Eye-Opening Documentary Film 'Bags to Butterflies' Nominated for a College Academy Award

From Bags to Butterflies, a Group of Journalism Students and Graduates Produce a Documentary Nominated for the College Television Awards

Prison may sometimes viewed as an end. Employers judge and push away recently imprisoned citizens, past convictions scar records, and, without employment, some of those released from prison fall into a cycle of incarceration and poverty. Michelle Smart, a Detroit-based entrepreneur, is working to change that. 

Through her company called Bags to Butterflies, Smart is giving women who have been recently released from incarceration the opportunity to lead fulfilling lives and careers—using handbags. The mission of Bags to Butterflies is to empower formerly incarcerated women with transitional employment, resources, and a caring network immediately upon their return to the community from incarceration.

Kendall Westfield ‘19, an MSU journalism alumna, and her team of fellow journalism students produced a documentary film of the same name. They wanted to tell the story of some of the women whose lives have changed with the help of Smart’s company. Now, these students from the MSU School of Journalism have been honored with a nomination for a college television academy award for "Bags to Butterflies."

Producing from the Heart

During her senior year, Westfield wanted to explore the concept of recidivism, the cycle of repeated criminal behaviors seen in convicts. Her mother connected her with Smart, the handbag entrepreneur looking to change the lives of recently incarcerated women. Westfield saw what Smart was achieving and wanted to share the stories of these women to a broader audience.

The student filmmaker began Bags to Butterflies, her fifth documentary, with her classmates, and she managed to create the film in a single semester. The film follows the women, their stories and their transitions back into society through the careers they build in Smart’s handbag enterprise. While the group was able to produce the documentary smoothly and with little hiccups, Westfield stated that the group still had to be sensitive to the topics they were dealing with.

“I myself had my own perceptions of people who were criminals in the past. I think this film allows them to be seen in a different light," said Westfield.

The team of six showcased the documentary during a panel that discussed "Bags to Butterflies," and they received overwhelming acclaim from Smart and her company.

“This was the first time the subjects saw the film. It was very emotional. I think a lot of them hadn't realized how much they opened up on camera, so hearing their stories again really opened their hearts,” said Westfield. “There was a lot of crying. People were really happy they got to see their stories come to life.”

A Chance at National Acclaim

After receiving such strong positivity for the film from the company, Westfield submitted the documentary to the College Television Awards on a whim. Westfield and her team from the MSU School of Journalism have a chance to claim a college television academy award in the category of Nonfiction or Reality Series, slated for June 20, 2020. 

One of the faculty who mentored Westfield during the project — Geri Alumit Zeldes, Ph.D., School of Journalism professor — spoke on the importance of "Bags to Butterflies" as a film and explained how it represents these women who were previously convicted.

“Students created 'Bags to Butterflies' in one semester, which is a testament to the students' leadership and group cohesion. Their lucid vision of the characters and the story arc before production shows how deep research and team communication can yield a film in a few months,” said Zeldes. “The messages of this film are impactful in that they challenge the justice of the criminal justice system and also illustrates how individuals are resilient.”

Zeldes stated that this nomination proves that MSU’s film program can compete with legendary programs from schools such as Chapman University, the University of Southern California and Columbia University. The ceremony is run by the same producers as the famous Emmy awards and will be broadcasted live on national television.

By John Castro

Explore MSU Journalism