USC Thesis Films Tackle Issues Onscreen

by Julia Van Valkenburg, USC MISC Scholar

USC’s Media Institute for Social Change’s mission is “To create positive change in the world one film at a time,” and that’s exactly what MISC and USC’s filmmakers are doing. This year’s crop of MFA thesis films is proof of the powerful role media can play in creating social change, with the following filmmakers focusing their work on highly important subjects. As a result of the Making Media for Social Change course, taught by MISC’s Michael Taylor, more and more film students are focusing their efforts on highlighting social issues in their creative work. “So many of the thesis films being made at USC are evidence that MISC has helped to move the needle in student awareness of social issues,” notes Taylor, “and students are expressing opinions related to those issues in their films. It’s very gratifying to see that MISC is making a difference and having an impact on the content.”

So many of the thesis films being made at USC are evidence that MISC has helped to move the needle in student awareness of social issues.
— Michael Taylor, Executive Director USC MISC

Below are four of this year’s thesis films – Lalo’s House by Kelley Kali, Falling by Ewen Wright, Duvall et al. by Youthana Yuos, and Violets by Maren Jensen – which focus on a variety of tremendously important contemporary issues such as child prostitution, racism, depression, and transgender issues.

Lalo’s House by Kelley Kali

Social issue: kidnapping and child prostitution in Haiti

Synopsis: Manouchka, an inquisitive 11-year-old girl, and her little sister Phara are kidnapped while walking home from school one day – a tragedy that is all too common in Haiti. After being put in an orphanage, the girls soon discover that it’s actually an organization for child prostitution. Ultimately, Manouchka must decide whether or not to sacrifice herself in order to protect her sister Phara.

More on the filmmaker: Kelley received an undergraduate degree in Anthropology from Howard University and worked in the film and television industry before deciding to combine her passions as both an activist and filmmaker. After learning about child trafficking issues between the U.S. and Haiti, Kelley went to Haiti to spend time investigating an orphanage where girls are kidnapped and forced into prostitution. It is this experience that inspired Lalo’s House, a film about innocence and the strength of sisterhood, which is inspired by real events. Learn more about Lalo's House on Facebook and help contribute to their crowdfunding campaign.

Lalo's House is currently fundraising and shoots in 2017 on location in Haiti.


Falling by Ewen Wright

Social issue: racism, sexism, and police brutality in America

Synopsis: Falling is an absurdist comedy that follows three characters. There’s Harold, a white guy who claims he can’t walk but his doctor says he’s okay, Karen, who’s on a date with a guy who incessantly gaslights and mansplains, and Michael, a young black man who is confronted by an armed white man who proclaims “I’m not a racist!” yet pulls his gun on him. When the situations that each character finds themselves in become more and more absurd, the real and surreal blend as their stories begin to align.

More about the filmmaker: Ewen’s film was inspired by his frustration with contemporary American sociocultural issues, such as racism and sexism. Thematically, Falling deals with questions of identity, perception, and the blurriness of truth. In creating a surreal and absurdist comedy about significant topical issues, Ewen hopes to bring these problems into a new light. Learn more about Falling by visiting the film’s Indiegogo page.

Falling is shooting in December in the Los Angeles area.


Duvall et al. by Youthana Yuos

Social issue: depression, aging, and masculinity

Synopsis: Duvall is an old curmudgeon who lives with his depressed son Nelson and has a caregiver named Mercedes. When Nelson suddenly commits suicide, Duvall must come to terms with his unwillingness to make meaningful connections with others. Despite avoiding his son’s suicide letter, Mercedes eventually convinces him to read it, prompting Duvall to acknowledge the loss of his son.

More on the filmmaker: As someone who has battled with depression, Youthana set out to make this film for both creative and cathartic reasons. Tonally, Duval et al. is a comedic tragedy, allowing the filmmaker to explore serious subjects, such as depression, suicide, masculine fragility, aging, and the complexities of father-son relationships, while still maintaining levity. Youthana’s film ultimately asks, what does it mean to both love and be loved? And what does loving require of us? To learn more about Duvall et al. visit the film’s website & kickstarter campaign.

Duvall et Al is currently fundraising and shoots in January 2017 in the Los Angeles area.


Violets by Maren Jensen

Social issue: gender identity and expression

Synopsis: Set within a predominantly Christian, African American community in Los Angeles, John, a police officer, searches for the courage to come out to his family about his struggles with his gender identity. Violet, John’s loving and devoted wife, has a difficult time acknowledging what she has known to be true but has denied for so long, and ultimately must decide if she’ll accept John’s identity.

More on the filmmaker: Violets was born out of Maren’s desire to tell stories about the power of human kindness and courage, and the importance of truly listening to and learning from one another. One of the key themes that the film addresses, beyond accepting one’s identity, is the idea that love conquers all. It is the love that these characters share that guides them through difficult times and allows them to unearth their inner truths. The Violets team has consulted with individuals from the LGBTQ community, Christian church, and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, including an organization for transgender men and women serving in law enforcement. For more on Violets, stay tuned for the film’s Indiegogo campaign.