Scholar Q&A: JP Keenan '14

Kyla Pigoni (a class of 2013 journalism major from Geyserville, California) spoke with Park Scholar JP Keenan '14, a Documentary Studies & Production major from Wilmington, DE, about his passion for documentary, as well as his work with Invisible Children

When did you first start working with documentaries?
It happened back in 7th grade. I’ve always been a computer guy, so I started making picture slideshows on Windows Movie Maker.

Then, there was a national competition called "History Day", that you basically create a documentary for. The theme was "Taking a Stand in History," and I made a documentary about D Day. I compiled a ton of interviews, research and photographs, and created a documentary that had my voice narrating it. It went pretty far in the competition, which really validated a lot of my efforts. As a young kid, you’re looking for something to be good at, so when I made the doc and got positive feedback, it fueled my desire to continue to make more things. Now, it has approximately 600,000 views on YouTube!

Throughout high school I made other documentaries, including one about the civil war in Sierra Leone that involved blood diamonds. And then in my junior year, I made another documentary about wartime journalists. It’s funny to look back at your roots and see how you got started.

You are currently the President of Ithaca College's chapter of Invisible Children. When did you become involved with Invisible Children?
In 2006, I watched the documentary The Rough Cut. The documentary had a story about "night commuting"--about kids who were leaving their homes at night to be protected in the cities, because they were being abducted in the night from their homes. I watched it when I was around 13 or 14 years old, and it was the first time that a documentary touched me in such an emotional way that I wanted to be involved. I latched onto the issue and got involved immediately. Throughout high school I went to conferences, rallies, and events in DC and Philly and San Diego, all to understand more about the issue. I had the opportunity to speak with Ugandans and leaders in our own country about this conflict and sought out sustainable ways to help. This topic was the first one that taught me the power of documentary and the power of a story. When I saw The Rough Cut, I already had an interest in documentaries, but this introduced me to a more "current event-style." It influenced my desire to make documentaries that highlight issues that are not well known, and it definitely played a part in my choice of career.

How did those experiences with Invisible Children affect you?
I’ve been working with them for 6 years, and it’s been challenging my core beliefs in many ways. I learned a lot about what it means--as a documentary studies major--to be so close to an issue. It’s important to think of what the impact is going to be when you’re making a 30-minute film, and sometimes it’s easy to forget that. Regarding the Kony 2012 video, Invisible Children was involved for over a decade working in the area, and didn’t understand how much it needed to explain a few points. For example, saying things like “Joseph Kony is clearly out of Uganda” only once during a small segment isn’t good enough to explain to a teenager who has no idea about this issue what’s going on in Uganda today, and that Kony clearly isn’t in Uganda anymore. When the organization released Kony 2012 part 2, it shared information that should have been included in the first part. The main goal was to make Kony famous, so that more people looked into the issue. Unfortunately, many people took the video as a  statement that “this is all Invisible Children knows,” and it’s not meant to be that.

As the President of the campus chapter of Invisible Children, what did you do to answer some of the student concerns about the credibility of Invisible Children?
This semester was really interesting as the club president with the Kony 2012 video going viral. It skyrocketed to everybody’s topic of discussion. The screening with the spokespeople from Invisible Children and the Ugandan speaker was at the apex of when everyone was talking about it. It was great to have such an animated conversation with the spokespeople from Invisible Children right when the video was released. As the club leader, it was important to encourage dialogue and to leave space for others to ask questions and really get a feel for what the company is all about. When we opened ourselves up to the criticism, those outspoken about the issue came and we spoke.

Have you noticed a change of view towards the club on campus?
Whenever I wear an Invisible Children t-shirt, it’s almost like I’m saying a political statement. People view me differently because of their own opinions. I’ve had four or five conversations just from wearing it. People will come up to me and ask, “oh, you support them?” Then I’ll ask them their concerns, explain my point of view and so forth.

What have you been working on in terms of documentaries lately?
Last fall, I helped shoot and write my first original nonfiction documentary, entitled Adoption. The film, which focused on the issues surrounding gay adoption, was selected to air on the local PBS station.

Tell me about some of your internships.
Last summer I worked in Washington D.C. at the World Bank and Stone Soup Films. At the World Bank, I helped create videos for its poverty and social impact analysis team. The videos look at the policies that the World Bank are proposing, and make sure that the World Bank is working through a pro-poor lens. Basically, I helped the organization to create media about the importance of making sure that the poor don’t get the brunt of policy reforms. Additionally, Stone Soup Films is a nonprofit company that works to make documentaries for nonprofits, and I worked on two documentaries for them.

How would you say the Park Scholar Program has influenced your time at Ithaca College?
Well, this summer I am going to be interning at Transient Pictures with Park Scholar alum and award-winning documentary producer Jeremy Levine '06. I’m excited to work with Jeremy, and to learn more about the business side of the field. Additionally, the Park Scholar Program has been such an immense blessing, in terms of being a community with so much talent, and I’m eager to see what else happens over the next two years!



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