MORE POWERFUL THAN FICTION

By Kit Bradshaw

Suzanne Niedland’s dream began in elementary school when she decided to be an actor.

She earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Florida, subsequently becoming one of the students of the Burt Reynolds Institute of Theatre Training who has succeeded in the industry.

“One of the great things that happened with BRITT was that I had the opportunity to be an apprentice on Burt’s show, B.L. Stryker, and he encouraged us to talk to the production people and ask them questions,” she said.

“We also had to work in a lot of different areas for the show. I worked wardrobe and ironed the costumes, and cleaned the dressing rooms and put together the props. Burt’s philosophy was that if we knew what each person did for their job, we would always respect them. He didn’t want any prima donnas.”

The training at BRITT encouraged Niedland to continue in the industry. She returned to UF to earn her master’s degree as part of the Documentary Institute program.

“This is a wonderful program, and through it I wore every hat in the filmmaking process. I discovered that although I never felt I had a strong technical aptitude for filmmaking, I’m a natural producer and directing is easy for me, and I found I was very good at editing. But writing is painful for me, although my writing teacher was very encouraging,” she said.

Through the Documentary Institute, Neidland met fellow student Anberin Pasha. The two women decided to create a 26-minute documentary about one aspect of the life of Lillian Smith, the idealistic founder of an exclusive summer camp for girls in Georgia, which operated in the 1930s and 1940s.

The documentary, Miss Lil’s Camp, will be aired Saturday, April 11 at 10:30 p.m. and again on Sunday, April 19 at 2:30 p.m. on WXEL TV 42.

“When we researched Lillian Smith, we learned about the difference she made in the lives of these girls from the South. The camp was invitation-only, and only wealthy white girls could attend.

Smith not only gave them a camp experience, with a swimming pool, tennis courts and horseback riding, she exposed them to the art, culture and literature, including the literature of African-Americans.

“She encouraged them to question the Jim Crow laws, and segregation and to think for themselves,” Neidland said. “Many of the women we talked with who had been at the camp went on to get their master’s degrees and doctorates, which was unusual at that time.”

Since the documentary was released, it has been viewed in various cities by a broad cross-section of audience members.

But Niedland said she is particularly happy with the reception by teachers, since Smith was a teacher who had tremendous impact on her students’ lives.

“The documentary is available for distribution in schools and libraries, and so many teachers want to include it in their history and women’s classes,” Neidland said. “So I feel I have a part in honoring this woman who is left out of the history books, but who influenced these students and others, including the late Martin Luther King Jr.”

Developing the documentary has influenced Niedland as well, she said. She interviewed many of the women who had been part of Miss Lil’s camp, and they eagerly shared their history and experiences with her.

“You get so close to these people, and you feel so privileged to know them. These women are now in their 70s and 80s, but they could still talk about the profound effect Lillian Smith had on their lives.”

Niedland, who lives in Jupiter with her husband, Larry DeGeorge, already has several other documentary projects under way.

She is returning to acting and considering expanding the Lillian Smith story for a Hallmark Channel program.

Some special projects—trying to save UF’s Documentary Institute and, now as the chairwoman of the Burt Reynolds Institute of Film and Theatre—are taking much of her time.

But Niedland doesn’t plan to forget the reason why she loves the documentary genre.

“A narrative piece (film) can affect a person and be incredibly powerful, but there is something about truth being more powerful than fiction; and that is what a documentary is,” she said.Miss Lil’s Camp

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