Jeff Van Hanken '88

Telling Stories That Need to Be Told
March 31, 2002

 

When Jeff Van Hanken '88 decided to enter the film industry, he wanted to "develop new stories about people working to effect positive change." He established Healthy Boy Productions "to create a roving film studio that seeks out new stories from overlooked communities."

Van Hanken: a Healthy perspective

Van Hanken: a Healthy perspective

At Duke, the aspiring writer edited a now-defunct, liberal-leaning campus newspaper, The Missing Link. According to Van Hanken, the appeal of the publication lay in the fact that "it was a small paper with a positive purpose, to bridge the gap between campus and non-campus communities."

His outlook was also shaped by Professor Rick Roderick, formerly of Duke's philosophy department. "What he was teaching about the way we should approach the world really spoke to me."

After earning his degree with a major in comparative literature, he began his career as a journalist at The Shreveport Journal, a "small Southern newspaper looking for a writer with a liberal philosophy." This opportunity boded well for Von Hanken, who says he committed himself to "spend [his] life professionally in the civil-rights movement."

Van Hanken became a part of the paper's coverage of David Duke, former national director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, who was seeking a U.S. Senate seat in Louisiana. Van Hanken and his colleagues vigorously covered the campaign and the candidate's checkered past.

The paper's work earned widespread recognition and a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize by the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism. David Duke went on to receive 60 percent of the white vote, but failed to win the seat.

This near-election "was a very disheartening experience," says Van Hanken. "It's very discouraging to see David Duke going on at great length about his new approach and new policies. You feel very powerless at that point."

Van Hanken soon resigned from the paper, traveling eight months around the world. When he returned, he says, he was "discouraged by print journalism and felt that people just weren't reading newspapers." He decided to enroll in film school. After completing courses at the University of Texas at Austin, Van Hanken relocated to Los Angeles. His first jobs included working for a company producing 'World's-Most-Dangerous-Animals' type shows."

Rejecting commercial Hollywood, he established Healthy Boy Productions. Its first project was Bella! Bella! Bella! A short, narrative film focusing on a family living on the Texas-Mexico border, it was inspired by a book of poetry that Van Hanken found while moving into his home. That venture was soon followed by The HOLA Film Project, five shorts written by and featuring at-risk young men from L.A.'s Rampart district, an area known for high crime and juvenile gang activity.

The five young men presenting their stories were participants in HOLA, the Heart of Los Angeles Youth Program, a nonprofit organization that provides a home away from home to area youth. Van Hanken had participated in a short-story workshop there. Thinking that a screenwriting workshop would be equally exciting, he solicited the help of community members and the talent of the boys. The HOLA Film Project was born.

Van Hanken directed and produced the film. The subjects themselves ranged from a young man fighting to seek a better life for himself and to take the SAT in The Test, to a tale of love and loss in Diego and Muriel. The film received praise from such groups as the Los Angeles International Latino Film Festival; it was featured on the long-running PBS series California's Gold.

The film "accomplished something really remarkable," he says. "Beyond whatever quality we finally achieve within the films themselves, the relationships formed between crewpersons and kids--between races, classes, even nations; the new ideas planted in young minds; the thoughts and sense of accomplishment and empowerment that underscored ever facet of the project will, I hope, have long-lasting and far-reaching effects."

Van Hanken moved to Tulsa to start a family, which now includes daughter Lucia Ann. He writes a column for a magazine in Tulsa, but he plans for his production company to continue dealing with the stories within diverse communities from Belfast, Ireland, to Greenwich, Connecticut.

He is in pre-production on The Boley Film Project, which focuses on a community in Oklahoma that has been almost entirely black for more than a century. "I love stories, and I was attracted because these were stories I knew had not yet been told. And if they had been told, they hadn't been told in this way."

Throughout his career, he says he has tried to follow the philosophy that individuals "should be very aggressive--though not pigheaded--about the work they do. Do not worry about trends. Follow your own instincts, and pursue them with passion."