By David Roston
Let me start by stating that I haven’t quite figured it all out—and I don’t think I ever will. Since graduating from the University of Michigan, I have directed international documentaries, organized collaborative art events, conducted radio interviews, and joined numerous bands. While I enjoy oscillating between various forms of expression, I steadfastly seek to inform and educate audiences about a variety of social issues.
Years ago, when I was an LSWA student, my main interests were filmmaking, puppetry, and poetry. My first introductory film class demonstrated the mechanics of cinema’s endless ability to teach and inspire viewers. I instantly became hooked on documentary filmmaking after taking that class and decided to major in Screen Arts and Cultures. During my sophomore year, I fell in love with FestiFools, and observed how spectacular public puppetry can increase social connectedness and strengthen communities. I have fond memories of curating an experimental film and shadow puppet exhibition with Mark Tucker for the first annual FoolMoon. Carol Tell’s Introduction to Poetry and Children’s Literature classes further fueled my artistic curiosities, and I was encouraged to participate in various spoken-word poetry contests as an LSWA student.
Following my undergraduate studies, I went on to teach English in southern Spain and produce short films in Los Angeles. A close friend and I eventually co-founded an art space in Downtown Los Angeles, but I felt disillusioned after a few years. I knew that my purpose was greater than managing a warehouse for film and photo shoots. I had also been documenting public health interventions for a number of years, from clean water projects and youth literacy organizations to violence prevention efforts and healthy food access initiatives. However, I hadn’t quite noticed then that I could have a more substantive role in using my skills to influence change. I realized that I could synthesize my interests in media and the arts within the field of Public Health to educate and create awareness about complex global health problems.
When I moved to New Orleans to pursue a Masters in Public Health from Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, I immediately clicked with an HIV specialist who founded a community radio station, 102.3 FM WHIV. The programming focuses on human rights, social justice, and honoring marginalized voices that are commonly left out of public discourse. For the past three years I have been hosting a weekly public health talk show, which includes topics like homelessness, mental health, STI prevention, nutrition, blight, and so much more.
Additionally, I am currently working on several documentary shorts about Tulane University’s international research, producing several short films to destigmatize HIV, and developing a video making curriculum for Tulane University Public Health students. Last year, I helped organize the first Public Health Film Festival of New Orleans, showcasing films ranging from gun violence to reproductive rights, Ebola to trauma and beyond. Another important element of the festival is creating a platform for moderated panels where cinematographers and activists in the field help unpack the content of each film in real time.
Last year I was fortunate to return to Alice Lloyd Hall to share one of my films with a group of LSWA students. The documentary, Unlock the Stage, tells the story of my friend Nasko who stumbled upon an abandoned theater in his grandparents’ rural Bulgarian village. He and a group of dedicated theatre makers, actors, musicians, and other volunteers traveled across the world to rejuvenate this forgotten stage space in an attempt to reignite this fading town. The project emphasizes the potential in cultivating community and lifting the human spirit through tradition, the arts, and culture.
Nowadays, my boundless passion for puppets and music remains intact. I am the bassist and singer of a “puppet rock” ensemble, Taxidermy Time Machine. We have about five original songs and a brigade of fellow puppeteers. New Orleans’ beauty is found in vivid and kinetic public expression and the feasibility to find folks who share the same zest for crystallizing imaginative ideas.
Looking back, the LSWA program helped foster my foundation as a professional artist and public health advocate. I was encouraged to keep an open mind, try new things, and push myself to work incredibly hard. These are values that fuel my unconventional thinking in all of my creative pursuits today, from documentary filmmaking and community radio to rock n’ roll puppetry.
All photos courtesy of David Roston.