Fall 2011 Issue

'True love' caught on film

Senior Ryan Sherman traveled all the way from Thailand to the Miami International Film Festival

By Jasmine Kripalani

With the sun beating down on them, a handful of children living in a small village in Thailand plant rice seedlings that will nourish, not just them, but their entire community. Their small, sturdy hands embed the seedlings into the moist earth and their voices trail off into the humid air as they share stories about their day at school.

These children are among the lucky ones who live with a foster mother in northern Thailand. She provides them with shelter, food and access to a nearby elementary school — a luxury since most village children live too far from a school to attend. Here in Ban Huai Tong, located about 100 miles north of Bangkok, the lives of these children and the foster mother who cares for them was a story known only to a handful of people.

But a Barry University student's trip to the Asian nation last summer changed that. Senior Ryan Sherman traveled with a group of students as part of a course led by Denis Vogel, professor and then-chair of Barry University's Communication Department. Vogel's course includes a study abroad component that not only exposes students to a vastly different culture but also requires them to create a short film.

Encouraged by Vogel, Sherman entered his 15-minute film, "Compassion in Thailand," in the Miami International Film Festival, and it was selected as a finalist for the grand prize under the student film category. Festival organizers recently opened the competition — known as the CinemaSlam — to students and accepted nominations from local universities.

While Sherman's film did not win the grand prize, his film was judged to be the best one from Barry University and was screened at the Colony Theater on Miami Beach earlier this year.

"I think part of what made Ryan's film so successful was that he was good at making his subjects, in this case, the children, feel comfortable," Vogel said. "He captured one child saying a brief prayer and crossing himself. He couldn't have gotten personal, unguarded moments like that unless they felt very comfortable around him and the camera."

Sherman, along with three of his fellow classmates Carmel Victor, Catherine Galeano and Amy Sobalvarro, ventured out to the remote village after Vogel introduced them to Jesuit priest, the Rev. Vinai Boonlue, who has been involved with the Thailand study abroad program since 2007. Boonlue talked to the students about the village children cared for by his sister Melawan. All four students set out with the same mission: to capture footage for a short film and to teach the village children English. The students worked individually on their films after teaching English.

Equipped with an HD camera and microphone, the group set out from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand to Ban Huai Tong, where the population is scarce and electricity is unreliable. Despite the rustic working conditions, Sherman produced an eloquent 15-minute film that opens with him sitting atop a wooden hill tribe home introducing what viewers are about to see — foster mother Melawan "and her unique family."

But behind the scenes, Sherman had doubts about his ability to pull it off. Earning the children's trust to capture those personal images took time, so to make them feel more comfortable around him he often played games and ate meals with them.

"At first they were shy," he said. "They never see foreigners or anyone [not from their village]. We were [all] nervous."

Although the children are featured prominently in his film, many of the on-camera interviews are with Melawan, who spoke into the camera in broken English and offered a universal message: "Simple life. Don't want something more than we can make. Don't hate some people who has (sic) more than ours. We can live [with] what we have, because when we die we cannot bring anything and current life must be lived together in the village and sometime in the future I want somebody to do like me, to take care of the kids, to teach the kids."

Throughout the film, Sherman also compares his upbringing to theirs. With images of the children using a garden hose to clean the dishes on a patio appearing on screen, he narrates: "An ordinary morning consists of the children washing dishes, cleaning the property, cooking breakfast and getting ready for school. This is all done at a time when I would be fast asleep."

While his time with the children left Sherman with a renewed gratitude for his own upbringing in Brooklyn, NY, he said meeting someone like Melawan gave him added motivation to do as much as he could in his own life.

"Another big distinction, which I feel makes the children's lives tougher is that they're there without their own parents and have to grow up without the true family experiences I had," he said. "Luckily, they have a caretaker like Melawan, one who supports them financially and emotionally, with the hopes of giving them a chance at a better future. Meeting her and the children definitely made me think about the whole idea of what it means to make a contribution in life."

In fact, in one frame, the camera zooms in on a sign in the village that reads, 'Without good done in this life, it is useless hoping for heaven in the afterlife.'

It's one of the many details Sherman's film captured.

Jasmine Kripalani has been working as a journalist in South Florida for more than a decade. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The Miami Herald, Washington Post, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She lives in Miami Beach with her daughter Melanie.