While studying abroad in Jerusalem, college junior Carmelle Danneman spent most of her time clowning around.
Medical clowning, that is. The 20-year-old student at Stern College for Women from Atlanta volunteered in hospitals, cheering up children in the oncology ward.
“It was hard to be cheerful and upbeat when these kids are sitting in hospital beds instead of running around,” said Danneman, a junior studying communications. “Trying to be funny seemed unnatural, but its what these patients needed most.”
Fast-forward two years — Danneman is the writer, producer and director of her own award-winning short film, “Send in the Clowns,” based heavily on her experiences volunteering. The film, which traces the story of a 7-year-old cancer survivor, recently won the Audience Choice Award at the Fifty-Four Film Festival in Nashville, Tenn. The film also received a glowing review from actress and filmmaker Nancy Spielberg, sister of Steven Spielberg.
Though she had never directed a film before, Danneman personally hired a full cast and crew, including a make-up artist, wardrobe stylist and sound mixer. To pay her crew, she used the money she earned working summers as a waitress in a restaurant.
“When I was casting for the film, no one I interviewed realized I was only 20,” she said. When they found out, they were shocked. We sat down together for the first read through and I introduced myself as the director,” said Danneman, who shot the film in Atlanta. “They thought I was kidding.”
During the making of the film, which was shot on location at the Newton Medical Center in the Atlanta suburb of Covington, Danneman said, “At times I was surprised everyone was listening to me. It’s still surreal that I created a film.”
Aside from her waitressing money, Danneman launched an online campaign to raise money for the film. A percentage of the funds go directly to a 6-year-old girl battling brain cancer, a close family friend of one of the cast members. The campaign has since surpassed its goal of $5,000.
Though Danneman, who appears in the film, has a strong acting background, auditions began to conflict with her Orthodox lifestyle. She mentioned how keeping Shabbat and her modest code of dress made acting increasingly difficult.
Directing, she said, provides a creative outlet that doesn’t compromise her faith.
“I didn’t think it was possible, but there’s always a way,” she said.
The film, though only 10 minutes long, follows the emotional journey of Sarah, a 7-year-old diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, as she undergoes chemotherapy. A medical clown visits her throughout the treatments, as she loses her hair and grows weaker.
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Danneman initially wrote the script in memory of her grandmother, who died from cancer in 2012.
“I was looking for a way to honor her memory,” she said.
Though balancing a full course load and a budding film career poses challenges, Danneman is already working on her next project, the subject of which is still under wraps.
“Inspiring others through film is my dream,” said Danneman. “If you believe in your message, others will too.”