Jaye Fenderson talks working with husband on ‘Unlikely,’ electoral implications for the film

After seeing Unlikely, our contributing editor Giorgi Plys-Garzotto sat down with co-director Jaye Fenderson to talk more about the film’s urgent message about college admissions. Unlikely follows five students through college, showing how the struggle to get into good schools is only the beginning for first generation students. If you haven’t yet, read our review of Unlikely here! Then check out Giorgi and Jaye’s conversation on balancing life as a female filmmaker!

I guess my first question is pretty general: What brought you to the topic of college admissions?

So I fell into working in college admissions when I was a student at Columbia. I was a work study student and I’d always wanted to work in film and entertainment, but when I was about to graduate and was looking for jobs I found I could not afford to work as a production assistant and pay my student loans and live in New York City! So the director of admissions at the time offered me the opportunity to make the undergraduate recruitment video for Columbia as part of the job description of working in admissions, so I did that, and [years after Columbia] I couldn’t shake the thought of all the inequality that happens in college admissions. So I spent a lot of time trying to use media to raise awareness and solve some of these issues that people aren’t talking about.

Our site focuses on female filmmakers, so what choices did you make that came out of you being a female filmmaker?

It’s interesting because I feel like as a female filmmaker, what we want is to just be considered a filmmaker at the end of the day, right? Just to have that equality. But I do feel like it’s important to talk about the differences, and what we bring to the table. For me, I’m also a mom of four, [and] while I was filming this documentary I was pregnant, and then I gave birth to my son. So there was this one moment during graduation where we’re finishing up filming and we’ve already been in production for like a year and a half, and we find out that the graduation dates for two of our students are on the same day. And I had given birth six weeks before to our son Atticus, and so at that point, Adam had to be in Georgia to film and I didn’t want to take Atticus on a plane, so I drove out to Arizona State with my sister, brought the baby with me, strapped him on, was there working with the crew!

And you know this is the reality of it, and I think oftentimes as a female filmmaker people don’t realize all the other things that you’re balancing in your life. It’s just a given that you have this job, and you’ll figure out how to do it, and so for me it’s like yes, I’m making this film, but I’m also juggling all the balls of being a mom, being a wife, trying to manage all that. And being an independent filmmaker you don’t get maternity leave, so it’s like the cameras keep rolling and you kind of have to figure out how you’re going to make sure you’re there for those moments, and manage being a good mom to your children.

I also think what I love about documentary is that emotional connection, that as an interviewer you sit down and earn that trust, and I feel that–I don’t want to say it’s easier, but establishing that moment when you go in, maybe because I’m a mom, and because I have that nurturing side, people open up and are okay immediately getting to that level and are willing to share the struggles that they’re facing. And sometimes I’ll be filming with my husband Adam, we do everything together, but…a woman isn’t going to open up as much to him, this white male who just comes in like “tell me about your life,” so I do think that’s a strength that I bring to storytelling that I’ve realized over the years.

That definitely leads into my next question, which is how did you and your husband tag-team on making this film?

So we have different strengths that we bring to the table, and different bckgrounds! Adam is an editor by trade, and he really comes to the table with this editorial sense, thinking about which shots we need to edit the footage, while I come from the background of producing, the interview side, the storytelling. I want to ask all the questions; I could literally spend hours with someone just diving into their lives. That’s what I love to do with documentary, just spending time, getting to know someone, unpacking who they are.

And then from a visual side, we tag-team coming up with the aesthetic, with how we want things to look, setting up the shots, directing, what is our style, are we going to be more invasive, telling people what to do, or are we going to take a step back? Directing the camera we usually switch off so we’ll be directing a single crew, and that enables us to cover a lot more in a short span of time. We have a unifying style, but then we can go off and I can completely trust him to fall in line with what I’m looking for and by the same token he can trust me, so it’s been really nice because I feel like we bring out the best in one another, and we’re like, you know, the hive mind, we have this shorthand communication. We met working together, so it’s just natural that we’ve continued to do that and have a production company, and all that.

Is there anything you’ve brought to the table that you feel like he never could have?

[laughs] I think, for me, just in general, I am very sensitive, and very in tune to what’s happening under the surface, so I feel like I often pick up on things and I’m like, we should shoot that, or we should follow this direction. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a woman or because I’m a mom or I have this like, just an instinct, [but sometimes] I’m like “we need to follow this story.” And also just the sensitivity to what’s going on when it comes to female characters. They’ll talk about struggling with applying to college, but it’s not just the finances, it’s because they’re managing all these other things in their life. They’re taking care of kids, they’re thinking about what they’re going to make for dinner tonight, all these other things that are in their minds, and at least when it comes to some of the female characters we’re following, I have an instinct for what else is going on; the layers we want to unpack.

What kind of reactions did you get to this film from the institutions you’re covering? Did you get any pushback?

In terms of this film, I think there some people who were like “really? you’re going to tell that story about Columbia?” And I think that a lot of people who are benefitting from the system are perhaps nervous about people who want to take away some of those benefits, like legacy admission. And the schools that have been the most supportive, the institutions that have been really excited about the film, are the ones that don’t get as much attention in the media, so the Arizona State Universities, and Georgia State obviously, they’re all very excited, but we don’t see the same support from the more selective schools out there.

