Virginia Friedman may be out of a job, but the awards keep rolling in. Last month, her film Tap Out took the Southern Lens Independent Vision Award at the 2011 Beaufort International Film Festival. In May, the environmental documentary will air at the Charleston International Film Festival.
But the film's recent success is overshadowed by one simple fact: the Center for the Documentary, which spearheaded the project, no longer exists. And when CofC decided to shut down the Center last summer, Friedman's years of employment at the college abruptly ended. At the end of her time at the school, Friedman was CofC's president of academic media and director of the Center for the Documentary. Prior to that, she was the school's vice president of communications and college relations.
Friedman's reputation is impressive. She's a two-time regional Emmy Award winner, who took home prizes for the Holocaust survivor documentary For Every Person There is a Name and the civil rights retrospective Where Do We Go from Here?
"She is a person of exceptional talent," remarks Alex Sanders, a former president of the College of Charleston. "I have worked with many documentary makers on the national scene, including 60 Minutes and Meet the Press, and I've never worked with a producer with whom I was more impressed than Virginia Friedman."
Sanders supported Friedman and the Center from its inception, funding and promoting Where Do We Go from Here? in 1999 and creating a scholarship to finance individual Center projects. The Alex Sanders Student Documentary Award helped fund two student-made documentaries: Pulsera, which chronicled the efforts of two CofC students to aid poverty-stricken Nicaraguans, and S.O.B. and the Legend of Alan Schafer, which looked at the South of the Border roadside attraction in Dillon, S.C.
Friedman's final project at the College, Tap Out, examined water quality issues in the Carolinas and, in particular, examined the potential effects of ash ponds at coal-burning power plants on surrounding lakes, rivers, and groundwater. Three intrepid CofC students serve as the film's reporters, investigating mercury contamination, invasive species, and other manmade problems along the Carolinas' waterways.
During the filming of Tap Out in March, questions arose over whether Friedman and three students had trespassed at an ash pond owned by Duke Energy. The group maintained that they had not trespassed, claiming they had been given permission to access property adjacent to the Duke Energy site by the owner of the property. In order to prove that, Friedman had to acquire a fair amount of documentation.
"I had to get tax maps, satellite photos, written permission, and signatures," says Friedman, who believes the ordeal may have contributed to her losing her job. "I really do think they were like, 'Friedman's too much trouble.' "
In June, CofC Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs George Hynd requested a meeting with Friedman. In an e-mail to the Center for the Documentary head, Hynd noted that the purpose of the meeting was "to get a better understanding of the Center and how it fits within the structure of the Academic Affairs and its relation to our academic mission."
During a third meeting in August, the College of Charleston fired Friedman, offering her two years of service credit, which made her immediately eligible for retirement. "The College's decision to terminate your employment is based on business considerations and is not reflective of any performance or conduct issue," Hynd's letter stated. It also noted that she was eligible to teach as an adjunct instructor beginning in spring 2011.
Water Under the Bridge
Inquisitive by nature, Friedman realized she wanted to examine the condition of the southeastern U.S. water supply after observing the water wars of Bolivia, where U.S. corporate interests tried to privatize the water supply in 1999 and 2000. Bolivia's poor working class was incensed.
"I was so impressed by these poor Bolivians and thought that if they could do so much to champion clean water as a basic human right, a documentary filmmaker in the U.S. should be able to do her small part," Friedman recalls.
Current CofC student Nick Wallover, who is finishing up work on a master's degree in environmental studies, narrates and leads the student research team in Tap Out. Well-versed in political policy but with a limited knowledge of water resource issues, the students discovered that in South Carolina, there are no specific standards regulating the structural integrity of these ponds. In 2008, the toxic sludge from an ash pond similar to ones in the Palmetto State decimated Kingston, Tenn.
"I wasn't out to do any kind of slant piece against anybody, and I think it wasn't that in the end at all," says Wallover. "I didn't want to scream 'Fire!' into a movie theater, and [she] understood that and realized what I was trying to do."
Friedman says she didn't set out to create an indictment of the industry. "But once you're confronted with this and see the quality of the water, and those ash ponds are leeching into our drinking supply, what do you do?" she asks. "If you're at all ethical, you've got to include it."
After the Tap Out team filmed a Charlotte-area coal ash pond from a private cemetery, Friedman says she received a call from a Duke Energy representative. She says she was told that Duke had already contacted CofC. Friedman says she provided the college with documentation indicating that she had not trespassed. According to Friedman, the Duke Energy official called back the next day and apologized for the misunderstanding. Later, the filmmaker says she was asked by CofC to get the property owner to sign a document giving the team permission to visit the site.
After Friedman's firing, Tap Out premiered quietly in October to a crowd of mostly students and faculty at the S.C. Aquarium. According to the filmmaker, the debut was almost stalled by questions about whether or not a document from SCE&G in the film was authentic. Friedman subsequently produced the document, which was freely available to the public on the EPA's website. Also, CofC did not purchase errors and omissions insurance, which is typically required by PBS for the documentaries they air, for Tap Out since the college had determined that the school was already appropriately covered.
"It surprises me," says Wallover of the concern about the film. "I didn't think anything we did was very controversial. I thought it was objective. We didn't overstep our bounds or make any accusations that weren't substantiated."
The film doesn't present any information about coal in South Carolina that hadn't already been reported by the City Paper and The Post and Courier. What's unique about Tap Out is not just the visual and audio element of the story a newspaper can't convey, but the fact that the work was done by students outside of normal course hours and credit.
