HFF Interview: Stories and Legends

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They say it takes a village to raise a child. In this case it takes a school to showcase a city. An instructor at Ball State University has started a project to educate the public about the rich history of Muncie and used its telecommunications program to create a stunning documentary short. “Stories and Legends: Historic Preservation in Muncie, Indiana” was submitted to the Heartland Film Festival and we were able to talk to executive producer Chris Flook and directors Kayla Eiler and Christen Whitney about the origins of this project and how they reexamined a city like Muncie.

Heartland Film Festival: What is the genesis of the Historical Muncie project?

Chris Flook: The project was developed as an immersive learning course at Ball State University in order to showcase, highlight, and explore historic preservation generally with specific attention given to Muncie, Indiana.  A great deal of effort has been taken in some of the older neighborhoods in Muncie to redevelop the historic structures.  This is an important aspect of community development, one not unique to Muncie.  I also wanted to provide an opportunity for Ball State Telecommunications students to work under a framework that connected storytelling ability, skill-sets, and community development.

Heartland Film Festival: Why was it important for you to have a documentary aspect to this project?

Chris Flook: The documentary is important as because it tells the story about preservation, history, and Muncie into a visual narrative.  In many ways, it also popularizes the idea of historic preservation and the importance of it for the city of Muncie.  We also have extremely talented students in TCOM at Ball State – the two directors of the project – Christen Whitney and Kayla Eiler, and the director of photography, Brian Hollars, all have a tremendous amount of talent.  I wanted to provide them with a powerful framework to produce a much-needed visual story.

 

Heartland Film Festival: Your film doesn’t have a traditional narrative as you delve into Muncie’s past. What was your process in approaching this material with this format?

Christen Whitney: We wanted something fresh. Since we were dealing with a topic that traditionally comes with the stereotype of “boring,” we wanted to do everything in our power to convince viewers that the information we were presenting them was anything but boring.  We started by brainstorming as many small stories about the city as possible.  Stories within a story.  From there we did extensive research on each of this.

Kayla Eiler: Christen and I spent hours in the Archives and Documents in Bracken, and the archives of Carmichael downtown Muncie looking for newspaper clippings associated with historic homes in the city. So there were a lot of candidates. Unfortunately, documentation on the majority of the homes in the city isn’t great. There’s financial information and record of who owned it and when, but not too many narratives about the history of each home. Most of that information came by word-of-mouth in our interviews with Mike Mavis and Bill Morgan. Mike knows just about every piece of information and gossip about anyone in the history of Muncie. He knows who was married to whom and with whom that person was having an affair! So he really helped us narrow our scope of research.

Christen Whitney: We interviewed with the intent of uncovering as much information as possible on these selections, and were very fortunate as each story began to develop, and in a sense, take on a mind of its own.  This was the most challenging but most rewarding part of the production. Creating four separate stories within a story and presenting them in an appealing and coherent manor.  At the end of the day, there were many endearing, and alluring stories the city of Muncie had to offer but we had to limit it to these four. Short and sweet, in hopes that what the viewer saw would only inspire them to continue digging deep into the history of Muncie or wherever they call home.

Kayla Eiler: One house that we wanted to include was actually one of Bill Morgan’s houses. At one point it was a home for delinquent girls. Almost like a detention center. So when Bill took over in the restoration, it was a disaster. The “tenants” had done just about everything in their power to tear the place apart, including starting small fires in the upstairs. Bill has done a tremendous job in restoring the place. I also would have liked to look more into who John C. Eiler is and the apartment that he built in Old West End. Unfortunately, there’s no real story that I could find on him or the complex, but I found it interesting that someone with my last name, so maybe a relative, had some significance in Muncie’s origin.

Heartland Film Festival: What were some of the interesting things you discovered about Muncie that you couldn’t fit into the documentary? How did these findings change the way you viewed Muncie?