And it’s interesting because we’re in this time when people are calling into question higher education, and all these systems that we’ve set in place like the SATs–there’s this law suit here in California now trying to get rid of standardized testing, saying it’s discriminatory, and there was an article that came out yesterday in the Wall Street Journal about the SATs and how they’re paying for student’s names, which is something that’s been going on for a long time, but when we look at these systems and how we’ve set them up it shows how we are still really perpetuating this cycle of inequality.

On the flip side, how did you choose which students to cover?

We started with Clarissa, the main character. When doing our research we didn’t just want to tell the stories of the institutions that were doing a good job, we wanted to look at the ecoysystem, because I think one of the problems in higher ed is that it’s so slow to change. And so we wanted to see, who are the innovators outside of institutions that are trying to enact change? So there had been this competition that we’d found through our research, of these 57 cities that were competing to improve their college graduation rates, and Akron, Ohio, won this challenge. And we were like “What’s going on in Akron? Why is this city doing so well?”

And we wanted to look at students who were not the typical 18-22 year olds who are right out of high school. There’s sort of this shift in higher education we’re seeing; students who are older than 22 years old, their parents, adult learners, all of this, so it was important to us to focus on that story. So we started with Clarissa, we went through and really blasted a bunch of different organizations in the city like United Way, the Housing Authority, places where there might be contact with adults who are pursuing education for a second time around, we worked with the city, the chamber of commerce, just got to know people, and they ended up sending us names, recommendations, and we interviewed a bunch of different people and really just fell in love with Clarissa, her story, her family, and followed her. And then from there we wanted to branch out and look nationally at different programs, so we just did sort of a casting call at these different programs, interviewed a bunch of students who are older and pursuing education and narrowed it down to the people that we saw in the film.

How would you see the subject matter in Unlikely linking up with electoral politics, and regulation on student debt?

I’m actually working right now on a shorter piece that’s just focused on policy, and what we can do–because I think at the end of the day, it’s gonna take more than just the institutions and cities making these changes, we really need federal policy to step in and help students. The federal government is giving so much money to institutions, but then institutions aren’t required to report on their Pell Grant recipients’ rate of gradutaion. So we don’t have a clear view; there was this great article that came out a couple years ago and we didn’t get a chance to include it in the film, but basically someone was interviewed about Pell Grant graduation rates, and they said “we don’t track it, but it would be really bad if we did.” It’s just like, they know that it’s bad, they know that schools aren’t doing a good job, and we need to have more accountability.

So that’s definitely one policy piece that we need to enact, and I think we need to increase the amount of Pell, because it hasn’t increased to keep up with the cost of living, and you know we’re sending all these students to college and the cost of it is so much higher than what is affordable, and there’s just more that needs to be done. There’s been a lot of state disinvestment in higher ed, and some schools–Arizona State University, for instance–have done a great job of being able to graduate more students, but the schools that are the most under-resourced are the community colleges, and the community colleges are really the engines of social mobility in our country. So I think we have to take a look at how we’re providing education to our country.

It used to be that we only had public high school up to eighth grade, and that was enough because we used to have an economy where you didn’t need more than an eighth grade education in order to have a great job. And that changed, and we ended up having public high school, and now we’re at this place where if you just graduate from high school, you’re not going to be able to get a livable wage career. The chances of that are really low. So as a society, we need to decide how we’re going to educate and train the workforce. And of course the way we talk about college is, in our mind it’s this four year, right after high school thing, but that’s not really what it is, it’s really post-secondary pathways. And I don’t think we should be saying college is for everyone. But we should be preparing people to do something after high school, and we should figure out as a country how much of that we want to pay for. And I think these are the conversations that need to happen; coming up in this election, I’m very excited, there are a lot of great ideas out there, and I’m hoping that our film creates a national dialogue and a place to get people together to talk about what needs to happen, what needs to change, and then people will go to the polls and make their voices heard to make sure that we have a leader in office that is supporting education and supporting those pathways.

Are there any pieces of policy that have been thrown out in this election cycle that have excited you?

I think the idea of making sure that community college is affordable or free is really a great idea. Eli Ortiz Oakley, who is the chancellor of the California Community Colleges, we interviewed him, he was at Long Beach when we first met him, and he instituted the Long Beach Promise. And we’ve seen a lot of wonderful things happen here in California because of that. I think once you eliminate cost as an obstacle and a barrier, and students realize that that barrier isn’t there, it changes outcomes. For instance in the film, there’s this really great moment where Maya finds out from LeBron James that she’s getting this free college scholarship, and she says this really funny thing where she says “I looked at my friend and said “we gotta get smart.”” And so, when people know that college is within reach and they’re not worried about the finances, the focus becomes, oh, I just need to work hard at academics, because money isn’t standing in the way. I think that’s the thing I’m most excited about, and just making college in general more affordable.

Student loan debt is crazy, but it’s the craziest I think for the people without degrees. If you have a degree and you’re paying off some student loan debt, then at least that is somewhat of an investment, but if you have student loan debt and you don’t have a degree then you’re going to be in bad shape. And that experience is something that’s going to be passed on generationally. The children of those individuals are going to see what their parents went through, and it’s going to impact whether they go to college, whether they think it’s worth it, so there’s this generational inequality.

© FF2 Media Giorgi Plys-Garzotto (11/11/2019)

Photo Credit: Three Frame Media.

Top Photo: Clarissa visits her new college’s library.

Middle Photo: Juan attends an internship info session.

Bottom: Miah is driven to school by her mom.

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