April 07, 2010

Filmmaker says SIUC gave her freedom to ‘go do’

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Her home is now New York City, and she will candidly tell you that her filmmaking career has her living in “airports and airplanes.” But Southern Illinois University Carbondale provides many special memories for Emmy-nominated and Peabody Award-winning producer and director Hilla Medalia.

“It’s always good for me to come back to a place that I lived for so long, and then of course, because I learned so much here and so much of my career started here,” Medalia said Monday. She returned to campus as a keynote speaker at a two-day interdisciplinary conference focused on the Middle East conflict.

Medalia’s first feature documentary, “To Die in Jerusalem,” details the lives of two 17-year-old girls -- one Palestinian and one Israeli -- whose lives and families link together after a bomb blast in a Jerusalem market in March 2002. A black purse the Palestinian girl carried -- armed with explosives -- detonated, killing both girls, a security guard, and injuring 30. In addition to earning the George Foster Peabody Award, the film earned three 2008 Emmy nominations from the News & Documentary Emmy Awards including Best Documentary, and “Outstanding Informational Programming -- Long Form.”

It was while Medalia, an Israeli citizen, was at SIUC that the film got its start as an award-winning thesis short-film, “Daughters of Abraham.” The film won the 2004 Angelis Award, aired in a special screening at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, and earned the SIU Alumni Association’s 2004 Outstanding Thesis Award.

Medalia said she “really learned the tools of filmmaking” along with discipline while at SIUC. She was also involved with award-winning projects while working with alt.news 26:46, WSIU, and in the classroom.

“I had some really, really good professors who guided me through the process and during my thesis project … really guided me through from storytelling to production and how to make it and how to get out in the real world,” Medalia said.

She said another important factor is taking the tools you have and implementing them. She used a lot of her classroom work on projects that contributed to her later success. Medalia said she also took advantage of “really good equipment and the freedom that I got” while in school.

“I think I was a student who really wanted to make things happen and really wanted to make my projects,” she said. “The University really allowed me the freedom to take the equipment and to go do. If you are motivated to go do things then the University and the department … really gave me the opportunity to do what I wanted to do.”

A dual SIUC degree graduate, Medalia earned her bachelor’s degree in radio-television in 2001, and a master’s degree in professional media practice in 2004.

While on campus this week, Medalia also spoke to a master’s level class in radio-television, and spent time visiting with former women’s track team coaches. She competed in the triple jump for the Saluki women’s track team.

Medalia’s 2009 documentary “After the Storm,” is the story of Broadway theater professionals resurrecting a musical arts program for teens in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The film is about “how love, art and community can actually help people rebuild their lives,” she said. The film won a Crystal Heart Award and Audience Choice Award last October at the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis, Ind.

Medalia said she realized the pivotal power that films can have as millions viewed “To Die in Jerusalem” when it began airing on HBO in November 2007.

“I really decided to focus my work on films that have social importance -- that to me are subjects that I think are very important to discuss and for people to know about,” she said.

Filmmakers are always working on new projects that are in various stages of being completed, she said. Medalia is finishing a new film that focuses on post-traumatic stress disorder, and plans to work on another film in China. Much of her time is spent on location shoots, film festivals, and speaking engagements about her films.

Success, she said, is relative.

“I’m really fortunate that I am able to really take what I learned here in Southern Illinois and actually do what I wanted to do, which is making films,” she said. “But I have big dreams. You reach a goal and then you already have a new goal.

“It was true when I was running track here in Southern Illinois and it’s also true today for my work in films,” she said. “I think the synergy of having your film and work out there is that it makes it easier in a way to get your film, get your next film, or your next project and also when you are trying to get financed or when you are calling places. It obviously helps when you have something to show them that you have done.”

Medalia admits that life for burgeoning film directors can be difficult. It’s not only how talented a filmmaker you are but also how much you push, she said.

“But if you want it enough and you keep doing it then it’s very possible,” she said. “Especially now in this time and age where actually the whole structure of distribution really has changed and you no longer need the overall deal of the big guys. Everything is available. There is the Internet and it’s just much easier in a way to get your film out there, especially for the younger generation who are very Internet-savvy and can really put their work out there.”