When Laiqa Hitt ’20 and Jared Bunn ’20 arrived at the Oncenter Crouse Hinds Theater in March 2020 to film their documentary about ballerina Caroline Sheridan, they found chaos. Dancers were crying while lights were hastily coming down. Sheridan informed them that New York State had just cancelled all live performances, including the ballet, due to a mysterious new virus: COVID-19.
“We were like, ‘We need to film this. We need to document what is happening right now,'” Hitt says. “All our plans derailed, but I just looked at Jared and said, ‘We just can’t stop filming. I don’t know where this is going, but I just feel like this is special, and it’s going to be an amazing story.'”
The documentary that resulted from that film, “Panacea,” has since won one of the most prestigious student awards, the 2021 Best of Festival Award for Student Documentary from the Broadcast Education Association (BEA). It has also been featured in over 16 film festivals worldwide.
“Panacea” follows Sheridan’s determined attempt to organize and perform one last dance with her company before they went into quarantine at their homes across the world.
When Hitt and Bunn first met Sheridan in Fall 2019, there was an instant connection and, Bunn says, they knew they wanted to make a documentary about her. As students in Newhouse’s military visual journalism program, they decided to produce the documentary as part of their senior capstone project.
The original idea was to create a documentary about Sheridan’s path to professional ballet, but a new story emerged when COVID-19 hit, shutting down public venues like theaters nationwide. The last-minute change meant that Hitt and Bunn were up the entire night before their project due date reshaping the documentary, but they didn’t intend to stop there. Bunn says they spent an extra 2,000 hours editing the piece even after turning it in, because they just knew it could be something bigger than a class project.
“Our goal was to tell [Sheridan’s] story to as many people as possible, because it needed to be told,” Bunn says. “It is a showcasing of a young woman’s tenacity and dedication and love for the arts and justice. How she pursued and persevered to just make something that was for her and for her friends. It was really beautiful.”
Despite Bunn being stationed in Colorado and Hitt training in California before being stationed in Japan, they continued work on “Panacea.” When they settled on a final version, they began the process of submitting it to film festivals.
“We submitted for the first festival, IMD Independent Shorts Awards, and I remember we were like, ‘It would be cool if we got one,'” Bunn says. “Then we got selected for five different categories and won two of them. After that it became—I don’t want to say an addiction, but it [was] like we have to submit to these.”
That drive to submit “Panacea” wherever they could paid off. The film won numerous awards, including the BEA award, and the pair is now working toward a distribution deal to allow the general public to see the film. They both say their time at Newhouse was essential to their ability to produce a documentary of this caliber.
“[Jared] and I had always been partners throughout every class,” Hitt says. “Looking at the first project we did and then ‘Panacea,’ the difference is night and day. In just a year.”
Television, radio and film professor Tula Goenka was Hitt and Bunn’s capstone professor and the executive producer of “Panacea.” Goenka says that Newhouse’s unique environment gives students the opportunity to make ambitious projects like this.
“Creating ‘Panacea’ would cost a lot of money, because you need the equipment and you also need money to live on, but as students you are in a creative and educational bubble. You can experiment with storytelling and with the forms,” Goenka says. “It gives you the opportunity to do it right.”
Hitt and Bunn agree that without the resources Newhouse gave them, “Panacea” wouldn’t have happened. They are both grateful, because it has changed their lives. But, Hitt says, it won’t be the last of their collaborations.
“He’s literally one of my best friends,” Hitt says of Bunn. “I think he and I have a lot of future projects ahead of us.”
Elizabeth Kauma is a senior in the magazine, news and digital journalism program at the Newhouse School.