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Grad student plans documentary

K. AARON VANOOSTERHOUT | Monday, March 22, 2004

On March 26 at 3:26 p.m., life in the twin cities of St. Joseph and Benton Harbor, Mich., will be occurring as usual.And that is just how Mark Cook wants it.Cook, a graphic design graduate student at Notre Dame, is organizing and compiling what he labels a “unique documentary event” of the region 35 miles north of South Bend. He, as well as anyone else who wishes to participate, will be crossing the border to capture one minute in the life of these two towns, with photographs, videotape, audiotape and journals.”For me, [it] is a significant time and day because it’s not significant, it’s a typical time and day,” Cook said.The towns, however, are anything but typical.St. Joseph is an affluent city of about 9,000 residents, 90 percent of whom are white, and boasts of an excellent public school system as well as a thriving economy. In 1994, Cook, then a freshman at nearby Andrews University, viewed firsthand the area’s wealth while exploring the region. “A lot of activity” stretched before him, with “a lot of quaint shops” hugging closely together on the main street.When he crossed the bridge over the St. Joseph River, however, he was struck by the stark contrast with Benton Harbor. “It just felt like I must have driven hundreds of miles to get to this other place,” he said.Benton Harbor was “totally vacant”, with “a lot of major buildings boarded up” and had one of the nation’s poorest public school systems and highest murder rates. Of its roughly 11,000 residents, 90 percent are black.”It seems really odd that in America, in the year 2004, two towns so close geographically can be so different in many other respects,” Cook said.Cook had been contemplating a documentary ever since that drive 10 years ago, but finally decided to act this year for a number of reasons, the most striking being last summer’s riots in Benton Harbor. Mobs of citizens fought police and razed buildings throughout the city in response to a motorcyclist’s questionable death, bringing nation-wide attention to the two communities. He has petitioned residents of the two cities to participate in his project.”I really want this to be a community taking a look at itself,” he said.Cook also said he hopes the documentary will “generate discussion about social conditions in Benton Harbor and St. Joseph.”After he gathers the recordings, Cook will then use his graphic design expertise to compile all the sights, scenes and stories into “a body of work where the viewer could be multi-present.” The work will then be exhibited in local public libraries, shopping malls and schools.Cook’s work has received attention from the area’s local newspaper, the Herald-Palladium, a number of radio stations, including 94.9 the Coast and 88.1 WVPE and it will soon be featured in the South Bend Tribune.Despite such a regional interest, however, Cook emphasized that anyone may take part, regardless of connection to the cities, “the more diverse [the participants] the better.” With this in mind, second-year photography graduate student Ally Klutenkamper and her class, among then junior graphic design major Andrew Borys, will be traveling north to take photographs.Borys said he was more interested in the aesthetic goals of the project rather than any social commitment. He plans on “taking pictures from one side looking at the other,” using the pictures to capture the view of residents as they look across the water.Aesthetic ambitions aside, however, Borys remarked on the conditions that awaited him just 45 minutes away, “we get to witness how parallel two cities could be, but so different … how one can live in such abject poverty and the other be so affluent. “The only difference is their race and the other side of a river,” he said.