LAS CRUCES, NM (KTSM) – Thirteen student filmmakers from New Mexico State University will head to the Gila National Forest July 18 with plans to make six short documentary films about the Gila Wilderness.

The 12-day trip is the first of a two-part course in environmental filmmaking envisioned by Ilana Lapid, associate professor in NMSU’s Creative Media Institute and her team.

Last summer, I led my first backpacking trip, to Jordan Hot Springs. It was really a transformational journey. It’s a place of exceptional beauty and connecting to wilderness was very healing for me and I came out of that experience with this strong desire to bring my film students to the Gila so that they could have a similar experience, and tell stories of conservation.

Ilana Lapid, associate professor, NMSU Creative Media Institute

Thanks to a grant from the U.S. Forest Service, support from American Rivers, the College of Arts and Sciences, NMSU’s Vice President for Research and the Creative Media Institute, the Gila Film School will spend 12 days in the Gila National Forest interviewing forest firefighters, wildlife biologists, US Forest Service wranglers, trail users, archeologists, community leaders and elders and non-profit organizers to make their documentaries.

Through a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, the documentary films will be used as part of the 100-year celebration of the Gila Wilderness, the world’s first designated Wilderness Area. The films and teaching materials also will be sent to 4th grade classes across New Mexico.

In preparation for the film school, Kenny Coppedge, NMSU’s outdoor recreation program manager, held three clinics to teach the film students the basics of backpacking in the wilderness. 

Each team will have satellite messenger devices so that when they’re in areas without mobile phone reception, they can communicate with professors. 

Jackson Markman, Nidia Jimenez and Samantha Jaso’s short film is focused on the community’s fight to protect the Gila River as Wild and Scenic. They are documenting a “multi-generational conservation effort and political movement in 15 minutes, all the while telling an interesting and engaging story,” Markman said. “I’ll be filming youth activists and the previous generation of conservation leaders. It’s all about the fight to designate the Gila River as Wild and Scenic.”

The film by Gayla Lacy (from Silver City) and Noah Montes will highlight the history of the protection of the Gila Cliff Dwellings, including the story of Dawson “Doc” Campbell and his family.

“We’re retelling the history of the Gila through the lens of really passionate locals who are making their mark right now,” Montes said. 

Lexi Minton and Cherish Peña will focus on the transformational experience of the wilderness for hikers and backpackers. Patricia Soto and Angel Salgado will highlight the Gila Trout and restoration efforts in recently burned areas. 

Ezekiel Soliz and Ingrid Leyva’s short film is about the Indigenous history of the Gila and Native relationships with the land.

“It’s an important topic, said Soliz, who is from Silver City. “It’s such a sensitive conversation…I wanted to take on that topic and really challenge myself and dig deeper because I am from the Gila. I consider the Gila my home.”

Bardo Sanchez and Julia De La O’s film will focus on wildland firefighting in the Gila. 

“It’s quite challenging capturing the history and the changing methods and all of the different contributing factors of growing wildfires,” said Sanchez. “When we first started discussing the project, the Black Fire had just begun. There are a lot of stories to tell with wildland firefighting.”

Kristi Drexler, who has a doctorate from NMSU, teamed up with Lapid to create the Gila Film School program. Drexler is providing guest lectures on conservation, coordinating program logistics, and “helping to strategize how to use the student films for educational, conservation, and social impact,” Drexler said. 

Drexler will be advising student filmmakers along with Lapid and CMI alumnus Julian Alexander. Alexander is a lecturer teaching filmmaking and pursuing a doctorate at the University of East London.

“I learned how to be a filmmaker and a teacher here at NMSU so it’s a very special place to me,” Alexander said. “Mentoring CMI students and helping and supporting them through this opportunity in the Gila Film School is really exciting. We’re going to be visiting each filmmaking team so that all three of us at some point will be in the vicinity of each team. I had a similar experience in Belize (co-taught by Lapid and Drexler) and it was very transformative, so to be able to support students in the same way here is really special.”

CMI alumni Dominic Vincent and Araceli Hernandez are creating a behind-the-scenes documentary, following the teams as they shoot their films. CMI alum Kyle Ivy is the program coordinator of the Gila Film School while Simon Sotelo of Silver City is a field producer.

“I think the project that Ilana and her team are leading with this group of students is a wonderful ‘Creative Campus’ endeavor because this experience demonstrates the power of media and how creative content creation lies at the intersection of so many different areas,” said Amy Lanasa, CMI professor and department head. “I’m so proud of everything Ilana and Kristi have accomplished to get to this point, and so excited for the journey that these lucky 13 students are going to get to take. I am confident that this work will have a greater impact than any of us can imagine.”

The Gila Film School is a proof-of-concept project to springboard a broader vision that Lapid and Drexler have for the proposed Southern New Mexico Environmental Media Center. They have submitted a grant proposal that would fund its first two years at NMSU.

The SoNM EMC would create an interdisciplinary space for collaborations between scientists and researchers working on climate and sustainability with visual storytellers who can amplify the impact of their work across various media platforms. 

“The vision for the Southern New Mexico Environmental Media Center is to train the next generation of diverse environmental content creators to use visual storytelling for conservation, climate resilience and social impact,” Lapid said.

“Climate change is a concern that they will inherit. Stories and narratives in media can be a powerful way to change minds and shift behaviors. And if these students have the ability to create impactful media, they can really shape the future reality of their generation.”

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