Grace Under Fire

Samira, a young woman at a Palestinian refugee camp clinic, tries to be brave, but can't suppress her moans as she doubles over in pain. Her husband, Nidhal, pleads in an Arabic accent, "I need a doctor! My wife, please. The baby is coming."

Grace Peters, a pretty, 30-ish American doctor, gives Samira a shot that will slow her contractions, but it is the last of the medication. It is all she can do at the impoverished clinic.

"Be brave," Nidhal murmurs to his wife. He asks, "Doctor, the baby& it's coming too soon, yes?"

Grace is fresh out of medical school and came to this war-torn Middle Eastern region out of a desire to do something important, to help people. Later, bleeding from a bullet wound and filled with despair at the steady procession of sick and dying war victims at the clinic and her powerlessness to help most of them, she questions her decision. But now, Samira needs her help, or her baby will be the next to die.

"You have nothing to worry about. There's a maternity hospital in Ramallah well-equipped to care for a premature baby," Grace says confidently, ignoring the fact that the roads are closed and heavily guarded by Israeli soldiers.

Desperate, brave, and more than a little crazy, Grace jumps in an old Jeep and begins the nighttime journey to Ramallah with the Palestinian couple.

Ryan Mendel
Ryan Mendel, a student in charge of electric operations on the set, adjusts a light as Director of Photography Jack Anderson, right, watches. At left is Barrett Cloyd, a grip.

If the previous scene sounds like it could be in a movie, that's because it is. Titled A Moment of Grace, the film stars Hollywood actress Pauley Perrette, and its screenwriter, director, and chief cinematographer all hail from the Los Angeles-area film industry. The only things in the movie that are not from Hollywood are the set locations - a gravel pit and former mental hospital in Grand Rapids - and the film crew.

The 30 or so members of the crew - the ones operating cameras, setting up lights, mixing sound, story-boarding action sequences, applying makeup and doing the countless other jobs you see as the credits roll at the end of a movie - are students enrolled in Grand Valley's Summer Film Project.

The Summer Film Project, a 12-week practicum for juniors and seniors (six weeks of pre-production and filming followed by six weeks of post-production work), was started 10 years ago by film and video Professor Barbara Roos to give students hands-on experience in making a motion picture. In the past three years, under the tutelage of John Harper Philbin, associate professor in the School of Communications, the program has widened its scope to include seasoned Hollywood professionals who spend weeks, sometimes months, in West Michigan working directly with the students.

"The Summer Film Project idea is unique in the Midwest - and one of only a handful of such programs worldwide," said Philbin. "The few other universities with similar programs tend to have pros serving as advisers. What's interesting in the Grand Valley model is that the students actually work side-by-side with the professionals. It not only raises the quality of the film, it raises the quality of the educational experience."

The success of the program has surprised even Philbin, who has directed six summer films since 1998. His idea to bring in Hollywood pros took shape in 2002, after he advertised for a director of photography in an online trade magazine. The response shocked him.

Alba Francesca and Andy Graham
Alba Francesca, who came from Los Angeles to direct and product 'A Moment of Grace,' talks with script supervisor Andy Graham.

"It was amazing, considering this is a university in Michigan. I got about 30 responses from cinematographers in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, even Paris. The quality was great," he said.

As a result, Jack Anderson, a 30-year film veteran whose credits include TV's Mad About You and such movies as Pretty Woman and Hook, joined the crew as director of photography for the student-produced The Freezer Jesus. He brought with him a Super-16mm Panaflex camera loaned by Panavision Hollywood.

After that, the Hollywood networking snowballed. Anderson returned to the project the past two summers in his trademark cowboy hat, and he recommended his colleague, actor James Karen, for the lead role in last year's film. Karen, recognizable from a 55-year career in TV and movie roles - Seinfeld, The Practice, First Monday, Wall Street, Nixon, All the President's Men, Poltergeist, Return of the Living Dead ("This guy's been in every film you can imagine," remarked Philbin) - came on board for the 2003 film Flickering Blue, shot in downtown Grand Rapids and Lansing.

For this summer's A Moment of Grace, Perrette spent two weeks of her summer hiatus from the TV series Navy NCIS in West Michigan to take on the role of the idealistic American doctor Grace Peters.

