Film prof’s doc about student’s death honored at film festivals

Film prof’s doc about student’s death honored at film festivals

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Photo from movie, One Mother's Fire: The Gail Minger Story

Diana Nicolae’s latest documentary opens with glowing red digital lights on a clock – it’s 6:12 a.m. – and a phone beside the clock flashing with an incoming call. Superimposed are images of firefighters cutting their way through smoke, and Gail Minger describing how she got the call that would change her life forever.

The phone call, every parent’s worst nightmare, informed Minger and her husband that their son Michael, a student at Murray State University in Kentucky, has died in a dormitory fire. What follows is her long and tortuous effort to uncover the truth of what happened, and her belief that the authorities in charge, the people who should have protected her son, were almost as culpable as the person who set the blaze.

The film, One Mother's Fire: The Gail Minger Story, premiered Sept. 15 at the Louisville International Film Festival, just hours from where the 1998 fire took place. In addition to Michael Minger dying, five other students were injured in the blaze but no one was ever convicted.

“There was an entire web of lies (surrounding what took place),” said Nicolae, an associate professor in the Department of Radio, Television & Film within the College of Communication & Creative Arts. “She made it her mission to find out what happened.”

What Minger uncovered was a variety of safety issues with the high-rise dormitory that had gone unaddressed for years, and a previously set fire that had been reported as an accident.  Adding to the tragedy was that Minger feared for her son’s safety before the fire and did not want him to live in the dormitory. Though he was a gifted musician and an aspiring broadcast journalist, Michael suffered from organizational and spatial disabilities.

Following her son’s death, Minger became a leading activist for campus safety who successfully campaigned for laws to better protect students living in college dormitories.  There are now fire safety laws in seven states, including Kentucky, as a result of her work.

“I’d previously worked with Gail on campus fire safety videos with my students and that’s how I learned about her story,” said Nicolae, who shot more than 20 hours of footage in four states and the District of Columbia in making her 25-minute film.

Prof. Diana NicolaeNicolae, who has a son of her own, said she was torn by the agony Gail Minger still feels, nearly 20 years after losing her son, and felt compelled to help tell her story.

“For me as a mother it was impossible to imagine what it means to lose a child,” Nicolae said. “But what fascinated me was how she turned this horrible tragedy into a campaign for the nation.”

Rowan will hold a screening of the film Oct. 25 as part of the "Women in the Arts Festival,” which is sponsored by the Office of Social Justice, Inclusion and Conflict Resolution.      

Nicolae is in discussion with PBS stations to air the film and hopes to find a broad audience. In addition to the Louisville premiere, the film will screen at the Atlantic City Cinefest this month as well as at festivals in the United Kingdom, Spain, and Italy. Nicolae has been awarded for the film by the University Film and Video Awards Media Festival in Los Angeles this summer and by Atlanta Docufest.

In addition to One Mother's Fire: The Gail Minger Story, Nicolae has created a series of short documentaries (about five minutes each) addressing campus security issues including sexual assault, trauma response and cultural communication. That project was produced in collaboration with the Clery Center, a national nonprofit dedicated to helping colleges and universities meet the standards of the Jeanne Clery Act, a law created to make campuses safer, and Allied Universal, the largest provider of campus security in the U.S. It was distributed to more than 500 campuses nationwide as part of September’s campus security month.