Some people may be surprised to learn the University of Arizona is home to an award-winning documentary team. Admittedly, Landmark Stories is a small team – simply two producers and a sound specialist – but they tell big stories.
Their vision is to produce cinematic, character-driven short and long-form documentaries that bring the world closer together and closer to science.
“We have the unique opportunity to showcase the real impact that scientists and their research have in Arizona and beyond,” said Sandra Westdahl, lead producer for Landmark Stories.
The documentary team is a program of the Arizona Experiment Station’s Communications and Cyber Technology lab (CCT). Established through the Hatch Act, the state’s Experiment Station system is administered by the University of Arizona and provides services and infrastructure to foster and support research, instruction, and educational outreach that serve Arizona and beyond.
“A lot of what we do is community building, both at the University of Arizona and the community we live in,” said Mitch Riley, senior producer for Landmark Stories. "The great thing about being at a land-grant university is our focus here is not just the pursuit of knowledge or science, but it's about really having an impact beyond our walls. More specifically, in the communities we share this land with."
Both Westdahl and Riley came to Landmark Stories from Arizona Public Media, bringing with them more than their fair share of awards – including numerous regional Emmys and Edward R. Murrow Awards – but also a commitment to journalistic storytelling and cinematic filmmaking.
Westdahl is a cinematographer, editor and senior producer for the team. She also leads the creative vision for Landmark Stories and is the driving force behind what they are today.
“Something that sets Landmark Stories apart from traditional science reporting is our focus on the scientists and their personal journeys,” Westdahl said. “We join them in the field, in the labs, and in their homes. We go behind the science to reveal the real people who are tackling some of the biggest challenges we face.”
“A lot of times science gets boiled down to the research itself without pulling back the curtain to see the people pursuing this knowledge,” said Riley, who joined the team this summer and served as co-producer and lead editor on the film. “It’s important that we tell these stories in this visual format, through documentary filmmaking, because it allows the viewer to truly see the journey to discovery and the real diversity of people in the scientific community.”
Poop Doesn't Lie
As many on campus pivoted and expanded their roles in the COVID-19 pandemic, the same was true for Landmark Stories, who in addition to documentary storytelling also provided the University with video support services and helped produce the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ virtual commencement ceremonies.
They are now refocused on sharing untold stories about the scientists behind the latest breakthroughs and the communities they serve. Their latest film charts the rise of wastewater-based epidemiology, from the University’s main campus to a global public health tool. The film, “Poop Doesn’t Lie,” follows Ian Pepper – affectionately referred to as Dr. Pepper – and wastewater testing’s role in the fight against COVID-19.
When COVID-19 cases first began to appear in North America, Pepper had a big idea – what if he could use wastewater to track the spread of the virus in communities across the United States?
An environmental microbiologist in UArizona’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Pepper had used wastewater to detect viruses in the environment for 25 years. As the number of COVID-19 cases quickly rose in cities across the country, he soon realized his research could fill an important gap in public health officials’ data—the prevalence of potential asymptomatic cases in any given community.
“Poop doesn’t lie,” Pepper said. If someone is sick, symptoms or not, they shed the virus in their waste, he explained.
Testing a community’s wastewater could provide a clearer picture of the true spread of the virus, whether cases were increasing or decreasing, and help public health officials better direct all important resources.
Within months, Pepper and his research team at UArizona’s Water & Sustainable Technology Center were supporting COVID-19 wastewater testing in nearly 20 cities across North America—including Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle.
The film picks up with Pepper and his team in the fall of 2020, shortly after they helped the University stop an outbreak on campus before it happened, and follows his research to Yuma, Arizona.
Nicknamed “America’s salad bowl,” Yuma is the number one producer of the nation’s winter-time leafy greens – such as romaine lettuce, spinach, and kale. Hoping to avoid the outbreaks that plagued the meatpacking industry, growers and the Yuma community banded together to bring Pepper’s research to their county. Using wastewater epidemiology as a first-alert system, the county was able to stay ahead of the curve and keep produce rolling out of the valley to consumers across the country.
Today, following Pepper’s lead, more than 250 universities and 64 countries have established their own wastewater monitoring programs.
“I felt like it was an important story to tell. It’s not just about wastewater-based epidemiology, it’s about the community. It’s about the people that Ian helped, through his research and his mentorship,” said John Casamasa, who co-produced the film and now works as a videographer for Arizona Arts.
“We’re really excited about this film because it showcases University of Arizona scientists, their important work, and the positive impact they have on the broader community. They really are making our world a better place,” said Westdahl, who supervised and helped film the project. “This is just one of many documentaries we’ve been working on, we have a number of future projects that we can’t wait to share.”
Landmark Stories’ forthcoming projects include a long-form documentary on groundwater contamination on Tucson’s southside and one UArizona researcher’s efforts to document the community’s voices in the fight for environmental justice, as well as a short feature on wildlife conservation efforts in the borderlands.