By Avery Maehrer
Joe Lee was horrified to make the call.
An idea had sprung in his head for a documentary about Sue and Ron Witman, whose family made headlines after their son was found guilty of brutally killing his younger brother. But for Lee’s vision to come to fruition, he had to pick up the phone and convince the married couple to tell him their story. After Lee overcame his nerves and reached out to the Witmans, they met in person. The rest is history.
“They kind of fell in love with us,” Lee said. “And we fell in love with them.”
The result of what followed Lee’s phone call is “The Witmans” – one of three short films by local filmmakers showcased on Feb. 18 in the
Philadelphia Film Society’s Filmadelphia at the Roxy program. In addition to Lee’s work, Doris ChiaChing Lin’s “Maquette 1:1000” and Hilary Brashear’s “Triptych” were also screened in front of a packed theater.
Lin’s story, a narrative, involved a young architect forced to make a life-altering decision while dealing with an unexpected pregnancy.
“In the film, I offer a fresh perspective on these issues for both eastern and western audiences,” Lin said. “It has an original vision based on my own personal observations as someone both within and outside of Taiwanese culture. I am providing a way to examine my own cultural values. At the same time, from an outsider’s point of view, I also introduce a new voice to the complicated social issues in Philadelphia.”
After the films were screened, the three directors hosted a 30-minute question-and-answer session in which the audience found out more about the making of each short.
“For me, it was sort of a cultural observation,” Lin said at the Q&A. “I came here a couple years ago and when I started the film, I started with the idea of how an outside environment can affect one person. I also believe, though, that people don’t really change. I wanted to have a character that traveled to different places, but also have a heavy event happen to her.”
Brashear’s film was a documentary collage highlighting her experiences in a polyamorous relationship with her two partners. The relationship began around the time she had to hand in a proposal for her final project for a documentary course at Haverford College.
“It felt like something that was exciting and new and something I wanted to explore,” Brashear said. “I wanted to show something that was a different kind of ‘happy love story’ because in talking about polyamory with people, the question is ‘Well, what about jealousy? Isn’t that hard?’ I wanted to tell the story of friendship and romance, and it felt like the right time to do it because of this new, blossoming relationship.”
“I can only speak from my experience, and I know the communities that I’m a part of, everyone has been very open to this idea,” Brashear added. “Although it’s new and not all of my friends are practicing polyamory, it’s been received with interest and it’s led to a lot of great conversations.”
Lee found out about the Witmans’ story as the case was unfolding. His father, Rick, covered the case for The York Daily Record.
“I wanted to tell the story of Ron and Sue Witman mainly because their story, which is an important one, usually gets overlooked by people who know what happened to their family,” Lee said. “At this point, the crime happened almost 16 years ago, so the crime itself is old news, but Ron and Sue are still dealing with the aftereffects of what happened every single day.”
“Their story is ongoing and it is heartbreaking,” Lee added. “I wanted to show a side of the story that is more about grief, family and love than a story about the actual details of the crime and what happened inside of the courtroom.”
The February edition of Filmadelphia at the Roxy was the first held at the newly renovated theater. All three filmmakers said they enjoyed their experience.
“I love the cozy size of the event and the audience’s enthusiastic reactions in the Q&A,” Lin said. “I was also happy about the clear image of my film projected on the screen. I am grateful for this wonderful opportunity.”
Lee emphasized the unique opportunities that Filmadelphia presented student filmmakers with.
“Once you have a film in your hands, one of the hardest thing to do is to actually get people to see it,” Lee said. “Getting into festivals is incredibly difficult and usually costs money, and the internet is where a lot of work goes to die, so having an opportunity to screen the film for the local community is such a nice way to get new eyes on the project.”
“The goal is really just to get people to see the film and that’s what Filmadelphia allowed me to do,” he added.
In addition to the three films screened at the event, Filmadelphia allowed the Roxy to be showcased for a whole new audience.
“I am glad to see Roxy alive again in Philly,” Lin said.
Lee said he enjoyed the “intimacy of the space” in what was his first visit to the theater.
“Due to its size it is perfect for programs like Filmadelphia, where filmmakers and audiences can communicate and converse about filmmaking and storytelling,” he said.
As all three directors move on past the films showcased at the Roxy last week, each has some ideas regarding future projects.
Lee and the crew of “The Witmans” are working on expanding the short into something larger – possibly one that tells the entire story of the family and town in which the crime took place. Until then, Lee said is staying busy with other work.
“I’ve been working on some smaller projects in and around Philadelphia and I’ve been working on a documentary about Governor Chris Christie with the two other co-directors of “The Witmans” and a production company called Ironbound Films,” Lee said.
Brashear said she has many ideas but no definitive plans on what her next project will entail. Currently, she is working with a friend on starting a filmmaking collective that would involve creative support and equipment sharing. Brashear said she also has a project in the works about “midwives stewing” and another “about the attempt to revitalize a small economically depressed town in rural New York.”
Lin said she is currently in the writing stages of her first feature film and that she plans on shooting more shorts to “explore more possibilities of filmmaking.”
The Filmadelphia at the Roxy program will continue on March 18.
Avery Maehrer is a junior at Temple University, where he is pursuing a double major in Journalism and Film & Media Arts. In addition to interning at the PFS, he works as a section editor for The Temple News – his university’s Keystone-Award winning college newspaper.
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