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Alum screens ‘SMART’ documentary

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SMART animal rescue team based in Los Angeles is featured in documentary. Credit: Courtesy of SMART

A team of modern superheroes has vowed to never let an animal die alone in the dark.

That is what Justin Zimmerman said about the roughly 14 individuals known as the Specialized Mobile Animal Rescue Team, the stars of his feature-length documentary “SMART.”

Zimmerman, a 1999 Ohio State alumnus, directed and produced “SMART,” which is set to screen Wednesday at the Wexner Center for the Arts.   

The film has won seven awards at various film festivals nationally and internationally — and was nominated for five more — since its release in December 2016.

What started as a passion project, he said, became three years of capturing rescue missions and personally connecting with the rescue team. The group propels down cliffs, zip lines and performs helicopter and water rescues to save any of the nearly 14 million animals in Los Angeles, should they need help.

“As you get into your work, you worry less and less about the audience and you worry more and more about what you can do to make the film as good as you can be,” Zimmerman said. “You’re not worrying about whether you’re going to do a good job, you’re worrying about how far can you push yourself to tell the story right, whatever that means from your experience.”

After finishing his undergraduate degree in English with a minor in film criticism in 1999, Zimmerman went on to graduate school at Ohio University in film. He last visited the Wex in 2006 to screen his feature documentary “Fireland,” which tells the story of a 1963 nursing home fire.

“I dislike documentaries which showcase a huge issue and then say it’s bad and that’s it. I’m not a big fan of that form of storytelling,” Zimmerman said. “I hope that people get connected to the men and women of the SMART team because, if they get connected to the members of the team, then the team’s responsibility will be shared by the audience.”

Zimmerman said he hopes his story encourages some form of reaction and response. The best way to achieve this, he said, is to create a compelling story that resonates with audience members.

“My hope is that when people get into the film, get into the characters and walk out saying ‘This is something we should be able to solve. This doesn’t feel right so let’s think of some ways in which we can participate and get involved and do something,’” he said. “But it doesn’t work unless you make a cool film and tell a cool story.”

Melissa Starker, the creative content and public relations manager at the Wex, said her office has reached out to many different animal-related advocacy groups and causes — from the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine to the local humane society — about the documentary screening. She said there has been a lot of excitement generated and that the screening may provide viewers with more than just entertainment.

“People are a little tense right now, for a number of reasons,” Starker said. “Seeing people who are just living the life of doing everything they can to save these animals in LA sounds like a really wonderful and almost therapeutic thing to do on a Wednesday.”

“SMART” screens Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the film/video theater at the Wex. Zimmerman will speak with audience members during a Q-and-A session following the screening. Tickets are $6 for students and $8 for the general public.

Correction Jan. 31: A previous version of this article incorrectly named Zimmerman’s graduate degree as cinematography and production, when in fact it was film. “SMART” was nominated for five additional awards, not three as previously stated. 

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