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Grads work to expand impact of Haiti documentary

Madeline Buckley | Thursday, March 18, 2010

Notre Dame graduate Justin Brandon can trace the inspiration for his work on a 2006 documentary about a rural Haitian town to a summer spent doing service through the Center for Social Concerns.

Now, Brandon and two friends have taken their project back to Notre Dame through the use of Innovation Park, a technology park launched by the University that opened this fall.
Brandon, along with 2005 graduates Brian McElroy and Daniel Schnorr, filmed, directed and produced the documentary, “The Road to Fondwa.” It chronicles the Haitian people’s quest for development of the small rural town of Fondwa, Haiti.

“The film is not your standard guilt trip, tear jerking movie that tries to make audience feel sorry. Fondwa has a hopeful story,” he said.

Brandon said he, McElroy and Schnorr wanted to expand the impact of the documentary — especially in light of the Jan. 12 earthquake — so they formed a business that now operates out of Innovation Park.

“Once earthquake hit, everything changed,” Brandon said. “We needed to have a strategy to scale up the efforts of the film distribution and that’s where Innovation Park came in.”
As a student, Brandon, a graduate of the class of 2004, spent a summer in Ghana participating in an International Summer Service Learning Project (ISSLP). Through this project, he met McElroy and Schnorr. Schnorr had spent the summer in Ecuador and McElroy, Fondwa, Haiti.

“We all met through our ISSLPs, and we came up with the idea to shoot a documentary in Haiti,” Brandon said. “We raised a little money, went down and didn’t know what we were doing. None of us took any film classes at Notre Dame.”

But the Notre Dame graduates succeeded in making the film, and they now travel, holding screenings of the documentary to showcase the development and culture of Fondwa.

The documentary focuses on the development of Fondwa, a rural town of about 8,000. The people work to spur growth by building a road through the town then expanding the University of Fondwa, which was established in 2004.

“[The university] was an important first step for development of the town,” Brandon said. “There are about 20 kids in each class, and they’ve graduated one class so far. In the end of the film, we talk about the university as the crown jewel of community.”

But Brandon said the recent earthquake devastated the town, and pushed him, McElroy and Schnorr to extend the reach of the documentary and raise money for relief.

“All the buildings in Fondwa were destroyed, including people’s houses. The university was flattened,” Brandon said. “But people are working to raise money to rebuild it bigger and better.”

After the earthquake, Brandon said they decided to release the film for free viewing on YouTube to draw attention to the town and the university.

“The whole world was able to see the negativity, the really dismal images being shown on TV. We wanted to show a more hopeful message online,” he said.

Brandon said the business they run out of Innovation Park is not for profit.

“We are covering our own costs, gas costs and making the DVDs, but after that, we are using any money that comes in to keep the business going, promoting the film and the Web site,” he said. “Anything that’s left over, we are donating directly to Fondwa.”

Brandon said he and the other filmmakers are looking for groups and students who want to do screenings of the documentary in order to raise awareness and funds for the relief effort.

“We have raised a few thousand,” he said. “It isn’t all that much, but in the broader scene, we released the film for free and told anyone that if they want a screening of film, they can do that for free except that they had to buy the DVD.”

Brandon said Innovation Park is an ideal workspace for promoting the documentary.
“It’s important for me to have a place to come and work around other people that think similar way that I’m thinking,” he said. “It’s an office space but it’s more than that.”

Brandon said he uses the Greenhouse facility in the park, and has networking and mentoring opportunities from people also using the Greenhouse that have experience launching a business.

His company was an attractive option for Innovation Park as well, Brandon said.
“Our business is different from the other projects they take on. A lot are along lines of physical sciences,” he said. “Ours is quite different and it’s a good perspective to bring into the park because it’s a finished product that already has a revenue stream.”

Many of the other businesses launching out of Innovation Park are still in the early stages of establishment, Brandon said.

“Innovation Park wishes to help Road to Fondwa, LLC, find ways to market this powerful documentary as a tool to help raise additional funds for critical earthquake relief operations,” David Brenner, president and CEO of Innovation Park said of the business in a press release.

Visit http://fondwa.org for more information

Brandon said he hopes the business will help with the Haitian relief effort, but also draw attention to the positive side of Haiti.

“It’s much more of an uplifting story, but not contrived,” he said. “People there have a hopeful spirit and have accomplished a tremendous amount in past few decades.”