The Colgate Scene
May 1999
Table of contents
Understanding Hope

by Rebecca Costello
Lou Buttino '66 and his daughter Maggie, 9, on the campus of UNC-Wilmington.
When Lou Buttino '66 went to Honduras last summer to film the construction of a system to carry safe water into the countryside, he had no idea that his footage would become possibly the last extensive record of what that country once looked like. He was back home, editing, when Hurricane Mitch hit in late October, ravaging Honduras and surrounding areas.

     "I feel like I have footage of Pompeii," Buttino said with genuine heartbreak in his voice. "It may be 75 to 100 years before Honduras looks like the pictures I have, if it ever gets restored."

     Buttino, an award-winning independent documentary artist, had gone to Honduras in part to see whether the typical American image of such developing nations is true -- or whether ". . . there was hope among the people, along with the poverty and other ills that afflict much of the developing world." He discovered a solidarity among the people that transcended their material poverty.

     "I found my spiritual betters in Honduras," Buttino said, though this artist and college professor approaches his life's work as a mission of service.

     Buttino's 25-minute documentary Honduran Hope -- actor Ed Asner donated his services as narrator -- premiered at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, where Buttino is a professor of communication studies. Once he learned of the devastation, Buttino turned the premiere into a fund-raising event that raised about $2,000 for Honduras. He is currently seeking an outlet for the film. Although it's under review by The Discovery Channel and National Geographic, "getting a broadcast niche is tremendously difficult," he explained.

Love of learning
When Buttino was growing up in Canastota, NY, the rich black muck of the surrounding onion fields, tilled by his family and many neighbors, was a way of life that he now speaks of with nostalgia -- mingled with sincere respect for the tough physical labor it represented.

     During his senior year of high school, Buttino attended lectures at Colgate through a program that brought rural high school kids to campus.

     "I fell in love with learning, and with Colgate." A champion wrestler, Buttino was wooed by coach Harvey Potter, and his admission was secured. "I wasn't prepared academically, but Colgate stuck out its neck for children of working-class families from rural schools." Buttino struggled in his first two years, yet with guidance from faculty, staff, and his brothers at Delta Upsilon, he gained confidence and began to soar. "I live off of how, and what, I learned at Colgate, and for that my gratitude is deep."

     As a political science major, Buttino experienced the subject "in human terms" under the tutelage of professor Paul Jacobsen. Deeply concerned with issues of civil rights and the Vietnam war, "I decided politics was where decisions were made about things like who would eat and who would to go war, who had money and who didn't." Buttino studied for a divinity degree and an MA in political science and then earned a PhD in social sciences from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.

Art and scholarship combined
From an original interest in drawing and oil painting, which Buttino also had pursued at Colgate, he began working with film, which dovetailed his political concerns into his creative side.

     "When I'm editing film, it looks to me like oil painting, except that the images are moving -- I'm still thinking about color and composition. And film is a way to teach to large audiences. It combines all I learned and studied." Over the past 26 years Buttino has created national award-winning documentaries on subjects ranging from Camp Good Days and Special Times, the largest camp in the world to serve children with special needs; the issue of black lung in coal miners; church and United Way videos; one on photographer Edward Steichen, and an investigative piece titled Hoover's Legacy: The Case of Frank Buttino. He does much of his work on a pro bono basis.

     Buttino also became a prolific writer, of books, articles and newspaper columns as well as plays, short stories and screenplays. His script for The Carmen Basilio Story just won a bronze prize for best screenplay at the Houston International Film Festival. Basilio, a Canastota onion farmer, became a local hero in the 1950s as the welterweight and middleweight boxing champion of the world. As a boy, Buttino would watch him train, and they have remained good friends over the years.

     "Carmen was an inspiration to us Italian-American kids," Buttino remembered of a time when discrimination against those of Italian heritage was prevalent. Based upon years of conversations with the boxer, Buttino wrote the screenplay with his own personal insight into what families and people from Canastota are like, how they speak. He also researched boxing history and issues like the Mafia's influence on the industry.

Honduran Hope traced progress towards improvements in infrastructure with a new safe water system but also showed that many things, such as farming, are still done in Honduras as they were long ago.
For 20 years, Buttino taught, first political science and later communications and journalism, at St. John Fischer College in Rochester. No matter the subject, he sees his work as his way of paying back for the chance he feels he was given.

     "I am an academic, but also am concerned with the whole of my students' lives. They come to me with their problems and sadnesses. I consider that part of my ministry of teaching."

     Buttino has taught screenwrit-ing and documentary filmmaking at UNC-Wilmington since 1995. He brings his own films into the classroom, "not to fill my ego, but so that my students will be able to ask me directly why I did something in a certain way, and if it were the case, I can tell them it's because I ran out of money or because of an equipment failure, not because of any artistic decision."

     Professor Buttino also involves his students in film projects they can sink their own teeth into. In next year's course on screenwriting and filmmaking, the fall semester will be spent learning how to write for a movie. The top three resulting screenplays will be filmed in the spring.

     "It feels like a real-life job for the students," said the professor, who pulls no punches with them. "I let them know there's lots of grunt work to be done. They have to commit to me on paper. I tell them I'm the executive producer and it's not a democracy, that if they don't do their job, I'll fire them, which means they'll get an F. But it's great experience. They graduate with a credit on a documentary that actually gets broadcast."

     Recently, the William Madison Randall Library at UNC-Wilmington inaugurated the Lou Buttino Manuscript Collection, which will serve as a resource in the study or making of documentary films. The collection will house all of his documentaries, unedited footage and his writings, as well as documentation on his many awards. "It's a tremendous honor for a scholar and documentarian."

Hope for Honduras
Buttino's next goal is to raise the funds, as he's done before, to return to Honduras and do an hour-long piece, Before and after the Great Storm.

     "Being an indie," he explained, "finding the wherewithal to make documentaries is often the most difficult part, because there's very little profit involved." But that's not going to stop him. He believes it is important that "the people of the United States and around the world don't forget the plight of the Honduran people, and that the children of Honduras won't think that their country always looked the way it does now. I want to help them have faith that one day, their Honduras will be restored.

     "I am also convinced that if I go back, I will find an even deeper understanding of hope."

Top of page
Table of contents
<< Previous: "Influencing..." Next: "Earth scientist" >>