At Florida Gulf Coast University, we like to think our professors will go to the ends of the earth for their students. And in the case of Jon Braddy, we even have professors who will go to the ends of the earth with their students for a collaborative project.
“You have no idea how far away the southern tip of Africa is,” said Braddy, an assistant professor and communication program leader who teamed with recent graduate Gunnar Gibson (’15, communication) for a five-week exploration of South Africa this past summer.
Their mission: a Seidler Undergraduate Research Fellowship project that culminated in a documentary, “Liberation.” The 45-minute film, which premiered on campus Feb. 28 as the climactic presentation of the Seidler International Film Festival, investigates how effective – or ineffective – social change has been in post-apartheid South Africa. A special focus is the current state of higher education for younger South Africans who belong to what is known as the “born-free” generation, or those born since the oppressive apartheid system of racial segregation and discrimination ended in 1991.
“Six towns … five weeks … a lot of traveling,” said Gibson, who Braddy recruited for the project as cameraman because of his experience as a video producer for Harley-Davidson dealerships. The two flew from Fort Myers to New York City, then on to Dubai before visiting Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, Grahamstown, Bloemfontain and Cape Town.
The FGCU researchers found the apartheid issue still creates unease in the country. While they make it a point to say how friendly everyone was, they also say how guarded their subjects were when discussing the political state of the nation.
“They don’t want to talk about this issue, and the only ones who will are at the highest ranks of their particular organizations,” Braddy said. “Talking about life after apartheid is sensitive. They don’t want anything to flare up. There’s that kind of simmering below the surface.”
“Everyone was giving us different solutions, different answers, so we had to restructure and figure out where the film was going to go,” Gibson said. “Ultimately, it’s not our country, so the solutions aren’t ours to decide. We present the situation and let others decide.”
Braddy hopes to get “Liberation” screened at independent film festivals – perhaps even one in South Africa, if he can get the funding – and has a goal of getting the documentary into the Netflix lineup. Gibson, meanwhile, also posted an educational, often-humorous series of video blogs on YouTube during the trip, offering a less-formal, behind-the-scenes look at the adventure.
Even as Braddy and Gibson continue to take bows for “Liberation” – some FGCU professors have even asked for permission to use the documentary in their courses – the teacher is trying to bring his next vision to focus.
“I have submitted a grant proposal to do something similar with Puerto Rico,” said Braddy, inspired by the island’s efforts to rebuild after the devastation of Hurricane Maria last summer. “The project, titled ‘Puerto Rico Ascending,’ will take a professor of ecology studying the environmental impacts, a Spanish professor to investigate the hurricane’s impact on citizens, and me adding the dimension of the petroleum industry, with offshore oil money slated to rebuild the island’s infrastructure.”
Of course, Braddy’s Puerto Rico project also budgets for a filmmaker to work with the FGCU students who will accompany the faculty to Puerto Rico, and who else is better prepared for that task than Gibson? He traveled almost 8,000 miles with Braddy from Fort Myers to Cape Town, so the 1,100 or so miles to San Juan is a mere skip across the Atlantic.