UH Communication School’s Telenovelas Project Takes Students to ‘Little Hollywood’

Assistant director Aaron Thomas slams the clapperboard on Saturday to get a crew of 20 moving as the actors begin their scene at a doctor’s office.

Armando brought along his father, Don Leonel, an older man who “tries to show every ounce of youth in his spirit,” according to the script. The crown of his vaquero hat bows in front of the doctor. He is reluctant to accept the Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

“Alzheimer’s is nothing to be ashamed of,” said Dr. Ramirez and encouraged Don Leonel. “It affects 1 in 10 people in this country. You did the right thing to come to us so early.”

A few cuts later, the team films the same scene in Spanish at one of the two studios at the University of Houston’s Valenti School of Communication, where an ambitious bilingual community health project to combat the effects of Alzheimer’s among Hispanics is transforming the school into a little Hollywood.

The project involves the production of five mini telenovelas that Valenti students have been working on for months.

Filming began on April 9 and will continue each weekend this month for the first three telenovelas that won a creative screenwriting ‘hackathon’ in November.

The project is led by Professor Luis Medina, a clinical psychologist, cultural neuropsychologist and director of the University’s Collaborative on Aging Research and Multicultural Assessment. Last year, he received a $2.35 million grant from the National Institute on Aging to help strengthen Hispanic health literacy and cultural taboos about brain health.

Medina said Alzheimer’s is a disease that Latinos are 50 percent more likely to develop than non-Hispanic people. They tend to live longer and develop symptoms earlier, but are diagnosed at later stages and are less likely to be treated. The lack of knowledge or acceptance of this mental illness affects the whole family in multigenerational Hispanic households, where grandparents, often with limited English skills, live with younger generations who were raised in the United States

“There’s still a lot of stigma about this disease in the Hispanic community, and people have a hard time talking about brain health and what we can do to make our brains healthier by recognizing these things earlier,” he said Medina.

Although Alzheimer’s is an incurable disease, “Dr. Ramirez” gave “Don Leonel” some recommendations for improving his general health, which can delay the progression of the disease, such as others.

Medina said increasing education about Alzheimer’s would also help close the gap in Hispanic participation in clinical trials. They make up only 1 percent of the participants in US studies.

“We’re trying to understand the different nuances of the brain, but the lack of diversity in research ultimately limits any progress we can make in understanding the disease,” Medina said. He said that just as a study in, say, people between the ages of 30 and 50 does not provide enough information to treat all people, clinical samples that do not span a diverse population are also limited.

The project is being conducted in collaboration with Baylor College of Medicine, the University of Colorado School of Medicine, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health at the Cleveland Clinic in Las Vegas.

Medina designed a community integration model with plans to replicate it in other cities.

Integration began with consultations with community organizations for advice on how best to reach out and spread the message in Hispanic communities. They received many recommendations, from preferred words for treating mental illness to telenovelas as the best format and the need for bilingual messaging.

Little Hollywood

“There’s a community aspect to everything about this project,” said Jennifer Vardeman, director of the UH Valenti School of Communication. “We bring together health communication concepts along with media production with skills learned by the students and then move on to edited and fully produced videos that encourage our strategic communication students in different ways.”

Most of the students involved in the production are from Hispanic families.

“Be it director and assistants, cameras, lighting, sound, makeup, wardrobe…we’ve got it all covered with talented students, and they take their work pretty seriously,” said Dylan Medina, a recent graduate who has the communications and liaison role plays .

Two sets were set up for Saturday’s shooting, the doctor’s office and a living room for a scene featuring a Hispanic family, in which brightly colored woven fabrics covered the furniture. Both were designed by Laur Hale, who specializes in media production.

“I wanted to make the house look very cozy with a Hispanic influence, so I put blankets everywhere, like maybe the Abuela knits, and little pots everywhere,” Hale said. She added that she loves that the school gives students real-life production experiences.

“We do things that the actual industry does…that’s filming for real projects like the film industry does,” Hale said, noting that this experience teaches her skills and curriculum prior to starting her professional career.

Crew members said Valenti School offers an experience that is hard to come by in Houston.

Lucio Vasquez, a media production student who served as cinematographer on Saturday, said the school offers “an incredible opportunity for people trying to move up in the industry because the film industry here honestly lacks compared to other cities,” he said that Houston has incredibly talented people, but many end up going to Los Angeles or New York.

Vardeman, who has been a professor at Valenti for more than a decade, said this production has a larger scope and student involvement than previous film projects. She hopes to raise the school’s profile as a studio production center where students get hands-on experience working on projects with other Houston schools and institutions.

“A bigger picture for the school is that several Houston facilities are trying to really attract and retain filmmakers and production staff, and we definitely have the expertise and the skillful students,” she said.

At a time when diversity is desired but still lacking in the film and media industries, Vardeman said she likes to think of the Valenti school as “a little Hollywood in one of the most diverse universities in the country.”

The University of Houston is ranked among the top 10 most diverse universities in the country by US News and World Report.

Later in the year, after the telenovelas are ready for the public, it will be the turn of the marketing and PR students to implement strategies to get the message across.

Medina said the mini telenovelas will be widely shared through social media.

Vardeman said the students also plan to present the telenovelas in waiting rooms of clinics, community centers, supermarkets, barber shops and other places where people congregate in heavily Hispanic areas.

“Everything begins and ends with community,” Medina said.

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