While working as a substitute high school teacher, Leah Bell noticed that more and more of her students were being cared for by their grandparents.
Later, her 77-year-old maternal grandmother began caring for four of Bell's young cousins, and Bell knew she had a story to tell.
Earlier this year, the University of North Texas master's student and aspiring film editor created "…And Then There Were Four," a 20-minute documentary following Bell's grandmother, Laura Ann Gamble of Kerrville, through her days of raising four of her grandsons, who were 4, 5, 6 and 7 when the documentary was filmed.
"…And Then There Were Four" recently won first place in the documentary category of NextFrame, an international competition and touring festival for student-produced films sponsored by the University Film and Video Association. Bell, from Houston, was the only finalist and winner from a Texas college or university in this year's festival.
The winning films, selected by a jury of noted film and video producers, teachers and curators, are selected in August, then screened at university campuses, museums, media arts centers and other venues, at the U.S. and abroad, for one year.
Bell's film was scheduled for screenings this fall at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, Ithaca College in New York and the Korea Broadcasting Institute in Seoul. It will be shown early next year at the University of Idaho and the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.
In addition, Bell's film and all other first-prize winners will be shown at the Kodak Emerging Filmmakers Showcase at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
Bell says her biggest challenge in creating "…And Then There Were Four" was "making sure it was acceptable to my own family, and that everyone agreed with the material covered."
Bell says the boys' father, who is her uncle, and the boys' mother were unable to care for them for several reasons, and the boys were in foster homes before Gamble began caring for them in August 2003.
"They have trouble with authority and haven't fully learned to respect each other, but over time, they've grown so much more being with their grandmother than they did with their parents. One boy who had to repeat kindergarten twice is now on the honor roll at school," Bell says.
Most of Bell's documentary is footage of Gamble in her day-to-day life with her grandsons, from rising at 5 a.m. to prepare breakfast to staying up until 1 a.m. to do housework. Bell also includes interviews with Gamble; the boys' father; an aunt and uncle who live in Kerrville and regularly help Gamble with the boys; the boys' maternal grandparents, who also live nearby but can't often because of chronic illness; and the boys themselves.
"I thought it was powerful for the boys to share their own story," she says.
"…And Then There Were Four" is Bell's second 20-minute film. She previously created one about UNT's Child Development Laboratory and is currently filming her third documentary, about a Dallas artist and UNT alumnus whose sculpture and digital media communicates his personal struggle with dyslexia.
Her future film projects will focus on the rising number of minority women testing positive for HIV and the increasing percentage of children with dyslexia, autism and other related health issues.
"I want my films to educate people and make a difference," she says. "My film about my grandmother may result in more support groups being formed for grandparents who raise grandchildren."
A 1998 graduate of Westbury High School in Houston, Bell received two undergraduate degrees in radio-television-film and art from UNT in August 2003. She entered the Department of Radio, Television and Film's master of fine arts program, which emphasizes documentary production, in January 2004.
Bell says she became interested in documentary films after seeing "Harlan County, U.S.A." The 1976 film documents the coal miners' strike against the Brookside Mine of the Eastover Mining Company in Harlan County, Ky., in June 1973.
"When I saw ‘Harlan County,' I was intrigued that I could be a witness to important issues in a small community so far away," she says.
After receiving her master's degree in December, she plans to work in the post-production field of cinema and television. She may also do an update to "…And Then There Were Four."
"Making this film has helped me become not only a better director, but also a better editor. To me, the story is created in the editing," she says.