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Case's Mandel School student looks to combine film career with social work

Not many social work students can say they were inspired to enter the field by working for Steven Spielberg, or that they have award-winning films currently running on cable channels HBO and Cinemax, or that they have directed “Monty Python” alumnus John Cleese. But David Ackerman can make all these claims.

Ackerman, a first year student at Case Western Reserve University’s Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences (MSASS), began his professional career in a field very different from social work: film-making. A native of Santa Barbara, California, he attended film school at New York University. After graduating he returned to California where he landed a job as one of the first employees of DreamWorks SKG, the studio founded in the early 1990s by Hollywood moguls Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. That gave him the opportunity to observe Spielberg first-hand.

“I have learned so much from Steven, watching him work on the set, and the way he is in business and all the generous things he does with his time and the resources he makes available to so many people,” Ackerman says. “Steven is a great example of how one person can empower the lives of many others. He tells the world about oppressed people whose stories might otherwise go unheard.”

Work for Shoah Foundation Leads to Social Advocacy

While working in feature film development on films such as “The Prince of Egypt,” “Amistad” and “Saving Private Ryan,” Ackerman spent many off hours volunteering to help videotape the testimonies of survivors of the Nazi holocaust for Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. “It was the most important work I’d ever done, and started me on a path toward social advocacy,” he recalls.

It also helped that Ackerman was the son of two people in the helping professions. His father is a psychiatrist and his mother is a psychiatric social worker. “My parents never pushed me into the psychological or social work arena. But they’ve been so pleased as I’ve been investigating whether there’s a way to be both a social worker and a film maker,” he recalls.

But the event that turned Ackerman decisively towards social work occurred when he visited his grandmother in Milwaukee. “She picked me up at the airport. She’s this typical little old lady, the most wonderful person, and it’s absolutely clear she shouldn’t be driving a car,” he recalls. “It’s been an issue in our family for a while, and I could see why. She was sitting on three phone books to see over the dashboard and sometimes she was driving on the wrong side of the road. I was terrified – for me and for her.”

Ackerman tried gently to raise the issue but was angrily rebuffed. “She was humiliated by the idea of giving up her driver’s license. She felt she was being persecuted by her family and her doctor and the motor vehicles department and me. She wound up not speaking to me for the rest of the weekend or for months afterwards.”

His response was to write a darkly comic short film about the issue, which he titled “Taking the Wheel,” based on his experience with his grandmother. Here his connections in the movie business proved useful. The Academy Award-winning composer Elmer Bernstein agreed to write the score, and the British actor and former Monty Python member John Cleese starred in it.

Screening Movie a “Transformative Experience”

“Taking the Wheel” premiered at the 2002 Berlin International Film Festival where it was nominated for the best short film award. “Screening this movie at festivals around the world was a transformative experience for me,” Ackerman says. “People would come up to me afterwards with translators speaking languages I hadn’t even heard of and say ‘Thank you for making this film. This film describes my mother or my father.’ Until then I hadn’t realized the extent to which this isn’t just an American phenomenon, but that people everywhere are struggling to deal with the issue of transitioning to old age and losing their independence.” The film is currently screening on the HBO and Cinemax cable channels.

With the success of “Taking the Wheel,” Ackerman knew he had reached a crossroads. “A lot of doors were starting to open for me, I was running from meeting to meeting in Hollywood – working on making commercial films. And I had to ask myself ‘am I in this to make popcorn movies for “x” amount of money, or do I want to find a way to really make a difference?’”

When Ackerman began investigating social work schools, his parents suggested the Mandel School. Coincidentally, an uncle who attended Case’s medical school had earlier shown him around the campus. He had been immediately attracted to the atmosphere. “There’s something about the campus that feels rooted in reality and in history,” he explains. “There are no pretensions. And I had been working in the most pretentious place on the face of the earth.”

“I Couldn’t Be Happier”

While visiting his in-laws in Ohio last summer, Ackerman decided to apply to the Mandel School. He was accepted to begin in the fall semester. He and his wife left Santa Barbara and moved to Cleveland. “The other day a friend of mine back in Santa Barbara called to say it was 83 degrees and not a cloud in the sky. I told him it’s snowing here and I’m sitting by the fire and I couldn’t be happier.”

Ackerman is currently in the school’s adult mental health concentration, but that may change. His field internship working with troubled adolescents has piqued his interest working with children and families as well. But wherever he winds up focusing, he expects to use his talents as a filmmaker to advocate for causes he believes in.

“For all the glitz and glamour people associate with Hollywood, when it comes right down to it, what’s it all for? Where do you really start making an impact on real people in a truly meaningful way? I figure there has to be a better way. So I intend to use film as a means of empowering individuals and advocating for social justice. And that’s what I feel like Case is helping me achieve. I feel really lucky to be here.”

 

About Case Western Reserve University

Case is among the nation's leading research institutions. Founded in 1826 and shaped by the unique merger of the Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University, Case is distinguished by its strengths in education, research, service, and experiential learning. Located in Cleveland, Case offers nationally recognized programs in the Arts and Sciences, Dental Medicine, Engineering, Law, Management, Medicine, Nursing, and Social Work. http://www.case.edu.