Laurie Russman: Short Documentary Focuses on Students Who Overcome

CRP coordinator and UCLA MFA grad screens film on academic aspirations of Latina high school students, June 9 at Directors Guild of America.

Laurie Russman, coordinator of The UCLA Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles since 2007 and a recent MFA graduate from UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, has directed and produced the short film, “Out of the Shallow End,” which will be screened on June 9 as part of UCLA’s “MFA Directors Spotlight” event at the Directors Guild of America.

The film, which Russman created as her MFA thesis, focuses on the great odds that the girls’ water polo team at Santa Ana Valley High School (SAVHS) overcome to compete in the pool, and to stay on a path to graduation and college. She was originally inspired to create a documentary on swimming disparities after a discussion with Jane Margolis, senior researcher in UCLA’s Center X, about the high numbers of children and youth from different ethnic and racial groups who are unable to swim.

A study funded by USA Swimming, the governing body of competitive swimming in the nation, found, for example, that four of ten white, six of ten Latina/o, and seven of ten African American children do not know how to swim.

“This was shocking to me,” says Russman. “I was always an avid swimmer and, as a kid, rode my bike every summer day to the public pool in my community. The pool has always been a favorite place for recreation, where I go to exercise, and cool off.”

When Margolis suggested this topic for a thesis film, Russman did her research, including looking into the social history of swimming pools and segregation in the U.S.

“I wanted to understand how a city like Los Angeles, next to a vast ocean, with a plethora of pools, could accept that a great majority of its kids couldn’t participate safely or competitively in aquatics,” says Russman. “Moreover, I wanted to know what was being done to change this.”

Here’s where the aquatics program at Santa Ana Valley High enters the story. The girls and boys who join the water polo and swim teams at Valley are 97 percent low-income and 97 percent Latina/o. According to their coach, one student in 50 knows how to swim when they join the program.

“What’s distinctive about Santa Ana Valley High is that it encourages students to get involved with extra-curricular programs regardless of skill level, and anyone who wants to join aquatics is accepted,” notes Russman.

As coordinator for The Civil Rights Project (CRP) at UCLA, Russman supports the center’s research on equity, access, and justice in the nation’s public schools. In 2013, the CRP conducted a study titled “Making Education Work for Latinas” for the Eva Longoria Foundation, looking at what “levers” improve educational outcomes for Latinas; Russman created a video for that study.

While filming the SAVHS water polo team for her thesis, Russman recognized that many of the same findings from “Making Education Work for Latinas” like exposure to peers with college aspirations, retaining the ability to speak Spanish, and involvement in extracurricular activities were also important for the educational trajectories of the girls in her film. The majority of the water polo team, almost all children of low-income Latino immigrants, will be first in their families both to graduate high school and enroll at four-year campuses.

“My work at CRP was ever-present while making my thesis, constantly informing what I chose to film at Valley High and how I eventually shaped the story,” says Russman. “I came away from this project with a broader awareness on disparities in swimming. Not all families have the ability to prioritize swimming lessons since many are focused on daily challenges, like making the rent. This is why we need to involve the schools as part of the solution. I was very moved by the commitment and resolve of Valley High’s coaches and student athletes, and I hope my audience will be, too.”

The Directors Guild of America is located at 7920 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90046. To attend this event, click here.

Photo by Laurie Russman