TRANSFORMING HARD SUBJECTS INTO COMPELLING FILMS
After 35 years at USD, Professor of Communication Studies Roger Pace has seen potential in unsure first-year students and watched them become confident seniors. He’s shared his love of independent film with them in his Intersession Sundance Film Festival class in Park City, Utah, and mentored them in Honors Program courses.
Jared Ruga ’11 (BA) is one student who flourished. A triple major — international business, communication studies and philosophy — he was concurrently station manager for USDtv, a Public Affairs intern and was in the Honors Program, which Pace can attest, “is really like a fourth major.”
Ruga handled it all and handled it well. He credits his professors — Pace, Eric Pierson, Leeva Chung, Kristin Moran and Jonathan Bowman, to name a few — for their impact on his undergraduate experience.
“I had a sense that every professor was deeply invested in me,” Ruga says. “I took advantage of faculty office hours and felt I could talk to them about anything. Those great scholarly relationships turned into great personal relationships.”
Pace wrote a letter of recommendation when Ruga applied to graduate programs at the University of Utah. Asked how Ruga stacks up among other students he’s taught, Pace’s response was quick: “The top one percent, for sure. Jared is very bright, obviously, but he doesn’t rest on it. He’s very organized, very ambitious and incredibly committed to improving the world.”
Ruga’s post-education career — at age 31, he’s founder and CEO of Salt Lake City-based Vavani Productions — is proof of that commitment. His movies aren’t mainstream superhero fare; instead, they tell true stories of everyday heroics.
His first film, the documentary Quiet Heroes, takes a candid look at HIV/AIDS and the ways the disease provoked societal fear and anxiety in the ’80s and ’90s. In Utah, those reactions were particularly heightened, often by those of the Mormon faith.
The film spotlights the courageous work of Dr. Kristen Ries, an infectious disease specialist, and the patients she treated upon arriving in Salt Lake City in June 1981. Due to the disease’s stigma, Ries and her partner, physician assistant Maggie Snyder, became the only medical professionals in Utah to treat the growing population of HIV/AIDS sufferers.
Quiet Heroes launched Ruga’s film career. Fewer than three percent of the 1,700 documentaries submitted were chosen to be shown at Sundance in 2018, and Ruga’s film was one of them. The film was subsequently released on multiple platforms and award nominations came from GLAAD and the Daytime Emmy Awards. The project ultimately won the latter in the Outstanding Special Class Special category. Ruga was humble going into the ceremony, but was truly happy with the result.
“When we won, I stood up, shouted an expletive, and told myself, ‘Get to the stage and say things that will make them like you,’” Ruga says.
Ruga brought Quiet Heroes to USD for a screening in Spring 2019 that was attended by Pace, other faculty members and students. “It really felt like coming home,” he says. “I had so many formative moments at USD and learned so much. The people I worked with enriched my experience and made sure I developed while also serving USD’s mission.”
Ruga’s film received a rave review from Pace. “It’s a film with a good heart and poignantly portrays the courage of those who were willing to reach out, including the nurses at the Catholic Sisters of the Holy Cross Hospital. It’s very good filmmaking.”
Ruga’s second project, No Crime in Sin, was released in June 2019. The Utah-based documentary tells the story of siblings who were sexually abused by their father, an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The victims seek an explanation of why the church never intervened to help them or other possible victims, and want to know why he wasn’t punished by the law. In the film, the family members confront their father in a quest for answers that ultimately proves cathartic.
Ruga has found time to return to campus since graduation. In the 2019-20 academic year, he’ll be teaching a weeklong practical workshop in film production, which will include five phases of creating and marketing independent films: development, pre-production, physical production, post-production and distribution.
“Jared approached us about doing the class,” Pace says. “We have nothing like that. It’s very generous of him to do it.”
Teaching at the alma mater that he cherishes — just before Pace’s Sundance students left for Park City in January 2019 — takes him full circle. Now he’s the mentor, not the mentee.
“I’m excited to give back this way. It’s fun to be on the other side.” — Ryan T. Blystone