Paris Coyne ‘16: Filmmaker with a Cause
When film producer and Santa Clara alumna Blye Faust came to campus to screen her Academy Award-winning film Spotlight, nearly everyone in attendance posed for a once-in-a-lifetime photo op with her golden Oscar.
Not Paris Coyne.
After being asked if she wanted her picture taken with the iconic statue, Paris replied with a cheerful, “No, thank you. I just found out it’s bad luck to hold someone else’s Oscar if you ever hope to win one of your own, so I figure it’s best to err on the side of caution.”
In just a short conversation with this Communication major turned aspiring documentary maker, it is clear why she doesn’t want to rule anything out.
Paris first got the bug to be a filmmaker after hearing stories about her great grandfather who worked as a cinematographer on classic Hollywood films like Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. The stories about his work, as handed down by family members, captivated her young mind with the magical qualities of visual storytelling.
As she approached her last year of high school, though, Paris was unsure of her direction and hungry for some adventure. Rather than jump into her college studies, she took a gap year that gave her the experiences she was looking for, with a side of cultural understanding, personal growth, and the clarity of perspective to know that she belonged behind the camera.
Her adventure started by parlaying her experience as a model in her hometown of Placerville, California and expanding it internationally by spending seven months working with a modeling agency in Mexico City. While she was there, she recalls being intrigued by what was happening on the production side of her commercial shoots for jeans and hair products.
“It fascinated me to watch the crew put together a Ferris wheel-type of contraption that they strapped me in to get the angles they wanted of cascading hair. I realized I was more interested in what they were doing than I was in being the model,” Paris recalled.
Paris’ gap year gave way to her decision to attend Santa Clara. When asked what made her choose Santa Clara over the other schools that accepted her, she said: “The other campuses I visited really seemed to emphasize theory. At Santa Clara, I immediately felt like I would not just be gaining knowledge, but also a practical application of it.”
When reflecting on her four years on campus, Paris knows she was right to trust her instincts. “So many of my friends from high school go to universities where they attend lectures through their laptops. I know my professors and they know me. My digital film professors Jonathan Fung, Michael Whalen, and Stephen Lee have been incredibly influential mentors to me. As their student, they make me feel that I am their project—that they are investing themselves in my future,” Paris explained.
Through their mentorship, the young filmmaker has had the opportunity to create films like the documentary she made about her fellowship with the University’s Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship. The fellowship allowed her the opportunity to spend time in Uganda and Tanzania, working with Banapads and Solar Sister, two social businesses that have given her an intense interest in the rise of female entrepreneurship and transformative gender roles in East Africa.
In addition to the technical lessons she gained in film production, the experience abroad brought her some profound lessons in humility and humanity.
As a person visiting a world away from her native language, Paris had an embarrassing moment of mistakenly believing she was greeting people in their native dialect because of a translation app she was using, only to discover why everyone responded blankly. As someone gifted at personal expression, the need to rely on translators and technology was eye opening.
Fortunately for Paris, she learned quickly that her willingness to try to communicate in the native language and her ability to laugh at her mistakes became an easy icebreaker in any situation.
An even more poignant takeaway for Paris resulted from a conversation with a Ugandan woman who worked with Solar Sister, a social business bringing solar powered lanterns to local villagers. When Paris asked her what made her decide to work with Solar Sister, she replied: “A young girl in my village was reading in bed with her kerosene lantern and her mosquito net caught fire, burning her terribly. I became a Solar Sister because solar lights don’t catch fire.”
For a young woman from the U.S., it was life changing to consider that learning could ever be dangerous.
Paris’ experience in Africa, combined with the social justice lens of many of her classes, leaves her eager to go back… and keep making documentaries to give a voice to people who don’t have a platform to share their message with the world.
To that end, her next move is to apply for another fellowship for this summer, ideally back in East Africa. With that experience and her diploma in hand, she will then be off to Hollywood, where she hopes to gain experience as an agent’s assistant for more hands-on learning and building relationships with people who can help her make films that make a difference.
And perhaps, eventually, have a very personal, jinx-free reason to hold an Oscar.