"Since I started out [in the film industry], I made a vow to continue to do low-budget student or independent films," said the actress, who students might recognize from her role in the 2002 thriller The Ring. "The more experience you have, the more experience you have to give. It's about giving back to the community.

"It's also fun," Perrette continued. "It's really inspiring to see people just starting out in film. When you don't have money to throw at a problem, you are forced to be creative and resourceful. I love that."

As is typical in the film industry, Perrette had time to talk one night in early June while sitting in a trailer waiting to be called to the set. Nearby, film and video students were putting up signs in Hebrew and Arabic, setting up roadblocks they'd built to resemble Israeli barricades, climbing ladders to affix lights to 20-foot-tall light stands, and generally turning a small, hilly section of a Jenison gravel pit into a Middle Eastern movie set. (They were also fending off hoards of mosquitoes, which attacked bare skin without reprieve and left trails of smoke from their kamikaze flights into the 2,000-watt lights.)

"There's no way these kids could get this kind of preparation in class," Perrette said. "This crew has been outstanding."

The Flight to Ramallah

Later that day, around midnight:
"Quiet on the set," someone yells. Some students hold a screen over a light to soften its glare; others lower a boom mic over a Jeep.

"Scene 10A, take 4." A black-and-white slate is snapped in front of the camera. "Roll sound. Roll camera."

"ACTION." This command from director Alba Francesca sets things in motion.

Doctor Grace Peters (Perrette) has on her white medical coat a large, spreading bloodstain (applied by student special effects artist Casey Verberkmoes). The Israeli checkpoint is under attack (ATF certified trainers are on the set to supervise the gunfire). Grace is dragged back into the Jeep by Nidhal, swears at and kicks the recalcitrant vehicle, and they roar off past two young Israeli soldiers who have been wounded by Palestinian snipers in the hill just beyond. (The flashes of gunfire were shot hours before, with students fanning a smoke machine to simulate gun smoke. Dirt-hit devices simulate bullets hitting the ground.)


The scene, which takes up about 30 seconds in the 22-minute film, was repeated over and over again until Francesca, watching on a monitor set up in the gravel beside the roped-off set, said, "Print that one, please." Then the crew and actors moved on to the next scenes until filming ended with the coming of daylight.

Michael Bosman
Camera operator Michael Bosman, center, prepares for nighttime shooting with first assistant camera operator David Patton, left, and dolly grip Robery Skrodenis right. All three are film and video students at Grand Valley.

Francesca, a longtime actress and producer who has her own production company in L.A., has taken on the job of directing and producing this year's film while Philbin is on sabbatical. She is in constant motion during filming, keeping steady and upbeat order among the students and actors milling around her.

"I said [to the students], 'I will teach you everything I know about filmmaking, so anything you want to know, get from me, ask me, stand next to me,'" she said. "I think they have learned a great deal; I have learned a great deal. I have been incredibly impressed with the commitment level and work ethic from these students."

George Kitson, 22, the first assistant director on the set, said that the summer course has helped prepare him for his future career. A 2004 film and video graduate from Dewitt, he's saving his money to head to L.A. to become a director.

"It's nice because I get to be really close to the director and learn just by watching her deal with the actors," Kitson said. "It's a totally professional environment. Everyone's expected to work as hard as they can just like they would on a real set, and everybody does, which is really cool."

The repetition, the 12-hour workdays, the frenetic activity interspersed with long periods of waiting are all part of the reality of moviemaking. Troy Harrison, a 22-year-old student from Schoolcraft who worked as sound mixer on the set, said the experience has been more intense and time consuming than he anticipated, but also completely enjoyable.

"It gives people a chance to see if this is really what they want to do," said Harrison, whose goal is to direct. "I'm sure that the monsoon last night really separated the people who want to be here regardless of what happens from those who don't." (He said he's in the former camp.)

A test of the crew's mettle had come late the night before when a sudden downpour blew in, endangering the lights, props, and many days of work. The crew sprang into action to save the set. "I thought at first the bugs were falling," said Francesca, claiming that the raindrops were bigger than any she's seen in California. "We shut off our generators and we had to save all our equipment and make sure everyone was safe. We had rehearsed what to do; everyone on this crew knew what his or her responsibility was if we got hit by rain, and they did it. I was just proud as can be."