Kayla Eiler: I think I speak on behalf of everyone in the project when I say that in the beginning, we all thought the project would be pretty boring. We were all in the mindset of “What could be worse than studying Muncie? Oh… studying the history of Muncie!” But as Christen and I started to talk to the preservationists, Bill, Mike, and James Connolly, we saw a whole new side to the story. There is a rich history here that has been forgotten or else overlooked by the thousands of college students that fly through every 4 years. This project changed our view on this city forever. We both couldn’t wait to get out and experience the “real world.” But the truth is, this is the real world. This city is Middletown, America. It’s the poster-child for what happens to the Midwest whenever the economy rises and falls. So many college kids can’t wait to get out of here once they’re financial able, and that is why it’s seeing so much decline. It’s going to take a younger generation who cares about Muncie and wants to see it come back to what it was during the turn of the century, to stick around and do the work to bring it back.

Heartland Film Festival: What is next for all of you and Historical Muncie?

Chris Flook: Historical Muncie is currently in its second and final phase.  Additional photos are being taken to complete the city inventory of historic places.  In addition, four new documentaries are being produced to highlight different aspects of preservation and also to look at other neighborhoods not in the first phase of the project.  We are hoping to expand the project outside of Muncie to other Indiana communities.  Indiana has a great deal of terrific small and medium sized towns – many with historic neighborhoods.  I think it is important for the residents here to see the architectural beauty of the state and understand the historical importance of these structures.

Kayla Eiler: Right now, I’m working on the second installment of the Historic Muncie Project. This year, we’re doing 3 broadcast-length documentaries, one on the Minnetrista district, one on the Emily Kimbrough district, and one on Old West End — which I’m doing. I’m a first year grad student in TCOM’s Digital Storytelling master’s program and my graduate assistantship is working as the project director for this year’s Historic Muncie project.  I’m also working on the final installment of the Visit Indiana project through the BBC, making tourism advertisements for counties in the state. And I’m looking forward to starting work on my creative project (thesis) for grad school, but I cannot disclose any further details about that project 😉 You’ll just have to wait and see!

Christen Whitney: I am currently not working on Historic Muncie part II as my schedule did not allow this semester.  However, if the project continues with such a positive response into the spring semester I hope to be involved, as it was the greatest project I have had an opportunity to be a part of here at Ball State.

Heartland Film Festival: What are some of the moving films that have inspired you as filmmakers?

Christen Whitney: I have been inspired by films that produce the “cold chill factor.” In other words films with depth and meaning that analyze issues of society and appeal greatly to the viewer’s emotions.  I really like films dealing with the issue of racism and injustice in general. Putting a spotlight up to injustice is the greatest way to provoke change. To name a few, A Time to Kill, Remember the Titans, Crash.  I also love The Dark Knight for its deep symbolism, thought provoking presentation of right vs wrong and overall drama.  I have been inspired by there films to enhance every piece of work that I do with the utmost DEPTH and DRAMA.  These two elements appeal to me as a creator as well as to an audience.  I want my heart to be fully in whatever I am creating.

Kayla Eiler: Movies that have inspired me… Lord of the Rings. The storytelling is flawless (except for the whole “why couldn’t they just fly eagles all the way to Mordor in the beginning?” thing). But I think the whole story inspires me because it’s about two little guys starting out in a small, somewhat irrelevant town in the middle of nowhere, who have the courage and heart to overcome impossible obstacles, and make a huge difference in a world that’s much bigger than they are. Sometimes, I feel like I come from the middle of nowhere and don’t stand much of a chance in this huge industry. That’s why it’s so inspiring and so humbling to have my film accepted to a film festival. The girl I was 5 years ago would never have thought she had enough determination and heart to make it this far.

You can purchase tickets for “Stories and Legends: Historic Preservation in Muncie, Indiana” which will play with the shorts program “Cities” for the following days

– Saturday, October 20 at 7:30 p.m. at AMC Showplace Traders Point 12
– Wednesday, October 24 at 7:15 p.m. at AMC Castleton Square 14
– Thursday, October 25 at 7 p.m. at AMC Castleton Square 14
– Saturday, October 27 at 2 p.m. at AMC Showplace Traders Point 12

Interview conducted by Austin Lugar

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