Even after weeks of media coverage and national attention, two graduate film students at the University of Florida might not be able to graduate in a few weeks because of a documentary they are making about Haiti. School officials have ruled that the film made by Roman Safiullin of Fort Lauderdale and Jon Bougher of New Hampshire violates the university's travel ban to the torn island nation.
The film, which in part follows the Juice's favorite local philanthropist, Aaron Jackson, and his charity Planting Peace, serves as the students' graduate thesis. They were in Haiti during the earthquake. Later, they returned to complete the documentary. The filmmakers raised all the money for their film independently, but their trip violated the school's ban on school-sponsored travel to Haiti, a policy instituted after they'd begun the film.
"The school will refuse our graduation if we submit a thesis using the footage we shot on our last trip down there," says Bougher. "They are telling us to submit unfinished work. They've encouraged us explicitly to submit an incomplete film, then submit the rest somewhere else."
None of the school officials has seen the footage in question, which Bougher says is "disturbing at some points but is essential in telling the story we began." They say their professors support them completely. "They don't want to sign off on unfinished work."
In a story posted on Inside Higher Ed, the students' adviser discusses how often he's come across a situation like this:
"Never in my professional life had anybody told me what could or couldn't be in a student's thesis," said Churchill Roberts, the students' adviser and co-director of the Documentary Institute in the university's College of Journalism and Communications. "It's contrary to anything I've ever seen at a university. It's so absurd that some outside person would come in and dictate what the story should be."
UPDATE: The University says this is a matter of student safety. "The only reason for the travel ban was student safety," says Steve Orlando, a University of Florida spokesman. "Obviously Haiti was a very dangerous place right after the earthquake, and continues to be dangerous. Our student safety is always the number one goal. If something had happened to them, God forbid, we'd be having a very different conversation right now."
The travel ban and the subsequent no-exceptions enforcement is overly restrictive, the filmmakers say. "It stops us from creating the best film we can," says Safiullin.
"Liability is not an issue here," says Bougher. "We're back, and we're safe." Both men have offered to sign liability waivers for the school.
They say the school instituted a widespread ban on travel without knowing the real conditions in Haiti, which they both witnessed firsthand. Both men have been to the island nation several times. "The administration doesn't have an accurate picture of the conditions in Haiti," Bougher says. Ironically, if the administration saw the footage the young men shot while on the ground in Haiti, they might have a better sense of the nation their policy addresses. "They're so disconnected," says Bougher. "At one point, they suggested we could finish shooting in the Dominican Republic."
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The students admit that they knew their trip would violate the travel policy but that in thinking about their work, they did not consider how harshly the school would deal with the situation. "We knew the university wasn't going to be happy about it, but this is an unbelievable extension of that policy that we never expected," Bougher says. "We're asking them not to take this course of action. It's unnecessary punishment. We're adults. They're treating their student body like a daycare."
Orlando says the school is still in negotiations. "We're trying to work something out," he explains. "I've met with both these students and we think they're great. They've done great work. We have no problem with the students using the material in any capacity other than the thesis. If we allow this, implying consent, then next time it will be much more difficult to enforce the travel ban."
If nothing changes, the students have about a week to decide what they will submit for their thesis. They say a degree from the University of Florida is important to each of them, but so is the integrity of their work.
"We'd like to get a degree, but for something we believe in," says Safiullin. "We want it to mean something."