Student documentary sheds light on WCU/Cullowhee relationship

In April, at Western Carolina University’s Controlled Chaos Film Festival, a documentary was premiered, simply titled “Whee,” that had particular relevance to the local area.

The documentary explored the relationship between WCU and Cullowhee as well as the local community surrounding it. “Whee” invited the input of business owners, students and others that have a stake in the ongoing and often turbulent relationship between the 5th oldest university in the UNC-System and one of the oldest settlements in Jackson County.

“Whee” was the brainchild of Director Josh Hartigan, Editor Jeb Bennett and Producer Leah Thomas, who created the documentary as a WCU Motion Picture and Television Production (MPTP) program senior thesis this past spring.

According to Hartigan, the planned incorporation of Cullowhee and proposed Town Center by former WCU Chancellor John W. Bardo was the first issue that the documentary was supposed to cover. However, that soon changed.

“As time went on, Bardo took his leave, and the town center idea left with him. Through interviewing several locals, we discovered that many people were wholeheartedly against Bardo’s plan and disappointed with the University’s actions in general. We sought to find out why,” said Hartigan.

Along with input and help from the students and professors in the MPTP program, the team began filming in April 2011 and finished editing in April 2012.

Finding members from the local community to give their opinions was not difficult, but finding people willing to have those opinions recorded on camera was another matter.

“Not everyone wants to share his or her opinions on camera,” said Thomas. “Thankfully, there happened to be a lot of people who are passionate enough about this area that we were able to compile our film successfully. We started by going to local businesses and events to talk to people and that alone led us to many great interviews.”

“A little luck and patience never hurt either,” added Hartigan. “One interview usually leads to another. People are always eager to point you in the direction of someone who knows more about subjects than themselves, which is infinitely helpful in our profession.”

Obviously, WCU and Cullowhee are forever intertwined. Without the University, the local economy might have died long ago, and without the support of the locals, WCU might never have become the school it is today. That is what Hartigan and Thomas wanted their viewers to remember. Among those viewers are surely the WCU administrators, who have been accused of not having the best intentions of the community in mind when making decisions.

“If WCU is going to continue to grow, it needs to help grow the community around it as well,” said Hartigan. “It could start by loosening Aramark’s monopoly on student’s food choices. Let them use their declining balance off campus. It’s not a difficult thing to do, and everyone will benefit.”

“When any large entity comes into an area, things change drastically,” said Thomas. “So many people inhabit Cullowhee simply because of WCU, yet not many people really know much about this beautiful area. We wanted to give a brief history of Cullowhee, but we also wanted people to hear the opinions of locals in this area who do not go to Western. This area is home to a number of people, but the major voice in the community is the University. Our main hope is that the locals stand up and express their opinions, so that this area is more than just a college town.”

As a senior thesis, the “Whee” documentary fulfilled a graduation requirement for Hartigan and Thomas. However, they took away much more.

“Coming from Atlanta, I definitely learned that although Cullowhee has a very different appeal to it than a large city, this area is still one of the best places on earth,” said Thomas. “Through this film, we have met such wonderful people and also learned the vivid history of Cullowhee. We also learned about the conflict that occurs when a large entity comes into a small town. As much as we love WCU, not everyone around here feels the same way. This is home to more people than just associates of Western.”

Hartigan simply added, “Every voice counts, especially the quiet ones.”

Thomas and Hartigan believe that both students and administrators can also take something away from the “Whee” documentary.

“Students are transient,” said Hartigan. “I doubt these issues matter much to the average student. It’s not what they learn that concerns me. It’s what they do afterwards. Ideally, they’ll learn that their voice will always find an ear, if they choose to use it.”

“Hopefully, students will learn that there is more to Cullowhee than just WCU,” said Thomas. “There are so many great local businesses around here that students should support on a regular basis. Instead of swiping the CatCard every day, take one day a week and get lunch at local business. Also, hopefully students will start to appreciate this beautiful area. It saddens me that this is still a “suitcase college,” when there are so many things to do here. It would also be wonderful if this film would encourage a bigger sense of community in Cullowhee.”

As for administrators, Hartigan added, “I don’t think I spurred any epiphanies in the administration. They know what’s up. Why mess with a proven profit model?”

“Because WCU is such a big part of Cullowhee, it should respect the locals of this area, as well as the land around us,” added Thomas. “Western is in the perfect situation to lend a helping hand to a dying town. It would be wonderful if WCU would try to reach out to the community more so that this conflict is resolved.”

Having learned so much about the university and the local community through filming the documentary, Hartigan and Thomas are now set to graduate in December and plan to open a production company near Asheville. They hope that others have learned as much and are willing to act.

DVDs for “Whee” are being sold at City Lights Book Store, Cat’s Nip Cafe and Red Skull Tattoos. The film is also available online at