Student-Produced Documentary Chronicles UArizona Success Taming COVID-19 Through Wastewater

two people collecting wastewater

A scene from the student-produced documentary "Solution Number Two" features Jeffrey Bliznick (right) and Nick Betts-Childress with the UArizona Water and Energy Sustainable Technology Center collecting wastewater outside a student dorm to be tested later for COVID-19 infection.

Courtesy of John Taylor and Carter Hayek

About a minute and a half into the short documentary "Solution Number Two," University of Arizona microbiologist Ian Pepper explains the catchphrase emblazoned across the front of his T-shirt.

"The shirt is interesting in that it says, 'Poop doesn't lie,'" says Pepper, director of the university's Water and Energy Sustainable Technology Center, or WEST Center.

Ian Pepper

Ian Pepper, director of the WEST Center, in an interview from "Solution Number Two."

Courtesy of John Taylor and Carter Hayek

"What I've come to realize through studying and doing wastewater-based epidemiology, it is the absolute truth," he adds. "Poop doesn't lie."

The eight-minute documentary, produced last fall by students John Taylor and Carter Hayek, proves the catchphrase, as it chronicles the university's efforts to track campus spread of coronavirus by testing wastewater from student dorms. The testing effort, led by Pepper, helped stop at least one COVID-19 outbreak during the first week of fall classes, and the success was widely covered in national media.

"Solution Number Two" premiered last week as part of the School of Theatre, Film and Television's annual "What's Up, Docs?" screening event featuring short documentary films produced by Bachelor of Fine Arts and Bachelor of Arts students. Instead of hosting the usual in-person premiere at The Loft Cinema, the school in the College of Fine Arts partnered with the local theater to debut this year's 15 films online. The films, each between six and 10 minutes, are available to stream for free through Feb. 17.

All documentaries in the two-hour stream have some reference to the COVID-19 pandemic, even if only implied by a subject's mask or an interview filmed over Zoom.

"Solution Number Two," the second in the lineup, leaned into the story of the day more than the others.

John Taylor

John Taylor

Courtesy of John Taylor

"Over the summer, I was reading an article about how the university was trying to figure out ways to safely reenter and see if they could have in-person classes," said Taylor, a film minor who graduated in December with a bachelor's degree in neuroscience. "I thought that was really interesting."

Hayek, a senior whose own original idea for a film had fallen through, jumped on the project primarily to shoot footage.

"The reason why I joined this project was not only to educate myself but to also put out a piece that would educate others," he said.

Students spent the 16-week fall semester finding ideas for their films, planning, shooting footage or gathering archival tapes, and then going through "seemingly endless" revisions, said associate professor Jacob Bricca, who mentored the students during their filmmaking.

Carter Hayek

Carter Hayek

Courtesy of Carter Hayek

The pandemic gave students unique challenges to overcome, he added, including restricted access to filming locations. Filmmakers also had to get creative when conducting on-camera interviews, or in some cases, conduct them virtually.

"I think maybe there are a few more of what you might call 'personal' documentaries in this batch," because of pandemic-related limitations, Bricca added.

Other films in the lineup include "Adia," which is a profile of Arizona women's basketball head coach Adia Barnes and how she turned the team into Pac-12 contenders; "Pandemic Pets," which explores Tucson residents gaining comfort and sanity from taking in rescue pets; "Asian and American," which digs deep into what it means to be Asian-American today; and "Butterfly," which profiles two Tucson women who find healing and strength in pole dancing.

Taylor and Hayek overcame many of the pandemic limitations thanks to the cooperation of their subjects. Sarah Prasek, the WEST Center's senior program coordinator, helped set up meetings between the filmmakers and scientists. And Jeffrey Bliznick and Nick Betts-Childress, who collected the wastewater samples, let Taylor and Hayek tag along – safely – to get footage.

"The wastewater-based epidemiology project was remarkable in that it helped reduce exponential spread of the virus and allowed the university to remain open throughout the fall semester," Pepper said. "It allowed students from WEST to participate in a project that potentially saved lives and, as this student film illustrates, became a campuswide learning experience."

"Solution Number Two" closes with Taylor's off-camera voice revealing the film's working title to Pepper, who lets out a chuckle from behind his mask. Taylor then asks: "If I was to call this 'Solution Number Two,' what do you think would have been solution No. 1?"

Pepper replies with a list of tasks that, in the last year, public health experts have made into another catchphrase.

"Wear a mask, stay six feet apart, avoid large gatherings, wash your hands," Pepper says. "And if you do that, I truly think you'll be fine."

All 15 "What's Up, Docs?" films can be streamed on YouTube through Feb. 17.

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