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Neighborhood Centers Inc. is a not for profit organization that brings resources, education and connection to over 400,000 people throughout Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast region every year.

The goal of this project was to find a way to intimately tell the story of a massive organization with a very broad scope. Rather than tell the history of how Neighborhood Centers came to exist and explain all that they do, we decided to take the approach of telling personal, individual stories about people they work alongside everyday.

Th H-Town series was born through intimate, cinematic narratives revolving around the people that Neighborhood Centers serves.

Swang Song is one of our first installments of the “H Town Stories” and our goal with this film is to first tell a real story about real people battling dementia. Through this story we aim to show how Neighborhood Centers comes alongside and provides support through their adult day center for dementia patients called Sheltering Arms.

We set out to make a film that didn’t focus on the day center and the programs it offers; but rather to focus on the individuals that benefit from the services offered there. In this way, we give context to the role the center plays in their lives.

Client: Neighborhood Centers Inc.
Published: September 19, 2013

World Press Photo (3rd Prize)
Multimedia Contest: Online Feature
NPPA's Best of Photojournalism (Honorable Mention)
Documentary Multimedia Story
Webby (Honoree)
Documentary: Individual Episode
The Challenge
The greatest challenges with this project was time. Often times client projects are on a budget which usually equals a shorter than ideal time in the field reporting. When you are dealing with a subject as sensitive and personal as dementia-- great care, sensitivity and time is needed. We knew we would need to in essence “embed” ourselves in their lives for an extended period of time and that a majority of that time would not be spent filming but rather building a relationship and earning our the Greer girl’s trust.

With the desire for that level of intimacy comes the need for time. Our commitment to reach this level of intimacy with our subjects and to stay committed to capturing the story as it unfolded created much more time in the field than expected which in turn meant loads more footage to be produced in post.

Another challenge with this project, as is the case with most, is finding a way to show the role that Neighborhood Centers plays in the characters’ lives while still being authentic and true to their story. We wanted to create pieces that were true to our subjects reality and that went far beyond simply selling the positive things NCI had done in their lives. We wanted NCI to simply come alongside our subjects in our piece in the same way that they do in real life. We felt the stories really needed to reflect the whole of our subjects journey rather than focusing purely on the organization’s role in their lives.

Filming intimate scenes while also not allowing our presence to be felt in the footage was another challenge. As a result of the dementia, our main subject Marilyn did not have the same social awareness that someone without dementia would have. So in other words, she didn’t know not to talk to me or look right into the camera while I was filming and didn’t really understand what the camera was at all. This at times made it very difficult to be a “fly on the wall” and capture intimate scenes without impacting the moment with my presence.

When working on something with this level of intimacy and sensitivity, the goal is obviously to capture the most intimate, storytelling moments as possible. But with that also comes another level of sensitivity needed from the filmmakers, and that is the dignity of your subject. In a situation like dementia where your subject often doesn’t know what they are doing, it now becomes the responsibility of the filmmaker to make the decision on whether or not what is happening in front of you maintains their dignity and is something that needs to be shared with the world. This is a responsibility we did not take lightly.

The Solution
Working with a two person team consisting of Director of Photography Rick Gershon and Producer Caitlyn Greene alleviated many of our issues on this project and allowed us to be more flexible in the filmmaking process. Most importantly it allowed us to continue producing footage as it came in which in turn kept us in the field embedded with our subjects.

We were also very fortunate to have a client that believed in this story and allowed us to extend reporting trips and make return trips to capture important moments. Overall we spent almost 40 days in the field. This amount of time is by far the most we have spent in the field on any single project and that time and the generosity of our client led to us capturing some amazing moments.

Another solution that helped us deal with our need for time was to break up our time in the field into multiple trips. This gave us the added benefit of producing our content between trips so as to better inform our coverage which in turn gave us the opportunity to develop our characters over time.

And finally in order to deal with the great sensitivity and personal nature of the moments and situations we were filming we had an agreement with the two daughters; at any point you feel uncomfortable with something that is happening in front of the camera you have the right to tell us to turn it off. In fact this scenario actually happened in one of the scenes and the camera went off. We also decided to keep that clip in the film to be transparent about the fact that our goal is not to take advantage of or benefit from our subjects suffering, but rather we want to capture honest and fair content that maintains the dignity and respect of our subjects.

About the Client
Neighborhood Centers Inc. brings resources, education and connection to more than 400,000 people throughout Texas each year. For more than a century, Neighborhood Centers has offered comprehensive community-based programs for people at every stage of life – from infants to seniors. The organization works with residents of emerging communities in 60 service locations to help them discover the strengths and skills necessary to become productive, prosperous and self-sufficient. Building on the strengths of individuals and communities, Neighborhood Centers is transforming them. FOR GOOD. Neighborhood Centers Inc. is a United Way agency. For more information, visit www.neighborhood-centers.org.

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