East Austin Stories

Everyone loves stories. They remind us of the past, teach us about our neighbors, and tie the community together. Nowhere is more rich in stories than East Austin, where colorful celebrations and tantalizing cuisines are a way of life.

East Austin Stories: About East Austin Stories

East Austin is a center of the arts, from ballet folklorico to the blues and from glassmaking to tattooing; it is a place where people have fun racing motorcycles, boxing, or just hanging out in the pool. Of course, East Austin shares the same problems as many inner city areas. But as the short documentaries on this web site illustrate, East Austin is a lot more than statistics or newspaper headlines. It's a network of families, communities, and businesses, each with their own stories to tell.

The documentaries on this site are the result of collaborations between East Austinites and University of Texas filmmakers. A couple, "Piercing" and "Sanctuary of Darkness" are made by high school students. At the end of each semester, we hold free, public screenings in places like Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. These screenings give filmmakers, storytellers, and neighbors a chance to hear and enjoyed each other's stories, to get to know each other, and to learn. We hope you can join us at an upcoming screening, and continue to visit the site as it grows.


After 22 years... 05/06/22 (note: the class has continued since its founder, Professor Emeritus Andrew Garrison, has retired.)

Documentaries to be shown at Victory Grill 12/18/2002

Film students profile East Austin 7/9/2002

Letter from Derek Horne, editor of the Kodak "Campus Beat" on-line magazine. aug 2002

Starring East Austin


Friday, July 5, 2002

To many Austinites, East Austin is one gigantic restaurant. To cross the railroad tracks is to enter a land of exotic delicacies and uncharted zests. Are there better reasons to head east than a batch of homemade tamales, a slopping plate of barbecue or legendary breakfast tacos? Before you answer, we want to hear from your stomach first.

A body of short documentaries by University of Texas film students doesn't argue the point. But the films also heap substantially more on the plates of perception. Wafting from many kitchens are living signs of culture, family, history, sometimes trouble.

In Duke Greenhill's "Sam's Barbecue," not only the biting aroma of mesquite coughs from the blackened barbecue pit; so does the homey perfume of unbroken family bonds, a braid of brotherhood and brisket. Jon Benner's "Nothing Like Mama's" shows how a grandmother pats family and heritage into her handmade tortillas. "Juan in a Million" by Trey Green uncovers a gastronomical verity: Few mortals can consume more than three of Juan's infamously mountainous breakfast tacos. Those who can tend to play a lot of football.

These films were made in the spring and last summer for the East Austin Documentary Project, a fledgling radio-television-film course at UT created and taught by Andrew Garrison, an RTF professor and filmmaker. The syllabus is simple: Students find a subject in an East Austin community and tell the story of the person or place on eight minutes of digital video.

It's a crash course in documentary storytelling and technical proficiency. It's also a quash course, quashing the assumptions so many Austinites hold about East Austin, which the films paint in kaleidoscopic bursts of people, culture and narrative.

As you read this, 13 students are toiling on location and in the RTF editing room, stitching together eight documentaries that illuminate segments of a community mired in misunderstanding. In its current summer session, the East Austin Project is a five-week whirlwind of guerrilla scholarship. Most of the films are still without a title. Most will still be wet with the filmmakers' sweat when they are screened free to the public Tuesday at Our Lady of Guadalupe and Café Mundi.

The students are meeting head-on the exhilaration of making movies.

"You're just kind of thrown into it," says Jessica Gardner, a senior RTF major. "It's like, here's some equipment, here's the program you'll edit on, go do stuff right now."

Like most of the students this summer, Gardner is collaborating with a classmate, in her case senior RTF major Bryan Lozano. They've chosen to profile veteran guitarist Clarence Pierce, a member of the blues outfit East Side Kings. Their venture has led them, camera cocked, to Sam's Barbecue and the halfway house where Pierce lives and occasionally picks.

"We've only got eight minutes," Lozano says, "so we're going to narrow it down to the blues music and how he feels about it."

The strictures of the class -- limited time, limited equipment, unfamiliar subject matter -- are keeping the students wired with adrenaline and anxiety. For each project, as much as five hours of video will have to be telescoped into fleeting minutes.

"It's harder than long format (filmmaking), because you have to condense everything down to the smallest bit," says Russel Baldonado, who, with classmate Wesley Stone, is shooting a portrait of Ruth Robinson, a colorful septagenarian who runs a halfway house called East Austin Jacob's Ladder. "The hardest thing is sacrificing what you've got."

Art is sacrifice -- that's one of many lessons Garrison wants his students to get. And part of that is doing things they wouldn't normally do, like going to the East Side and scratching beneath perceived notions of poverty, crime and urban blight in the heavily Latino and African American community.

"One of the coolest things about making media is that it forces you to talk to people, meet people and find out about people," says Garrison. "And when you start telling someone else's story you have this intimate relationship with them. Suddenly you're connected to the world in all these different ways. That's exciting to me, and I see that happening to the students."

Garrison came to UT in 1997 with a background in community media and activist nonfiction film. His narrative feature "The Wilgus Stories," starring Ned Beatty, was critically acclaimed when it aired on PBS in 2000. His in-progress documentary about the Houston art and housing program Project Row Houses recently received a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The East Austin Project is Garrison's baby. Beyond teaching students the nuts and bolts of making movies, "It also feels like you're doing something useful," he says. "I hate to characterize it as just service learning, but I think that's really important. I think a lot of students like to feel that what they're doing is doing some good for people, as well as advancing themselves."

