VCU filmmakers capture Virginians’ economic hardships

Mark Robinson

Staff Writer

VCU Film students Ben Saunders and Joey Schihl debuted their documentary “The Blank Street Project,” free admission, at the Byrd Theatre Saturday afternoon.

The 40-minute documentary captured the lives of the commonwealth’s forgotten with raw honesty, the result of the duo spent last summer traveling around Virginia to meet people who faced economic struggles during the recession.

The project has received media attention from the Richmond Times Dispatch, CBS 6 and NPR.

More than 300 people came to the Byrd to see the film’s premiere. “I was just hoping for my parents and Ben’s parents,” Schihl said jokingly.

In an interview on WCVE-FM before the outset of their trip, Schihl and Saunders told John Ogle that they see filmmaking as a vehicle for social change. The pair hoped to put a face to poverty and inspire students to take strides to improve the lives of those in need.

Sponsored by the Virginia Interfaith Center, Saunders and Schihl bought a camera they didn’t know how to use, a Volkswagen van named Iris and set off on their journey in June 2010.

From the outset, the pair vowed to carry out the project with one mentality in mind – “No excuses, play like a champ.”

Their two-month trip took the seniors from Richmond to Lynchburg, Newport News and Arlington. They met unemployed workers in Franklin and Danville whose industries were outsourced overseas.

They assisted community outreach programs in Harrisonburg and Wise County, helping to provide food to those who couldn’t afford it.

The film was as much a call for political reform as it was a harsh reminder that the effects of the recession are still felt close to home.

Saunders and Schihl said they intend to take their film to festivals around the country to raise awareness about the plight of Virginia citizens. They’re hopeful that people across the country will duplicate their experiences in their home states.

“Everyone has their own gifts and talents to offer,” Saunders said in a Q-and-A session after the showing. “We’ve learned more from this project than we have in four years at school.”

In a time where social disparities are expanding, “The Blank Street Project” poses a simple question that reminds us all what it means to be human: “Since when does one beating heart have more value than another?”

For more information about The Blank Street Project, visit their website at

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