your grasp as you capture real subjects.”

On April 30, the group will head to Toronto for the movie’s premiere. The top 12 submissions for the challenge  will screen at the annual Hot Docs International Canadian Documentary Film Festival.

If the group wins, “Spirit of the West” will subsequently screen at other festivals and have the possibility of television exposure.

The filmmakers also made a behind-the-scenes companion film, that is currently being voted on at for a “making-of” challenge. The challenge’s winner will win $400. The voting started last Monday.

Regardless of the outcome, this project has a special place in the heart of those who participated. Central Alumni Jonathan Benson found that competing nationally has changed his outlook on filmmaking.

“Before there wasn’t a way to gauge the quality of the work our team was capable of producing,” Benson said. “The scale of competition has really humbled and dominated the ego.”

Meyer had nothing but positive things to say about her experience. She said she wants “to make  documentaries for a living, and if they are even half as rewarding as this one was, then I will be a very happy filmmaker.”