The film “Lives, Not Grades” has received an Emmy Award along with KCET for best independent program at the 74th Annual Los Angeles Area Emmy Awards.
Produced by a team at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, including Daniel Druhora (director, producer and writer), Yannis C. Yortsos, USC Viterbi School dean (executive producer), Sony Astani (executive producer), Burçin Becerik-Gerber (co-producer), David Gerber (co-producer), Brad Cracchiola (co-producer), Adam Smith, (co-producer), Rommel Villa (editor) and Teodora Totoiu (director of photography), the film documents students from the 2019 “Innovation in Engineering and Design for Global Crises” class as they travel to a refugee camp with the hope of providing solutions. Both Druhora and Villa are also alumni of the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
“Lives, Not Grades” takes viewers behind the scenes as 36 students, from seven different USC schools, design and build innovations that can improve the lives of refugees fleeing wars and natural disasters on the Greek island of Lesvos. Throughout the film, USC students focused on problems with sanitation, shelter, electricity, and education for the more than 20,000 refugees of Moria Camp – a place described as “hell on earth” by locals. The inventions created by the class still have a lasting impact today. Duet, for example, a micro-philanthropy platform co-founded by Micheal Cesar ‘19, got its start during the class.
Cesar, a USC Marshall School of Business graduate, says he learned how to meet the needs of refugees while collaborating with his engineering peers over the course of the film. “Top down solutions don’t work. You have to work with and learn from those facing the issues,” he said. The web platform allows small donors to have a big philanthropic impact through the donation of items like cleaning supplies or shoes.
Creating a film centered on an evolving issue like a refugee crisis, weighed heavily on the film’s creators. “I didn’t want this to be just another issue-driven film that people forget about quickly,” said Druhora ’14, the film’s director, and a USC Viterbi lecturer in storytelling for engineers, innovators, and makers. “To engineer is human while embracing the possibility of failure,” he said while reflecting on some of the challenges the students faced in Greece. Druhora was joined on this journey to create the class and produce “Lives Not Grades” by Professor Becerik-Gerber, chair of the Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, David Gerber, associate professor of practice in civil and environmental engineering and architecture, and Cracchiola, A USC Viterbi lecturer in product development.
None of the creators of the film ever imagined it gaining as much traction as it has in the world of television.
“This is not something that I would have imagined,” said Becerik-Gerber. Beyond the award itself, the “Lives, Not Grades” team believes the nomination will only bring further awareness to the refugees’ cause. “From the beginning, our goal was to communicate this innovative way of teaching and education to others… I truly believe this is the type of effort that needs to be replicated,” she said when discussing future plans.
The film showcases problem-solving in line with The Grand Challenges Scholars Program, a new education model to prepare engineers to be world changers. Throughout “Lives, Not Grades” students were constantly pushed out of their comfort zone as they were shown taking problem solving into real world situations.
“When you see these students in the documentary, and they’re being tasked with making a difference in the lives of refugees… it’s almost an absurd challenge,” said Adam Smith, a co-producer of the film. “But something very remarkable happened along the way — these students were clearly changed by this experience. Many of them said afterwards it was the most memorable moment of their entire USC experience.”
On the heels of Professor Jay Kuo’s Emmy Award last year, the film’s achievement marks the second time a team from USC Viterbi has received an Emmy award.
Cesar, however, hopes the documentary will stand for something bigger and inspire people to unite: “There are no easy solutions to the global challenges of our time. With the right mindset, discipline and opportunity, making a difference is possible.”
Published on July 26th, 2022
Last updated on July 28th, 2022