Reform & Filmmaking Go Hand in Hand: An Interview with UNO Grad Student Ben Donnellon

Veronika Lee, Entertainment Editor

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After a recent screening for a film by UNO film grad student Benjamin Patrick Donnellon, an audience member from Oregon approached him and was pretty mad.

 

Donnellon’s documentary “Non-unanimous,” about the state’s now overturned law regarding unanimous jury verdicts, had just screened at the New Orleans Film Festival. Since Donnellon chronicled the bi-partisan upheaval that reformed the Jim Crow Era law, Louisiana has changed its legislation. (Until 2018, Louisiana and Oregon were the only two states that did not require unanimous jury verdicts to result in felony convictions.) The audience member, who was not aware of their own backward policy still continuing in their home state, was shocked.

 

“So go home and change it!” Donnellon advised.

 

The New Jersey native is no stranger to change. Having attended university in upstate New York, he relocated to New York City proper and worked in the film industry as a cinematographer and editor for about 10 years. His work in the Big Apple was primarily on indie docs and with nonprofits with the occasional stint directing commercials. But in 2016 he came to New Orleans and, as many creatives often do, he fell in love.

 

“I worked here for a year or two and thought it might be a good idea to go to grad school.”

 

So far, with two films screening at the New Orleans Film Festival and a successful stint working as the festival’s venue manager, it appears he made the right choice. While he feels the New York City film market has more jobs, it doesn’t necessarily have the sense of community that New Orleans does.

 

His other film, “Terry + Sam,” a scripted short which explores the anxieties of a newly paired couple moving in together, was created in partnership with Eritria Pitts.

 

“In New York, I was part of founding an organization called The Film Shop, a collective for professionals who still want to have a creative outlet and network – [a place] where they can workshop each other’s projects, get feedback on a show every week. People started collaborating so when I came down here I started a chapter here, as well. We’re on our fourth season now and I met [Eritria] through Film Shop. For ‘Terry + Sam’ she had an idea of a relationship story that she pitched to me and I liked it so we both wrote, directed, and acted, and edited in it together.”

 

Donnellon is hesitant to say which form of filmmaking he prefers. 

 

“I would say my original passion is more narrative fiction – writing and directing my own stories. But through working, I’ve randomly met people and heard about certain stories that pulled me in that  I just wanted to document.” 

 

This is how “Non-unanimous” came about, and it’s hard to say his documentary work isn’t on the pulse of current events.

 

“I read an article in the New Orleans Advocate a few years ago about the jury verdicts in Louisiana and I was in kind of blown away because I thought everywhere in the country required a 12-0 jury to convict people in felonies. [I was shocked] that it was only 10-2 in Louisiana but also that it was changed in the  late 19th Century because of late Jim Crow era law explicitly to marginalize black jurors and to maintain white supremacy.”

 

Donnellon reached out to Colin Reingold, the public defender referenced in the article and met and started filming him. 

 

“Meeting him and talking to him he rattled off so many people for me to talk to -Will Sowden[former staff attorney with the Orleans Public Defenders Office, current director of Vera Institute of Justice] and Angela [Allen Bell, Legal Analysis and Writing Professor for Southern University Law Center]  who are featured in the film. The story just kept getting more interesting.”

 

Now that Louisiana has overturned the law, the Supreme Court is dealing with the aftermath of 120 years of un-unanimous felony convictions. Notably, voters are the ones who overturned the split jury rules 2-1 in elections so now courts must anticipate appeals for the 32,000 prisoners affected by the old legislation. 

 

For students who are wondering how their films can screen at festivals, the filmmaker suggests attending festivals on your own. “If you are going to submit a short, see what has been screened in the past and see the production value. There is a Louisiana Shorts and Features section made for Louisiana filmmakers and stories about [the state.] If you are making a story that has something to do with Louisiansa whether it’s a specific town or a portrait of someone who lives in New Orleans submit it.” 

 

To see Ben’s current work, visit https://vimeo.com/bendonnellon. For information on The Film Shop, visit http://www.thefilmshop.org/nola. 

 

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