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Student documentary sheds light on WCU/Cullowhee relationship

News Editor

Published: Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, December 18, 2012 15:12

Student documentary sheds light on WCU/Cullowhee relationship

Chris Ward

From left, "Whee" Producer Leah Thomas and Director Josh Hartigan


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.”

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