Those students were motivated and fostered by an employee who stood up for their work. "I took risks. I'm not going to be protected in the same way that academics are protected in terms of intellectual freedom," says Friedman. "When they say that what I did was not core to the mission of the college, this is what we're supposed to do. We're supposed to create knowledge, not only distribute it."
She adds, "We can't be the lap dogs of industry when they have an issue. We all want to raise money, but you have to say, 'OK, here's where we draw the line.' 'Was her work truthful?' 'Yes.' Did she do harm to anyone?' 'No.' Tell no lies, respect the viewer, do no harm — that's been my code. I did it, and I was teaching students to do it."
Friedman's attitude may not have helped her when it came time to make budget cuts, despite several other programs with low enrollments. The master's in math had only 13 degree-seeking students last spring. Urban planning had five students pursuing the program's certificate. Arts management had only one. But all of those programs are still up and running. For the first semester in four years, the Center for the Documentary is not.
In 2010, CofC spent $47,000 on weight room equipment, $63,000 on a soccer scoreboard, and $94,000 repairing grand pianos. The savings from closing the Center are estimated to be around $150,000, including Friedman's salary.
After the dissolution of the Center for the Documentary, the surviving staff were reassigned.
"The personnel in that unit have now been moved over to marketing and communications," explains Provost George Hynd. "They're working on other projects that are in fact now mission central to the college ... videos highlighting the things that we're doing in our various schools."
Tim Fennell, Tap Out's editor and director, explains, "We basically do promotional work that more specifically benefits the college."
Simon Lewis, a tenured English professor and the president of CofC's Association of American University Professors, says he was disappointed about the circumstances surrounding Friedman's departure.
"We think that the college has held to a higher standard than that in the past, in the way it has treated its employees, especially long-serving employees like Virginia," Lewis says. "For her to be out on her rear over a weekend and told not to talk to anybody — even if it was a purely budgetary decision — in my opinion it was handled very poorly, and I think a lot of people share that feeling."
Lewis questions CofC's decision to expand the assistant to the president job and create a chief of staff and senior policy position at $125,000 a year just before closing the Center.
"They hire that on the one hand and get rid of Virginia in a fairly cavalier fashion on the other," says Lewis. "Here's somebody who's making, potentially, really lasting contributions to the production of knowledge, and somebody else who is simply looking after the running of the college."
Friedman, who made $93,426 a year at the time of her departure, compares the manner of her firing to the heartless policies of a corporation. "They cut somebody off immediately and make them leave and put their stuff in a box," she says. "If I had been working on Wall Street, it would have been handled the same way."
Hynd notes that Friedman's termination has nothing to do with the trespassing allegations in North Carolina or with the creation of a new position in the president's office. He also acknowledges the "wonderful work" of the Center for the Documentary, but says it wasn't tied directly to CofC's academic programs and mission statement.
"For instance, we do not have a film studies major. If we did, it would be an integral part of that," says Hynd. (CofC does have a film studies minor.) "We're taking a look at many programs across the college and making sure they're viable, enhance our reputation, and meeting the needs of the students."
CofC also closed its fledgling bilingual interpreting program this year due to lack of enrollment.
Between classes, workshops, and independent projects, Friedman estimates that between 135 and 165 students utilized the Center for the Documentary each semester, not counting the hundreds who attended events and screenings. One of those students, Tom Laffay, says that without the Center, his documentary, Pulsera, would never have been made.
"You could tell that this was a department at the school that was serious about students taking on a project on their own," says Laffay, a double major in political science and Latin American and Caribbean studies with a Spanish minor. "The true generosity and passion that these people had is something I haven't encountered in any other department."
Laffay attended Friedman's Introduction to Documentary Studies course, soaking up insight on how to tell stories through a lens. After returning from Nicaragua, Laffay spent a month of long nights reformatting video in the Center's lab.
"It was an enormous resource," says Laffay, who calls the Center's closing "a tragedy."
He adds, "Virginia's really been a role model to me. It's helped me develop an idea of what I call activist filmmaking, where you're making films about certain social or political issues to bring about positive change. That was her life. She was good at what she did. To get rid of somebody who was trying to work toward a more transparent world — that's pretty shameful."
After graduating this spring, Laffay plans to move to Nicaragua and work as a documentary filmmaker. Before leaving town, he's working on a film to encourage sustainability in Charleston. He's already approached Friedman for guidance.
Like Laffay, former students Nate Mallard and Jesse Berger received no class credit for their work on S.O.B. and the Legend of Alan Schafer, which won the audience choice award at the 2009 Charleston International Film Festival. Mallard says that Friedman and the Center's guidance on how to interview people and focus their story was invaluable.
"It's the only place in the school where a student can walk up and say, 'I have an idea for a film,' and they answer, 'OK, we're here to help you,'" says Mallard.
After S.O.B., Berger found work filming a movie with "Extreme Akim" Anastopoulo. He's currently working on a film about former U.S. Senate candidate Alvin Greene.
Berger questions CofC's decision to build the $45 million Carolina First Arena "that has absolutely zero academic value" and then take away a resource and staff member from students with relatively minimal costs.
In a Post and Courier article published last year, Hynd compared the average college student's debt after college, $20,000, to "the price of a new car." In the end, there's no way to put a monetary value on a program like the Center for the Documentary, which inspires students to follow their passions outside of their normal coursework. But its front-end cost is simple to tally. At $150,000 a year, that's seven-and-a-half new cars still in the lot.