Twinsburg Township -- A film that spans generations through first-hand accounts of the hardscrabble history of the Heights community has inspired some residents to push for unity in the greater Twinsburg area.
"Voices of the Hill," a one-hour, 13-minute documentary assembled by 13 Twinsburg High School students, four college mentors and one very dedicated township resident, features the story of the 7-street-by-3-street Heights neighborhood through the eyes of elders -- those who literally built the first homes there with their bare hands.
"It started out as an idea that would encompass oral history / we realized it would also document, for posterity, the fight and tenacity of Heights residents and their bare-handed, blue-collar motivation to establish a home here," said Carla Carter, a Twinsburg Township resident and director of programming for Focused Arts Media Education, producer of the film.
The film is making its rounds on the festival circuit before it will be released publicly, Carter said July 25, and was most recently sent to the Chagrin Documentary Film Festival. It premiered June 23 at the Twinsburg Hilton Garden Inn, drawing about 200 to the red carpet celebration.
Making the film took more than a year and brought together generations, as students researched the history of the Heights, developed questions for the elders and interviewed the longtime residents for the project, Carter said.
Former Heights resident and former Twinsburg Township Trustee Hubert Brandon, 63, whose family has been in the community since the 1940s, said the film has been a "catalyst for change" -- inspiring current and former township residents to push for unity in the Heights, township and city.
"We'd like to retain and revitalize the area and make sure that the history of the Heights is not lost," Brandon said. "The film accomplishes that. But we also want to build bridges to Twinsburg, Twinsburg Township and within the business community."
Brandon said it is important to have Heights representation on the Board of Trustees for Twinsburg Township, as well as preserve the area where the Western Reserve Outreach Center once stood -- or as Heights residents might have called it, the Twinsburg Township Heights Community Center.
"I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to that place," Brandon said. "I don't know what direction my own life would have turned without it. We're looking at recapturing that for generations to come.
"I can tell you that this small, 7-street-by-3-street community has produced doctors, lawyers, professional athletes and professors / and that the myths about this community being crime-ridden are absolutely not true."
During production, college mentors, with history and education backgrounds, taught the student filmmakers how to accurately conduct research and properly attribute information.
"Some students came in the first day and were very shy," Carter said. "But they grew into their roles. Like anything else, practice and preparation build confidence, and that confidence later showed in their interviewing and lines of questioning."
The process also offered the young filmmakers experience with audio and video equipment; oral history techniques; and how to respectfully engage with those older than them.
"They learned how to approach an elder, how not to use their first name but to address them with 'Mr.' or 'Ms.' to show respect," Carter said. "The elders were very impressed with the students' professionalism."
Carter said the dialogue that followed the film's June 23 red carpet premiere was vital.
"It went better than I could have planned," Carter said. "The most important part -- besides teaching the kids -- was the panel discussion at the end [of the premiere]. People came together, as long-lost friends gathered with tears, handshakes and hugs / reuniting for the first time in many years. It was my favorite part of the whole night as we asked ourselves, 'What's next in terms of legacy?'
"The response wasn't just 'Oh this is great, I loved it,' / but also how people can continue to help their neighborhood grow and preserve it for generations to come.
"The story of the Heights is unique but it's also relatable to other towns in America," Carter continued. "The people who lived there made something of that marshy land. They had to fight for basic necessities, as there were no roads, no street lights and no running water until 1973. It's amazing how much they did fight and banded together to make something from nothing / something great."
Arlycia Smith, 15, going into her sophomore year at Twinsburg High School, served as an interviewer and director on the project.
"I actually really enjoyed the process, I didn't think I was going to like it," Smith said. "I'm not really good with technology, besides phones. But I really enjoyed the experience."
Smith said an elder on the film tells the story of Ku Klux Klan members gathering at the bottom of "The Hill," waiting to intimidate Heights residents.
"That's probably the story that stuck with me most," Smith said.
Now "The Hill" has its own voice, thanks to Carter and her team.
"The film has spurred a tremendous interest amongst township residents -- and from former township Heights residents now living elsewhere," Brandon said. "We all want to help make Twinsburg Township Heights a shining light to show what can be done when people work together for a common goal."