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Jay Fedigan: Documentarian

Using film to get to the heart of the matter.

Belmont Patch's new Sunday feature, "Meet Your Neighbors," is just that -- discovering more about fellow residents or people who work in town and make Belmont a nice place to live.

Who?

Jay Fedigan of Carleton Road.

What?

Award-winning producer/director.

His story:

It seemed a foregone conclusion that Jay Fedigan would devote his career to making documentaries.

He grew up watching movies on a black-and-white television with his mother. That led to a life-long love of films and a passionate interest in the issues they portrayed.

“At heart, I’m a researcher and like to learn everything I can about topics,” Fedigan said. “Documentaries are a great way to tell stories.”

Perhaps best known for his video 'The Angry Heart' – a documentary about the impact of racism on heart disease among African Americans that has won several awards and continues to be shown at community centers, hospitals and universities – Fedigan regularly speaks at hospitals, universities, churches and a variety of social forums about health disparities. 

“I’ve taken 'The Angry Heart' all around the country,” he said. “Ranging from inner-city churches in downtown Detroit to community groups, the doors that this has opened let me in where I never would have had to opportunity to go before.”

Just traveling and meeting people with whom to watch and discuss the documentary have shown Fedigan “the wealth of information and beauty of diversity we have in this country.”

How it began

Ever since graduating from Emerson College in 1980 where he studied film and photography, Fedigan has been working as a filmmaker.

For the majority of his career, he was an independent contractor doing jobs for local corporations such as Wang, Polaroid and Bois.

For the last 10 years, however, Fedigan has focused all his attention on higher education and health-care clients.

In the late 1990s, Fedigan hired Keith Hartgrove, a resident of Roxbury, as a freelancer for a film he was working on at the time in New York.

After their job was done, the two men loaded the truck and decided to grab a bite to eat before driving back to Boston.

Hartgrove arrived at the restaurant first and Fedigan followed, just in time to see an obvious racial incident.

“They were totally ignoring him,” Fedigan said. “When I got there and they saw he was with me, everything changed.

Fedigan was outraged, expressed his feelings and the two left the restaurant.

“Driving back to Boston and talking about it changed our friendship,” he said. “Keith and I had been working buddies but during that ride he told me he had never before known a white person to be outraged by racism.”

They became close friends.

Shortly after returning from New York, Fedigan received the news that Hartgrove had suffered a serious heart attack.

The men, who are the same age, had talked before about health care and race.

“I’ve always been fortunate to have health care coverage and doctors who paid attention to me,” Fedigan said. “Keith didn’t have health care or that level of medical attention.”

As soon as Hartgrove returned home from the hospital, Fedigan went to visit him.

The heart of the matter

“I followed Keith’s progress for a year and a-half,” he said. “In that time, I decided it was important not only to tell the micro story of his recovery but also to mix it with the macro story.”

Research on race and health care was just beginning at that time, Fedigan pointed out.

The facts that African Americans receive different treatment and a different level of care, beyond socioeconomic factors, is documented, he said.

“I spoke with doctors and researchers,” Fedigan said. “I wanted to show that, sadly, Keith’s experience is not unique.”

In fact, without exception, Fedigan said for the past 10 years every African American he’s met and asks if they suffer racial incidents answers that they do every day of their lives.

He had no funding for 'The Angry Heart' but was fortunate to have commercial work that provided income while he worked on the film from December 1998 to September 2001.

“I enjoyed being able to learn everything I could about a topic that was foreign to me,” Fedigan said. “Keith and I live about four miles apart but I didn’t realize how different life can be.”

It felt good to work on something that he felt passionate about, Fedigan said.

“I had never been to a Baptist Church in Roxbury for a service, among other things,” he said. “I was treated with overwhelming kindness and support in the African American community and found everyone working in the field (medical, educational and religious leaders) is passionate about this topic.”

Fedigan conducted a long review process of 'The Angry Heart' while he was editing it and was fascinated to receive such differing reactions.

The eyes behind the camera

“I couldn't have completed the film without the support and collaboration of my wife Carolyn,” said Fedigan. The couple moved to Belmont six years ago where they are raising their four-year-old twin sons who will enter kindergarten at the Wellington School in the fall.

Fedigan knows full well that documentaries can easily be skewed.

“It’s easy to get an expert from ‘the other side’ who has no validity,” he said. “You see that all the time – people throwing these ‘experts’ into documentaries just to show they are viewing the other side.”

His philosophy is a documentarian has a responsibility to avoid disseminating misinformation.

“If it’s misinformation, you’re producing propaganda, not a documentary,” Fedigan said. “You should try to be as fair as possible and you have a responsibility to voice an opinion and use this (medium) as your tool.”

Fedigan believes another responsibility a filmmaker has is to mentor others and give back as much as possible to the community.

“It’s important for people to share their experience,” he said.

To that end, Fedigan taught a basic field video production class at the Belmont Media Center and plans to teach others in the future.

Currently, he is working on a few commercial projects in the food and wine field, including 'Living the Wine Life,' a fun and quirky monthly show on YouTube.

For additional information, visit Jayfedigan.com

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