Filmmaker and star of the MTV show “World of Jenks” shared his own story with students.
Andrew Jenks, 24, has lived in Japan, moved into a nursing home and spent a week homeless on the streets of San Francisco. He’s traveled the country to befriend a martial arts fighter, a young man with autism and a National Football League cheerleader.
But these labels don’t mean anything to him anymore. He simply knows them as his friends Anthony, Chad and Jessi.
Jenks is a documentary filmmaker from New York City and the producer of MTV’s “World of Jenks.” The show, which premiered in September 2010, exposes the audience to what Jenks calls different sub-cultures or “worlds.” In each episode, he lives with a 20-something stranger for a week to learn his or her intricacies and experience life in the other’s shoes.
“The ability to tell the stories of people who don’t have a voice and who aren’t usually on TV, much less a mainstream network like MTV, is a privilege,” Jenks said.
On Jan. 21, Jenks visited Temple to tell his own story to a packed room of fans. The event was hosted by Temple Invisible Children, Temple Gospel Ministries and recruiters from the Bone Marrow Donor Center drive.
Temple Invisible Children, a campus chapter of an international group, seeks to raise awareness and aid for children struggling in the war-torn African nation Uganda by screening documentaries.
“When there’s a visual display, it creates a lasting memory,” said Michele Aweeky, a junior journalism major and co-president of Temple Invisible Children.
“I heard the word ‘no’ over and over again,” Jenks said, recalling his first immersion project as a 19-year-old college student at New York University.
At the time, his grandfather was suffering from dementia, so Jenks and two friends decided to step out of their comfort zones and check into a nursing home for three months.
It took months for a nursing home to agree to let Jenks move in with about the project, he didn’t give up.
Jenks then turned his extraordinary and emotional experience into a 90-minute documentary that began to win awards at film festivals around the world.
HBO bought the film, and MTV approached Jenks about doing a similar project. In discussing the creation of “World of Jenks,” Jenks admitted to one of his fondest mantras – “Fake it till you make it,” he laughed, casually brushing back his shaggy mop of brown hair.
Aside from doing a bit of research before moving in with a subject, Jenks said there’s no real way of knowing what to expect until he lives it for a full eight or nine days.
“I learn as the audience would learn,” he said, noting the struggles each experience reveals. “It humbles you.”
The project has been full of laughs, tears, insight and real danger – in one episode, Jenks and animal rescuer Brogan, 23, raided a farm full of armed horse slaughterers. In the second episode of the season, Jenks moved in with Chad, a 20-year-old living with autism.
The condition caused Chad to be continually misunderstood by his peers and unable to adapt to certain situations without getting upset. A trip to Coney Island helped Jenks discover that behind the autistic label, was an incredibly smart and inquisitive young man with a great sense of humor.
Since the show has aired, Chad has been stopped on the street by viewers and is practicing writing so he can sign his autograph for fans.
In perhaps the most poignant episode of season one, Jenks met Danielle, a woman living on the streets of San Francisco.
A victim of alcoholic parents and a broken home, “Heavy D” fends for herself without a job or a steady income by begging and sleeping wherever she can find shelter. Jenks recalled this experience to be the hardest personal struggle, realizing after a hard day, he didn’t have a bed to sleep on.
Before leaving, Jenks gave Heavy D a prepaid cell phone, and the two still talk at least twice a day. In fact, Jenks still keeps in touch with most of his former subjects – those who have welcomed not only him but millions of people into their personal lives.
At the moment, Jenks and his research crew are busy looking into ideas and subjects for season two. Jenks said he is most passionate about wanting to shadow an American soldier in Afghanistan or Iraq for the upcoming project.
Because Jenks and his crew shoot around 140 hours of footage for each 21-minute episode, he makes sure to include deleted scenes and directors’ cuts online for fans and utilizes social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
“That’s what our generation is about,” he said. “Our show tries to use that to our advantage.”
Likewise, Temple Invisible Children employs the use of social media and viral videos to garner support for children who don’t have a voice.
“It’s really important to target youth who haven’t lost that spark of passion yet,” said Whitney Ditaranto, a sophomore film and media arts major and co-president of Temple Invisible Children. “We spread the word through video which helps close this global gap and makes the giving experience much more personal.”
“The arts connect with you in a different way,” Brettney Oke, a junior psychology and geography and urban studies double major, and member of Temple Gospel Ministries, said. “They get a message across and are beautiful at the same time.”
Following Jenks’ presentation, he opened up for a question-and-answer session. As to whether he’d opt to keep all of the memories he’s already made, or lose them all to make new ones, Jenks picked the latter, confident the future will hold new, unforgettable experiences.
“What’s the point of life if you’re not struggling to do something you believe in?” he said.
Julie Achilles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org