MU senior produces first documentary, retells narrative of fall 2015 protests

Jessica Tifase began working on a documentary last semester to revisit Concerned Student 1950’s protests five years later.

By: Elizabeth Derner

Jessica Tifase remembers seeing tweets about the fall 2015 protests against racism at MU when she was a junior in high school. Without the university on her mind at the time, she didn’t follow the story closely. After deciding to attend MU, Tifase watched “Concerned Student 1950,” a documentary with an inside look at the protests, in one of her classes.

In fall 2015, a string of racist incidents took place at MU, one involving a white student saying a racial slur to the Legion of Black Collegians. This and other incidents prompted students to form Concerned Student 1950, which references the year MU first admitted Black students.

The group and other students protested MU administration's lack of response to recurring racism on campus. Students linked arms to block then-UM System President Tim Wolfe’s car at the Homecoming parade. Then-graduate student Jonathan Butler went on a hunger strike to demand that Wolfe resign. Football players suspended games and practice. Students boycotted spending money on MU dining, events and merchandise. These and additional actions made national headlines, sparked demonstrations of solidarity at around 80 other schools and led Wolfe to resign.

Tifase sees the activists as revolutionaries. But she said that in her experience at MU, the narrative is different. “Our campus talks about it in a very strange way,” Tifase said. “It's almost like a taboo topic. That has never sat right with me. Everyone on this campus should be aware of what happened in 2015 and be aware of the honest truth of what happened.”

Now Tifase is creating a documentary about the events of fall 2015 and MU’s response over the past five years as her senior year digital storytelling capstone project. This will be Tifase’s first documentary.

She describes herself as a disruptive artist. Through her digital storytelling work, she aims to break stereotypes about Black people in the media and highlight stories of people from underrepresented communities.

“When you look at my work, I want you to be uncomfortable,” Tifase said. “I want you to be like, ‘Why?’ I want you to have feelings inside of yourself. You're confused. You're inspired. You're anxious. I just want to disrupt things.”

Tifase wanted her first documentary to retell fall 2015 since the students who were there have graduated. She said she sees people on campus who either know little about the protests or try to hide or downplay what happened.

“That's why I'm extremely passionate about this — it's too important to not happen,” Tifase said. “You still see history repeating itself, especially in the summer. I don't want to graduate knowing I didn't do anything to contribute to making change on campus.”

Tifase will feature interviews in her documentary with original members from Concerned Student 1950 interspersed with current students reenacting key moments of fall 2015. She plans to showcase the process of the protests, what students went through and MU’s response in the years following.

Desireé Moore, an assistant film studies production and digital storytelling professor, worked with Tifase in five classes and mentored her last semester as she conducted research and formed a vision for the project.

“She’s really starting to embrace the power she has when it comes to telling stories through moving images or still images or storytelling,” Moore said. “I think she’s at a really good midpoint. She’s come a long way, but she still has a way to go. It’s exciting.”

Tifase developed the idea of using reenactments with Robert Greene, filmmaker-in-chief at MU’s Murray Center for Documentary Journalism, who has used reenactments in his own documentaries. Greene has taught Tifase in two classes.

“She sort of has a restless curiosity,” Greene said. “She’s always trying to explore deeper. If she can take that same curiosity and apply that to her filmmaking, that’s going to put her in a really special place, because then your energy is undeniable.”

Tifase said she will begin filming by this February.

Hunter Pendleton, a senior documentary journalism major, is assisting Tifase. The two have collaborated on smaller projects in the past. Pendleton said he was immediately interested in Tifase’s documentary idea when she pitched it to him.

“I think it's going to require a lot of serious reflection from anybody who watches it,” Pendleton said, “to look at that question of ‘What has changed?’ and at those heavier, serious questions that can't just be solved by having a conversation and putting someone else in power, but actually looking at what fundamental ways we need to change the university.”

He’s helped with logistical aspects of the project so far, such as looking at staging and lighting options, scripts and how to get the money and crew together to help make the film happen.

Tifase plans to wrap up filming by March and release the documentary on YouTube by the end of the semester. She expects it to run for roughly 30 minutes and said she hopes it causes people to acknowledge history, but also connect it to MU’s present and future.

“There’s so much to grow from this,” Tifase said. “The conversation whenever students are upset with the university or administration shouldn’t be, ‘Let’s avoid 2015 from happening again.’ It should be, ‘What those students did was inspiring, and it should be important and necessary for us to make the progress that we need to make as a university.’”

For more information on the documentary’s release, follow Tifase on Twitter @jessicatifase_.

Edited by Angelina Edwards | aedwards@maneater.com

Pendleton previously worked on The Maneater’s staff. Questions or concerns regarding sourcing can be directed to editors@themaneater.com

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