Success Stories

Study abroad fuels film interest

J.P. Sniadecki

As a doctoral student in social anthropology at Harvard University, Grand Valley alumnus J.P. Sniadecki is also able to pursue another passion - producing films. In fact, he has consistently found ways to successfully blend both interests.

As an undergraduate studying film and video at Grand Valley, Sniadecki was drawn to philosophy after taking a class in ethics. He spent his junior year in Shanghai, China and learned Mandarin as one of the first Grand Valley students to receive a Barbara H. Padnos International Scholarship for study abroad. After he returned from China, he became even more interested in social activism at home in Michigan.

His first feature-length film was Working Classics (2002), a documentary about his work as a liberal arts instructor at Muskegon Correctional Facility while a student in the Community Working Classics program. CWC is Grand Valley's progressive service-learning program for inmates and other marginalized groups developed by philosophy professor Michael DeWilde. Working Classics was screened at the 2003 East Lansing Film Festival and helped the program garner support from the American Philosophical Association and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

"I had J.P. in a variety of classes, including documentary history and documentary production, and he was one of the most promising scholars I ever had," said Toni Perrine, professor of film and video. "His mode of critical inquiry and sharing of his views through passionate discussions raised the intellectual level of the entire class."

Sniadecki said that working with Perrine, and many other people at Grand Valley, gave him film skills that he carried over to his master's in East Asian studies at Harvard.

"I was looking for a way to incorporate filmmaking into my research and then found out that Harvard has a community of filmmakers interested in the interface between anthropology and art," said Sniadecki.

Another film, Children's Healing Initiative, which he made with former Grand Valley student Jason Crow, promoted the medical exchanges between Shriners Hospital in Massachusetts with health care institutions in Sichuan province in western China.

In 2007, with support from Harvard's Media Anthropology Lab and the Harvard Asia Center, he produced Songhua, which depicts the intimate relationship between Harbin city residents in northeastern China and their mother river. It received the Jury Pick at the Negotiated View Film Festival, and has been screened at the 2007 SIGGRAPH Festival, UC-Santa Barbara's Media Fields Conference, the Harvard Film Archive, and the 2007 Double Hung exhibition. It made its international debut at the Shadow Film Festival in Amsterdam.

His most recent film, Chaiqian, is a portrait of migrant labor, urban spaces and ephemeral relationships at a demolition site in the center of Chengdu, the capital of China's Sichuan province.

"It is not pushing an agenda as much as presenting a view of how people experience the kind of rapid changes that are going on in China today," said Sniadecki. "It is more of an experiment in ethnography and art."

Despite his success, Sniadecki isn't interested in promoting himself, but rather the causes or situations he has come to know intimately and has featured in his films. He did offer some words of advice to current Grand Valley students.

"Grand Valley was such a wonderful environment for me to cultivate significant human relationships with other students, faculty and staff," said Sniadecki. "There are some amazingly brilliant people there and I encourage students to knock on doors and make contact with their professors."

by Mary Isca Pirkola