The project couldn't have happened without the participation of East Austin community activists Juan Valadez and Miguel Guajardo. They and Garrison share a vision of getting young people involved in the community through education and art.

"It was a real natural marriage of ideas," says Garrison. "They were the ones who said, `Go do this, let's make it hap- pen.' "

Garrison also found allies in the RTF documentary program. The program boasts a line of quality, socially conscious films, including Laura Dunn's "Green," an environmental expose that won a Student Academy Award, and Heather Courtney's "The Workers," which won honors from the International Documentary Association.

"The East Austin Project is exactly what I hope UT will do more of," says RTF Chairman Paul Stekler. "Any program that brings us closer to the community is fulfilling our mandate of the future. The stuff we do is not ivory tower material. It's about the reality of peoples' lives. This project is a wonderful example of what a doc program should be."

Garrison is working to get all of the films and their outtakes permanently archived for public use. He says the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation has volunteered to house the archives.

"These images are powerful and valuable in the same way family snapshots are," says Garrison.

Garrison sees how the program is wiping indifference from the students' eyes, opening them to a world across the tracks. It's granted Dorothy VanDeCarr a privileged glimpse into the dramas of a transgendered teen-ager and exposed Elizabeth Lepe to the powerful communal role of the Green and White Store on East Seventh Street. Laura Donnelly and Melissa Aellos have looked through the eyes of three children of Mexican descent to find out how many generations it takes before one is firmly assimilated.

The East Austin Project, which will be offered this fall, is showing students that a community is much more than great breakfast tacos.

Student Baldonado remembers hearing in a journalism class how mainstream media largely ignore the living worlds of Latinos and African Americans, "unless it's a festival like Juneteenth," he says.

"So while we get a lot out of the class as filmmakers, it's also good for the community. Things tend to get filtered out. This is a way to get to the stuff that's not normally out there."

cgarcia@statesman.com; 445-3649.

Get a look at the films

The East Austin Documentary Project -- eight short movies about East Austin made by University of Texas film students -- will screen at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Our Lady of Guadalupe, 1206 E. Ninth St. and 9:30 p.m. Tuesday at Café Mundi, 1704 E. Fifth St. Admission is free. For info, call 475-6297.

The program includes:

  • "Capirotada" by Melissa Aellos and Laura Donnelly.
  • "Mrs. Robinson" (working title) by Russel Baldonado and Wesley Stone.
  • "Holly" by Matt Drenik, Kevin Terrill and Apolinar "P.J." Garza.
  • "Clarence Pierce" (working title) by Jessica Gardner and Bryan Lozano.
  • "Sanamiento Espiritual" by Phyllis Hawkins.
  • "East Side Glass" (working title) by John Johnson.
  • "The History of the Green and White Store" by Elizabeth Lepe.
  • "Boyhood Dreams" (working title) by Dorothy VanDeCarr.

Letter from Derek Horne, editor of the Kodak "Campus Beat" on-line magazine.

(reprinted with permission)

August 07, 2002

Dear Prof. Garrison,

Thank you for putting me in touch with your students. I was so impressed with their smart and insightful answers that it was both a pleasure to write the article and a challenge to maintain the brevity of the article.

I have not heard such a consistent enthusiasm and intelligence from a group of film students in my whole year writing for the Campus Beat. (And believe me, I've interviewed a lot of students from a lot of schools) You should feel proud of making such a lasting impact on your students that they would have an endless supply of intelligent comments and such a healthy perspective on the world and their work.

I won't mention the name of the school that is the exact anti-thesis of this class and perhaps UT; but just know that it's a school where every student seems to have learned nothing of intrinsic value in their education, they are cynical, self-important, and motivated by all the wrong things in their career.

With that in mind, I hope that all your students succeed in this industry. Enjoy the article! It should be posted on the website next week. Check www.kodak.com/go/student.

If you have any photos to send, please email them to Alyson Shurtliff who maintains the Kodak student website. Her email address is xxxxxxxxxxx.

Just be sure to list descriptions for all the photos and tell her that they are for the University of Texas article in the August Campus Beat.

Best wishes!

Derek Horne, Campus Beat Editor


Contact Us

Need more information? Want to be on the mailing list for local Austin screenings? Got an idea for an East Austin Story? Do you have some ideas about how these stories might be used in your community or classrooom? Is there a way these stories have been useful to you? Let us know.

About Austin

Austin is the capital of Texas and a fast-growing city of about 700,000 people. The traditional dividing line between East Austin and West is Interstate 35. The majority of East Austin residents are African-Americans and Mexican-Americans, in part because of a history of segregation that included white city planners actually pushing communities of color off valuable downtown land. As the Austin metropolitan area sprawls and prices rise for centrally located real estate, gentrification is posing a less blatant, but no less real, threat to East Austin's deep-rooted communities.

Nevertheless, the communities remain vibrant and Austin's changing demographic profile adds strength and vitality to "minority" communities. More than half of the students in Austin schools are Hispanic, for example, reflecting a growing Latino presence not just in the schools, but in business and politics. African-Americans, too, play a major role in the school board, county commissioners' races, and chamber of commerce. But while the future of Austin will no doubt differ greatly from its past, East Austin will remain central to the city's social and economic networks.

Learn more at the Austin History Center.