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Oct. 30, 2013

Geri Zeldes: Documenting "newness"

Oct. 30, 2013

Geri Alumit Zeldes is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and award-winning documentary filmmaker and scholar.

Sept. 13.  Troy, Mich.  Rose petals scatter a white linen tablecloth at a restaurant in Metro Detroit, not too far from our Novi home. “Congrats on your anniversary!” says our server. After I respond “Thank you,” she leaves, and I look at my husband and say in a firm whisper, “I’ve got a new story idea.” So begins a dinner-long conversation about a potential documentary film.

Steve listens. I explain the hook in the beginning. He nods, saying, “OK.”

I paint with words the protagonist of the story. “Interesting,” he comments. 

Then I build the story arc. He interjects as I prolong the protagonist’s background, “Don’t go there …  it’s the criminals that are the most interesting.” 

At this point, I’m wondering if the families or couples in the adjoining booths found our back and forths befitting of the day, Friday the 13th.

My husband, Steve Zeldes, is an ophthalmologist, a clinical assistant professor at MSU, AND a self-proclaimed documentary film expert. “I watch a lot of these (films), and I know what’s good,” he says when I want to take the storyline elsewhere. “Believe me, stick with the famous trials, and provide something no one else knows about.”

And that’s the point where I take a sip of water.   

Steve’s comment went to a core value of journalism and documentary filmmaking, which is “newness.”  As the director and producer of a half-dozen films, I’ve approached and investigated stories with this mission: To provide information that’s new. To provide a story where you’ll leave, feeling as if you’ve watched a “60 Minutes” episode and you’ll wonder, “Can you believe this happened or is happening in America?”

That’s certainly the case with my most recent films, “The U.S. v. Narciso, Perez & the Press” that investigates how two Filipina women were convicted in the 1970s of poisoning patients in the VA Hospital in Ann Arbor, and “Imported from China” that follows several Chinese students at MSU as they navigate campus and American life.

In the nurse film, I feel like I’ve unearthed a trove of experiences unheard and buried by 40 years. When I interviewed the reporters who covered the trial, the FBI agents who investigated the case and one of the suspects in the case who, by the way, went on to become an MSU professor, I’m a newbie reporter again sitting upright, copying frantically every word, transfixed at times by the precision of recollection of a case that took place decades ago.