Filmmaker Andrew Jenks on his documentary series that is transforming MTV
By Angela Barbuti
Andrew Jenks is changing the world. In a recent episode of his MTV documentary series World of Jenks, he paraphrases a famous quote when he says, “Never believe a small group of people can’t change the world, because that’s the only people that ever have.” For one year, Jenks, 27, travels with three young adults who are facing incredible challenges—and documents it all on film. In order to truly empathize with them, he lives with each person, accompanying them on their daily routines. He travels to San Francisco to meet Kaylin, who has already had two bouts with cancer at the age of 24. Another stop is upstate New York to find Chad, 21, who is living with autism. A visit is also made to Oakland, where Jenks cohabits with D-Real, also 21, who is grappling with the violence that is prevalent in his city. Jenks begins the journey with each of the three with just a video camera and an open heart, and ends the season having made three lifelong friendships. Since Jenks has his friend do the filming, we actually see him on camera interacting with his subjects—sharing laughter and tears, and learning from their hardships. In March, just before his show started its second season on MTV, he released a memoir entitled Andrew Jenks: My Adventures As a Young Filmmaker. So what does this Chelsea resident miss most when he’s on the road? “Well, you can’t beat a Mamoun’s falafel. I definitely miss Ray’s Pizza. And I always miss¬—not too sound too cheesy—my friends and family,” he admits.
This show came about because MTV reached out to you, right?
Yes. At first I was hesitant because I wasn’t sure if I would fit at MTV in terms of, I don’t go tanning and I’m not pregnant. The fact that they gave me this opportunity to tell stories that would normally never get exposure on television has made me endlessly grateful to the folks over there.
Your dad works for the United Nations, so you moved around a lot as a kid. That’s how you began your career behind the camera.
When I was young, we lived in Nepal and Belgium. I think what got me into filming was we’d always be in these countries where no one spoke English, so my best friend, by default, became this big, bulky VHS camera. I would literally just sit there for 45 minutes filming a tree in the backyard and narrating what the tree was like. It was a weird obsession. And because my dad worked for the UN and my mom’s a nurse practitioner in a very poor area, when we sat down to the dinner table, a lot of times the conversation would be my dad talking about a genocide in Africa and my mom talking about an immigrant who couldn’t afford proper health care. I’m happy because I feel like that helped me learn more about what was going on.
You went to NYU and majored in Film and TV.
I ended up moving into an old folks home for another [documentary] project, so I didn’t end up graduating. I was quite the outcast at NYU, so I really had—not to be self pitying¬—no friends, and was very lonely and depressed. I felt kind of trapped there, like I couldn’t go and work on projects that I really cared about. I said it before and it’s not something that I’m scared of saying, but it just really wasn’t for me.
How are your three subjects doing now that the filming is over?
I try to talk to them as much as they’re willing to. They‘re going through extraordinarily tough times, if not tougher, than when I was first with them. The thing about the show is that I love these people. When we stop filming, it becomes a really strong friendship.
How is Kaylin feeling?
Kaylin’s cancer returned again. She’s currently going through intense chemo. They found a tumor the size of a laptop in her chest. She was in Bellevue, and it was disheartening to see how they were treating her. I worked really hard with people on my film crew to get her into Sloan-Kettering, which I believe is one of the best hospitals in the country for her particular cancer, Ewing’s Sarcoma.
How is Chad?
Once they graduate, one of the toughest things for young people is trying to find a job. That’s something we really get into in the show. He’s currently having a tough time finding his place in the world. But luckily he has unbelievable parents.
People are responding to the show on Twitter, and thanking you for raising awareness of autism.
We’ve had screenings with Autism Speaks and organizations that provide support for young adults with cancer. Screening our show to those people and getting responses on social media from people who have brothers, sisters, or family—or are themselves autistic—has been far and away the most gratifying thing.
How is D-Real doing in Oakland?
He said watching the show helped remind him what he’s trying to do in Oakland because it’s easy to lose focus. Recently, his girlfriend was on a bus with their daughter and there was a guy who pulled out a gun and started shooting a bunch of people. They’re all safe. He’s had another kid since we started filming. None of these are fairy tale endings, I wish they were, but it grounds the show in reality.
What do you think of reality TV?
I’m not a big fan of most reality TV. I don’t know them personally, but I feel like the Kardashians represent some of the more negative parts of our generation. I do think there’s some wonderful programming—like what Morgan Spurlock does. But I think it’s unfortunate that the Kardashians are all over the airways.
The film festival you started at your high school has branched out into an All-American Film Festival this year in New York City.
When I was 16, I started a high school film festival at my local public school, which wasn’t a wealthy school by any stretch of the imagination. We started it for myself and some buddies to play our short films in the auditorium. It somehow grew and we had James Earl Jones speak the following year, which was unbelievable. Since then it became one of the biggest high school film festivals in the country. This year, we teamed up with the Mayor’s office and are doing the first annual All American High School Film Festival October 4- 6th. It’s a chance for young filmmakers all over the country to network and see their films on the big screen.
Watch World of Jenks Monday nights at 11 p.m. on MTV
To learn more about the All-American High School Film Festival, visit www.aahsff.com
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