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Students make a documentary film about “Life with Parkinson’s Disease”


Posted 03/12/2015
Posted by David Isgur


It came out of the blue, just a simple question — "Would you be interested in making a short film about a day-in-the-life of someone dealing with Parkinson’s disease for a fundraising event?" Well, University students Amber Gipson ('16) and Nicholas Mastrangelo ('16) said yes to that impromptu question and launched themselves on quite a journey.

The film was shown at the XL Center in Hartford as part of a fundraiser for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. “It was surreal to watch the movie that we made be shown on the Jumbo-tron at a hockey game,” said Mastrangelo. The film was also shown and discussed by Gipson at the 40th annual Association for Woman in Psychology national conference in San Francisco. (It will also be screened and discussed at the University’s Undergraduate Research Colloquium.)

Click here to watch their film, "Illustration and Revelation: Life with Parkinson's Disease."

The question about making the film came from Mala Matacin, associate professor and co-chair of the department of psychology in the University’s College of Arts and Sciences (A&S), via alum Karen Rider, who has a master’s degree in General Experimental Psychology from the University. “Karen contacted me and said ‘I have a possible student project for a budding videographer, especially someone with interests in women’s issues, health, and well-being.’”

The credits for the film by Nicholas Mastrangelo and Amber Gipson are displayed on the video screen at the XL Center.

Matacin asked Gipson, who is double majoring in biology and psychology and has a strong interest in genetics and women’s health issues, and Mastrangelo, a cinema major minoring in music, whose film won the student-film competition, “Reel Film Fest, 2014.” Matacin knew both through their involvement in the University’s Women for Change organization. 

The students were introduced to Sherry Rouillard, a single mother, art therapist, and creativity coach, who had been recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Sherry had planned and held events at the XL Center for the Wolf Pack hockey team over the years. When they learned of her diagnosis, the team wanted to do a fundraiser for her and the Michael J Fox Foundation during a game. Rouillard came up with the idea of “a day in the life living with Parkinson’s disease” video that could be played in the XL Center atrium during pre game and intermission.

Matacin, Gipson and Mastrangelo met regularly with Rouillard to talk about the project, and it soon became more than just “a project.” It became personal and a mission to capture what Rouillard was dealing with.

“When a person puts their trust in you to tell their story, you really want to do everything you can to make it real and honest and genuine,” Mastrangelo said. “There is a lot of pressure to get it right.”

Gipson agrees. “We really tried to listen to the story she [Sherry] wanted to tell us.”

Professor Mala Matacin, students Amber Gipson and Nicholas Mastrangelo, and President Walter Harrison at film's debut.

The students appreciate Matacin's support and guidance. She provided the idea for the opening of the film and arranged for A&S funding so the students could rent a Zip Car to get to film locations. "She was there at the first meeting and for the first filming sessions, and she reviewed all of the rough cuts of the film and made a lot of good suggestions," Mastrangelo says.

Mastrangelo did the filming at Rouillard’s home and at a local dance studio. Gipson did the interviews, using questions she developed based on pre-filming discussions withg Rouillard. They say it was a humbling, stressful experience—due to the pressure they put on themselves to do justice to Rouillard’s story—but it helped them solidify their career aspirations.

Mastrangelo wants to do more documentary-style filmmaking, and Gipson hopes to do genetic counseling and oncological counseling for medical patients.