Nishima Chudasama held open the shop door for the man with the haunted eyes and bird's nest beard and wondered about his life. Then she stopped wondering and started finding out.
Chudasama, a resource analyst in the Industrial Liaison Program, approached the man near the T station in Central Square and asked permission to interview him on camera for a short film project. He agreed.
"I Am Jeff Morris." Directed by Nishima Chudasama
Chudasama's initiative was the result of the IAP class, "I Live Here (A Human Rights Multimedia Project)," led by actress and author Mia Kirshner. The class encouraged participants to seek out untold stories in the Boston area and turn them into two-minute films.
The Center for International Studies invited Kirshner, whose recent book "I Live Here" features first-hand stories of refugees and displaced people in Chechnya, Burma, Mexico and Malawi, to lead the class this month at MIT. Kirshner is scheduled to deliver a CIS Starr Forum lecture on Thursday, Jan. 29, during which Chudasama's final cut and other short videos from the class will get their first public screening.
During the four-week class, students were asked to pick a subject, film it and edit the footage, with technical assistance from MIT staff. The results, with a final edit by Kirshner, will be featured on the CIS website.
Kirshner, who also starred in Showtime's TV series "The L Word," Brian De Palma's "The Black Dahlia" and Atom Egoyan's "Exotica," praised participants for moving out of their comfort zone and approaching strangers they may have never noticed otherwise. "It's difficult to find a subject matter and it's difficult to do [film editing] and they're not giving up," Kirshner said. "Their tenacity is inspiring."
Chudasama, for example, turned a chance encounter into a film about Jeff Morris, the man she met in Central Square, who told her about being a disabled Vietnam veteran and how he recently lost his house to foreclosure. Conquering her initial trepidation, she spent nearly two hours following him on his daily routine and speaking candidly with him in his public housing apartment.
She told the class about asking Morris what makes him happy. "Talking to you," was the reply. Why? "Because it's given me something to do."
"Having to build connections and build trust in very little time with a seeming stranger has been the most difficult and one of the most rewarding experiences," said Chudasama.
Other students chose to do films on family members. Alex Rivest, a graduate student in neuroscience, who was considering a project that would juxtapose President Barack Obama's statements about creating new manufacturing jobs in alternative energy with footage of his brother, who is struggling to start a solar energy company.
Devon Cone, a CIS research associate with keen interest in refugee issues, spent hours filming a Somalian family now living in Charlestown.
"We're realizing that the people we pass by every day actually have lives that none of us knows about," she said.
The Starr Forum lecture "I Live Here" is sponsored by the Center for International Studies. It will be held at 5 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 29, in Room 6-120. It is free and open to the public.