Putting a Human Face on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Samantha Humphrey said her screenplay for A Moment of Grace seemed doomed at the start. A UCLA graduate and recipient of a 2004 ABC writing fellowship for television, Humphrey had shopped the script around Los Angeles but found that the sensitive topic and the daunting task of creating a Middle Eastern movie set kept would-be producers at bay.

Enter Grand Valley's Summer Film Project. A Moment of Grace was among about 100 screenplays Philbin received in the program's annual screenplay competition. He sent it with a few other finalists to Francesca, who as director would have the final say.


Summer Films

Just having a film accepted into a prestigious festival is an award in itself. The following films were produced by students in the Summer Film Project.

Flickering Blue, 2003

A lonely old man (actor James Karen) turns off his TV and ventures out on a walk through the city in hopes of reconnecting with people.

First Place, East Lansing Film Festival

Black Point Film Festival, Wisconsin

Waterfront Film Festival, Michigan

Second Place, Crested Butte Reel Fest, Colorado

Los Angeles International Short Film Festival

The Freezer Jesus, 2002

A farmer's wayward son comes home after many years away. Meanwhile, seekers flock to see the image of Christ that appears on a neighbor's porch freezer.

Best of Fest, Kalamazoo Shorts Film Fest

Ft. Lauderdale International Film Festival

Waterfront Film Festival, Michigan

With You Always, 2000

A suspicious wife dabbles in black magic in order to spy on her husband.

Third Place, International Festival of Cinema World Tour

My Life Among the Gopis, 1998

Three 15-year-old schoolgirls form a secret club based on Hindu art and religion.

First Place, East Lansing Film Festival

Romel Clawson
Set artist Romel Clawson puts up a sign depicting an israeli checkpoint on the road to Ramallah.

"They said it was the best screenplay they had, but the most impossible to do, so Alba [Francesca] said, 'Let's do it!'" said Humphrey, who spent a weekend in June in Grand Rapids to view the filming at an unused, old medical building. (The building, renovated by students to look like a destitute Third World clinic, had been lent to the film program by Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services. The Grand Rapids Gravel Company, which provided free use of its gravel pits for the nighttime shooting, graciously trucked 30 yards of sand to Pine Rest to complete the desert setting.)


"The fact that Grand Valley took on the task and has been creatively able to do a better job than anyone thought could be done in L.A. has been fantastic," Humphrey said. "It's so amazing what's been happening with these kids in Michigan - doing this serious project about the Middle East that can affect everyone. It's beyond my expectations in many ways."

She also credits Grand Valley for taking on a controversial topic. The film, she said, does not take sides, but "puts a human face on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and tries to keep it as neutral as possible so that the audience can make up their own minds."

Local people of Middle Eastern descent were consulted to give the film authenticity, including Rabbi Michael Shadick, of Temple Israel, and Qais Anani, president of the West Michigan Arab American Association. Israel native Aviram Reichert, associate professor of music at GVSU, wrote the musical score. The film was shot in black and white to give it a gritty, immediate feel (and to mask the lush weeds sprouting in the gravel pit).

The cast members besides Perrette - Screen Actors Guild actors from Chicago, Dearborn and the local community - brought with them an array of backgrounds including Arabic, Muslim, Jewish and Christian. "When we started this effort, I had requested that the students keep their personal opinions about the Middle East situation off the set," Francesca said. "The love between all of these actors and the generosity of spirit has been so wonderful. If anything, this has been a little microcosm of what we would hope this film would do - we hope it would get people speaking."

John Harper Philbin and Jack Anderson
John Harper Philbin and Jack Anderson on the set of "Flickering Blue".

Actor James Karen came back on the scene this year to officiate at opening ceremonies for the Waterfront Film Festival in Saugatuck, which featured Flickering Blue in its lineup, and to hang out on the student set with Francesca (his wife). He gave the Summer Film Project high marks for giving students a real-life taste of the industry he has been part of for almost six decades.

"The kids just become moviemakers. Making a movie is really the only way you can learn," said the veteran of 80-plus films, 100 TV shows, and 20 Broadway productions. "For me, to work with these kids is really exciting. It means that I'm passing on something and maintaining a tradition. I'm very proud of my association with Grand Valley."


A Moment of Grace will premiere at Studio 28 in Grand Rapids on November 11. Call 616-331-3668 for
more information.

Page last modified March 17, 2014