Kevin Riordan: Films by students, and for students, against sex assault

The project has special meaning for Katya Palsi (center), with Deanna Lugo (left) and Diana Nicolae.
The project has special meaning for Katya Palsi (center), with Deanna Lugo (left) and Diana Nicolae. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 08, 2013

On one flat-screen, a young woman talks about being stalked.

On a monitor across the room, another sexual-assault victim describes the incident that changed, and still haunts, her life.

"The next thing I remember, he was on top of me," she tells the interviewer. "I distinctly remember saying, 'I don't want to do this.' "

Her name is Katya Palsi, and on the day we meet she is watching herself on video in a Rowan University editing suite, hoping that her candor will help prevent what happened to her when she was 15 from happening to others.

The Monmouth County senior, 23, is among about a dozen Rowan students crafting short documentaries for a national campaign against on-campus sexual assault. Four other universities across the country are participating in the "PACT 5" project, which is funded by a $200,000 grant from Philadelphia's Wyncote Foundation.

"This is a project made by students, for students," says associate professor Diana Nicolae, who teaches video production.

She and colleagues Ned Eckhardt and Keith Brand are overseeing the Rowan portion of the project, which builds on the radio, TV and film department's 25-year history of student documentaries on cutting-edge issues.

"There's never been a collaboration like this among college students [on different campuses] using the documentary format," says Eckhardt, a respected filmmaker.

Adds Brand, known to WXPN-FM listeners for his Sleepy Hollow shows: "We'll be able for the first time to incorporate a major Web and social-media presence, in addition to the video and audio documentaries."

The three professors say a total of seven videos from the five schools - state universities in California, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Colorado are the others - will be posted online and distributed through Facebook and other platforms. They also will be available on YouTube.

"No one talks about sexual assault," says Deanna Lugo, 20, a junior from Ocean City who is working on two of the documentaries. "People think, 'It can never happen to me.' "

During my visit to Rowan's Bozorth Hall on Thursday, documentary team members listen as Todd Fox, 22, a senior from Williamstown, offers live and recorded samples of his original music for the project.

The talk in the room is bright, passionate, and rich with conviction. The students want to change a world where young people are bombarded by highly sexualized messages from the media, the marketplace - and their peers.

Young people may be savvy about the nuances of "hookup" culture, "trophy" encounters, and instant online gratification, but what constitutes sexual assault, and consent, can seem unclear amid an intoxicating haze of hormones and alcohol.

"Males and females don't understand how serious the subject is," says Zachary Vesely, 24, of Williamstown, a senior who is coproducing the video that features Palsi's powerful story. "You give them the facts, and they still find it hard to believe."

At the adjacent editing station, editor Eric Cheavers, of Howell, producer Lauren Stroz, of Middletown, and spoken-word artist Jessica Fields, of Camden, pore over footage of their documentary (working title: "A Day in Her Heels").

The film explores the "Slut Walk" movement, in which demonstrators in deliberately provocative clothing push back against the notion that a woman's style of dress can "incite" sexual assault.

"This is where she was raped," says Cheavers, 22, a senior, pointing to the screen, where a Connecticut student stands in front of a dormitory.

Both the "Slut Walk" film and a third documentary - described as a "docudrama" - are being directed by senior Jon Breitling, 23, of Medford.

"It's basically a reenactment of a true story from campus a few years ago," he says, adding that interviews he's conducted "have really opened my eyes."

That's the sort of impact that Palsi, who was only 15 when she was assaulted, hopes for.

She says college students need to understand that victims - and perpetrators too, for that matter - are real human beings.

Just like them.


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.phillynews.com/blinq.

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