Alumna depicts UT custodial staff's stories through "Night Shift" film

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When UT alumna Alison Boland worked at the tech desk in the Jessie H. Jones Communication Center, she found friendship in UT’s custodial staff. Now, Boland will take their often unheard stories to the big screen at this year’s Austin Film Festival.

Boland originally began creating her documentary, “Night Shift”, for her Radio Television Film Master’s Thesis project during fall 2014. This year she submitted the short film to the Austin Film Festival and will showcase “Night Shift” on Nov. 1 at the State Theatre. 

Boland said she was inspired to create a documentary about the custodial staff because she admired their community and the hard work they do that often goes unseen. 

“These people are giving their whole lives for us to have this beautiful space to interact in and we don’t notice,” Boland said.“I want people to notice the floor is really shiny and recognize someone did that.”

The team for the documentary included three camera people, two sound people and Boland, who conducted the documentary interviews in the custodian’s native languages. Many of the custodians are immigrants from countries such as Vietnam, Egypt and Mexico and have some difficulty communicating with each other. 

Boland said many of the custodians have worked together for years but didn’t know stories of each other’s pasts. She said the documentary allowed them to overcome the language barrier and hear those stories. 

“When they watched the film, some of them were hearing each other’s stories for the first time,” Boland said. “Like none of them knew that Minh was a prisoner of war for 11 years until they saw the documentary.”

UT custodian Lau Tran and his teammates are responsible for cleaning the communication buildings, biological laboratories building and Littlefield house. He said he believes it’s important to recycle and save resources. After Tran’s shift is over, he walks through the building and makes sure all of the lights are off because he believes it’s sinful to mankind to waste resources. 

“I hope what I said in the film will influence people to recycle and to spread the idea,” Tran said. “People on UT’s campus will now know how we manage and clean the buildings for activities.”

A shot in Boland’s film features the pizza parties team leader Ashraf Ahmed, building attendant leader, throws for his staff every two or three weeks. These parties include music, food and dancing and are thrown in a room usually used for faculty meetings in the CMA building. Ahmed said their work is hard and physical, and it’s important to have some fun. 

“We try so hard to give a message for people that it’s not always work, work, work,” Ahmed said. “You can come to enjoy. We are professional together, and friends together, and sometimes like family.”

While volunteering for the Peace Corps in Mongolia, Boland said he learned the importance of speaking with the custodial staff which opened doors for her to form relationships with the custodial staff at UT. Boland said she always saw Minh Le with a huge smile on his face and she desired the community they had together. 

“I’d see [Le] carrying a watermelon telling me he was going to their party, and I would feel jealous,” Boland said. “I didn’t feel connected to a close community in the way I had in other places, but the custodians had it.”

Ahmed has been working at UT for ten years. His staff is responsible for cleaning 360,000 square feet of UT’s campus every night, and he begins each shift with team exercises on the second floor of the CMA building.

“I love my job,” Ahmed said. “If you love what you do, you will do the best and that’s for everyone. If you are very serious and have a goal and a plan then you will take the team with you and you’re going to be successful.”