Topic: College of Fine Arts

April 21, 2016

Jennifer Blackmer

With help from the Tribeca Film Institute-Sloan Filmmaker Fund, Jennifer Blackmer, an associate theater professor and Ball State's associate provost for entrepreneurial learning, is exploring making her screenplay, "Human Terrain," into a film.

It’s not that Jennifer Blackmer doesn’t appreciate a $75,000 filmmaking grant awarded this month for her story about a controversial military science program.

Nor does she overlook that the same prize helped deliver movies such as recent Oscar winner “The Imitation Game.”

But just as important to the accomplished playwright is that the Tribeca Film Institute-Sloan Filmmaker Fund award is opening doors — to meetings this week with potential backers and other industry professionals who could soon start transforming “Human Terrain” from a screenplay that’s been under development for three years into a film.

“They are setting up meetings for us with people in the industry that we wouldn’t normally have access to,” said Blackmer, an associate theater professor and Ball State’s associate provost for entrepreneurial learning. “Essentially, when they give you this grant, they give you money, but just as important as the money is their support and their endorsement.”

Blackmer has been in New York this week for the institute-affiliated Tribeca Film Festival as a result of the grant that’s put funding and other resources behind her first screenplay, which came out of a play she wrote and debuted in 2014.

A work of fiction wrapped in truth

“Human Terrain” takes place against the backdrop of an actual military initiative, the Human Terrain System, which for several years embedded anthropologists and other social scientists with U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq to provide a better understanding of local populations and improve counterinsurgency strategies.

“This is why we do theater, this is why we watch movies, because we're interested in the human struggle and the human condition.”

Jennifer Blackmer
associate professor of theater and associate provost of entrepreneurial learning

The program ended in 2014 amid claims that it was creating ethical conflicts for social scientists, amid other criticisms.

Blackmer’s work imagines the effects of such a quagmire, with a story about an anthropologist in the program who finds herself at odds with the U.S. government after developing a deep bond with an Iraqi woman.

“It is a personal story because it has to be,” said Blackmer, who has written six full-length plays and won the 2015 PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theatre Award for Emerging American Playwright. “This is why we do theater, this is why we watch movies, because we’re interested in the human struggle and the human condition.”

Ball State students were a sounding board

Blackmer got the idea for the play eight years ago while reading a short magazine story about the military program. She began writing the story the following year and credits her Ball State theater students at the time with helping her during the early phases of script development.

“When I wrote the first draft, I brought it in and just asked some of my students to come in and do a reading for me,” she said. “And that is such a huge thing for playwrights, being able to hear things read aloud.”

The play has been staged three times and is poised to open in June at Chicago’s Broken Nose Theatre, which counts Ball State alumna Elise Spoerlein, BS ’11, as its associate artistic director.

ETA to a movie? Hazy but hopeful

For the screenplay, Blackmer is working with director Parisa Barani, who approached Blackmer about turning “Human Terrain” into a film after a reading of the play in Los Angeles.

Barani took to Facebook shortly after the “Human Terrain” grant was announced and was effusive about her partnership with Blackmer.

“I am so grateful, and I can’t wait to see such an extraordinary script come to life. Jennifer, thank you for believing in us.”

The timing for getting a film made is unclear, but Blackmer said she and Barani are hopeful.

“If we find somebody (this) week who is willing to finance the film, then you never know, we could jump into production right way.”