‘American Boy’: UConn student showcases film about his great-grandfather 

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Documentary filmmaking is putting pen to paper — where an individual documents a subject and constructs a narrative of memories to imprint upon their audience.

Matthew Luxeder, an eighth-semester (now graduated) digital media and design major, chose to make his documentary, “American Boy,” about his 95-year-old great grandfather, Willis Babak. The 45-minute film was shown in McHugh Hall on Wednesday, May 4, from 8:30-9:30 p.m.

Throughout the film, Luxeder weaved the themes of having gratitude for loved ones and the precious time one has with them with Babak’s stories. An accomplished war veteran, Babak talks about his experiences in the military and the tragedies he experienced when he was younger, including his father dying when Babak was five, and his dog being fed glass. 

Image courtesy of Matthew Luxeder

“When I asked him what he thought about me making this documentary, he hoped that something he said in here meant something to someone,” Luxeder said. “So, I know that through this journey, and making this film, he has influenced me and my perspectives.”

In making the documentary, Luxeder wanted to explore the bonds between him and his great-grandfather. In doing so, he discovered the strength of Babak’s memories, like when he recalled being five years old on a farm. He said that making the documentary encouraged him to go out and make memories of his own because “a large part of [people] is what they remember.”

The genesis of Luxeder’s idea goes back to December 2020, when he was assigned to choose a project for his documentary film production class. However, his instructor Heather Cassano encouraged him to develop it into a final project.

Pre-production began in April 2021. Luxeder traveled across the country to Ohio in May 2021 for initial shooting, which lasted a week, according to him.  

“The original plan was actually to connect every single one of his stories to an object within his house, because I thought the fact that he had been living in that house that you see in the film for 50 years was significant to me,” Luxeder said. “And he was moving out of the house when I went up to film it. He was just moving out of it and my cousin was moving into it.”

All of the photos that are seen in the film were supplied by Luxeder’s family. Although the story focuses on his great-grandfather, footage from Babak’s 50th wedding anniversary is used to connect the viewer emotionally to his family.

Luxeder took a road trip to Ohio to obtain this footage, but the pandemic posed a challenge to filmmaking. As he couldn’t bring a crew to shoot with him, Luxeder had to adopt — according to him — a “run and gun” style. While some footage had subpar framing or composition in compliance with his standards, he soon learned to be content with his work.

COVID-19 didn’t just make filming harder. Luxeder said that he couldn’t take cinematography classes either due to his junior year being online. He had “zero camera experience,” but some of the digital media and design staff taught him how to use the camera equipment.

Despite there being challenges, Luxeder said that this was his most personal film and that through it, he was able to strengthen his connection with his great-grandfather.

“One memory that stood out to me during the trip was in November … he can’t shave himself anymore, because he is old. So, he has his children shaving him,” Luxeder said. “And it was such an intimate moment. And something that sticks with me is having your children use this sharp blade on your skin.”

It was Luxeder’s last semester as an undergraduate college student, but he said that he is grateful for the connections he has made for UConn and to the DMD staff for supporting this year-long endeavor. Learn more about “American Boy” here.

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