UH School of Communication telenovelas project takes students to ‘little Hollywood’


Assistant director Aaron Thomas slams the clapboard on Saturday to set a 20-person crew in motion as the actors begin their scene in a doctor’s office.

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

“There is nothing to be ashamed of Alzheimer’s disease,” said Dr. Ramirez, encouraging Don Leonel. “It affects 1 in 10 people in this country. You did well to come see us earlier.

A few cuts later, the crew films the same scene in Spanish in one of two studios at the University of Houston’s Valenti School of Communication, where an ambitious bilingual community health project to combat the impact of Alzheimer’s disease in Hispanics transforms the school. in a little Hollywood.

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

Filming began April 9 and will continue each weekend this month for the top three telenovelas that won in a creative scriptwriting “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. He received a $2.35 million grant from the National Institute on Aging last year to increase health literacy and cultural taboo among Hispanics about brain health.

Medina said Alzheimer’s disease is a disease that Latinos are 50% more likely to develop than non-Hispanics. They tend to live longer and develop symptoms earlier, but are diagnosed at later stages and less likely to be treated. Lack of knowledge or acceptance of this mental condition impacts the entire family in characteristic multigenerational Hispanic homes where grandparents, often with limited English proficiency, coexist with younger generations raised in the United States. United.

“There is still a lot of stigma about this disease in the Hispanic community and people struggle to talk about brain health and what we can do to improve our brain health by identifying these things earlier. “, Medina said.

Although Alzheimer’s disease is an incurable disease, “Dr. Ramirez” gave “Don Leonel” some recommendations to improve his overall health that can delay the progression of the disease, such as adding a 30-minute brisk walk to the daily routine, getting enough sleep or eating more nutrient dense foods, among others.

Medina said increasing knowledge of Alzheimer’s disease would also help close the gap in Hispanic participation in clinical trials. They represent only 1% of all participants in American studies.

“We try to understand the different shades of the brain, but the lack of diversity in research ends up limiting any progress we make toward understanding disease,” Medina said. He said that just as a study of, say, people between the ages of 30 and 50 doesn’t provide enough scope to treat everyone, clinical samples that don’t include a diverse population are also limited.

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

Medina designed a community integration model with the intention of replicating it in other cities.

The integration began with consultations with community organizations to get advice on the best ways to reach and get the message out in Hispanic communities. They received many recommendations, from favorite words to treat mental conditions, to telenovelas as the best format, and the need for bilingual messaging.

Little Hollywood

“Everything about this project has a community aspect to it,” said Jennifer Vardeman, director of the UH Valenti School of Communication. “We combine health communication concepts with media production with student-learned skills, then transition to edited and fully produced videos that our strategic communication students promote in a variety of ways. »

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

“Whether it’s the director and the assistants, the cameras, the lighting, the sound, the make-up, the wardrobe… we’ve got it all covered with talented students, and they’re pretty serious about their job,” said said Dylan Medina, a recent graduate who plays the communications and liaison role. .

There were two sets ready for filming on Saturday, the doctor’s office and a living room for a scene with a Hispanic family where colorful woven fabrics covered the furniture. Both were designed by Laur Hale, who specializes in media production.

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

“We do things that the real industry does…it’s filming for real projects like in the film industry,” Hale said, noting that this experience gives her skills and a program before starting her professional career.

Crew members said the Valenti School provided a hard-to-get experience in Houston.

Lucio Vasquez, a media production student who served as cinematographer on Saturday, said the school provides “an incredible opportunity for people who are trying to move up in the industry, because the film industry here does, in all honesty , lacking compared to other cities.” He said Houston had some incredibly talented people but many ended up leaving for Los Angeles or New York.

Vardeman, who has been a teacher at Valenti for more than a decade, said this production had greater reach and student participation than previous filming projects. She hopes to raise the school’s profile as a center for studio production, where students gain hands-on experience doing projects with other Houston schools and institutions.

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

At a time when diversity is sought after 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 10 most diverse universities in the nation by US News and World Report.

Later in the year, once the telenovelas are ready for the public, marketing and public relations students will take turns implementing strategies to spread the message.

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

Vardeman said the students also plan to perform the telenovelas in clinic waiting rooms, community centers, supermarkets, hair salons and other places where people congregate in areas with large Hispanic populations. .

“It all starts and ends with involving the community,” Medina said.



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