Local filmmaker works with UA students to create film about Schneider Park

 Allyson Smith

“Who do we memorialize? Who do we honor? Who gets remembered in Akron’s history books and who gets forgotten?”

These are some of the questions that local filmmaker Josh Gippin is asking in his newest project, a documentary adaptation of a book written about Schneider Park by experts in the anthropology department at The University of Akron.

Scheider Park gained much attention when it was found to be a burial site for residents of the Summit County Infirmary that once stood nearby. In 1916, the land was sold to Philip Schneider and the infirmary was relocated to Munroe Falls, according to historical news reports. These residents — referred to as “inmates” back then — were elderly, mentally ill or disabled individuals and immigrants. When these people died, they were often buried in unmarked graves in what is now Schneider Park. 

It is unclear whether bodies are still there, which is another subject the book and documentary will address.

According to Josh, “This particular project, coming out of the anthropology department, came from an adaptation of a book. One chapter is archaeology, one chapter is ethnography, another ethics… It’s tackling this question from a lot of different perspectives.”

Not only does the book come from a lot of perspectives, but so will the production of the film. Josh, who typically undertakes projects either by himself or with help from a few others, will be working with University of Akron students to plan, shoot, edit and market the documentary. 

In the fall and spring semesters, the university will offer an “unclass” through the EXL center, where students from all disciplines —such as media studies, anthropology, marketing, art, and others — will work on different aspects of the film. 

Josh sees this multidisciplinary approach as a learning opportunity for students, setting it apart from the traditional class or even other unclasses. 

“It’s not really a class. They’re a crew. We are all coming together to do this project,” Josh says. “One thing is obviously the hands-on experience they’re going to get. You come up against a problem and you solve it, you figure it out. Film production is unpredictable… but that’s really great because it’s a learning opportunity.”

“We have anthropology students, who I think it’s going to be really beneficial for them, because I think [anthropology] is a little more abstract,” he adds “But this is a way that you’re taking anthropology, you’re taking into something concrete. You’re making into a presentation, not for an academic… this is a movie and people are going to watch it.“

Not only is the documentary going to be a great opportunity for students, Josh believes, but also for the audience. Studying anthropology prior to becoming a filmmaker, Josh recognizes the impact film can have on how people learn.

“It’s definitely a different animal when you’re reaching a broader audience, a general public. You don’t talk the same way. But I think it’s important. There needs to be a bridge between scholarship and the broader public, and I think a huge role for documentary is to be that bridge.”

Josh also spoke about the impact that documentaries can have on causes. As a graduate student at State University of New York in Albany, he worked on a project about farmers in Ecuador. 

“One thing I noticed was nobody read my Master’s thesis. Nobody read it except for my advisor. But I made this movie that went along with the thesis, and tons of people watched the movie. Actually, this farm worker organization in Ecuador was using the movie to help raise awareness about issues that the farm workers face there. This was really making a bigger impact.”

Josh hopes that this film can make an impact as well.

“It’s a story about people that are forgotten. It’s a story about, who do we memorialize? Who do we honor? Who gets remembered in Akron’s history books and who gets forgotten? And these are people that are the poorest of the poor. Sometimes they were people with mental disabilities, physical disabilities. People who were buried in unmarked graves. So, it’s a question about what do we do about that as a community. And now that we know what that place was, what do we do now? And how do we treat people now who are not people who are pillars of the community, but they are coming to the end of their lives. How do we treat them as they pass away from this world?”

“How does that relate to us? It does, because we have people with mental and physical disabilities — and how do we treat them? We have people who are the poorest of the poor and homeless and dying every day. How do we treat them in life and in death?”

Allyson’s background is in media production and anthropology. Her hobbies include coffee, traveling, and teaching people about things they didn’t know before.