Loyola University Chicago

School of Communication


Recent graduate thrives doing documentary work

Recent graduate thrives doing documentary work
By Maggie Sullivan, SoC reporter

Jessi Hannapel watched “Pirates of the Caribbean” every night for two months after seeing it for the first time at age 12. But it wasn’t Johnny Depp dressed in tawdry pirate garb that held her obsession. It was film.

“It blew me away. It made me laugh, it scared me a little bit—it was crazy!” she said with all the enthusiasm of an actual 12-year-old fresh from the cinema.

“I wanted to be a part of it—part of a project that is so amazing that it makes you feel this whole range of emotions and it excites you and it makes you feel like you went on an adventure.”

She did exactly that. Immediately after graduating from Loyola in 2015 with a degree in film and digital media production, Hannapel boarded a plane to Bosnia as part of a three-person film crew for the documentary “Apparition Hill.”

“Apparition Hill” follows five Catholics facing major life challenges and two atheists as they make a pilgrimage to Medjugorje, a small Bosnian town where it is believed the Virgin Mary has appeared and provided peace to visitors.

Hannapel expressed her interest in the film project over email while she was finishing her final semester of school. As serendipity had it, the Florida-based producers needed to interview a potential pilgrim in Chicago. They put their trust in Hannapel and sent her out two days later to meet the man, who ended up being chosen as one of the documentary subjects.

After final exams ended, Hannapel fully committed herself to the film, and the crew took her on as a cameraperson, editor and co-producer.

“I felt really honored that they trusted me and allowed me into the project,” Hannapel said.  “But I was also terrified that I wasn’t going to be able to handle this level of responsibility; they trusted me with so much.”

Before departing for Bosnia, one of the producers even mailed Hannapel a video camera so she could travel to Pennsylvania to film another potential pilgrim.

But Hannapel found she could cater to the demands of the small independent film project because her courses at Loyola were so hands-on.

“Aw man, I love Loyola,” she said, channeling the zeal of a 12-year-old again. “The best way to learn things is through doing them. One of the great things about Loyola is you have to take classes in doing the things that you’re learning; you can’t just sit and take notes.”

She is especially grateful for the lessons of Aaron Greer, program director of Film and Digital Media Studies.

“He was just amazing. He was so understanding and really encouraging. I always thought he had more confidence in my abilities than I did,” she said. “It stressed me out a bit because I wanted to live up to those expectations but I also felt like it made me better.”

Her rave faculty reviews don’t stop there though.

“I learned so much about the practical side of filming from Professor (Jeff) Harder…and the Hoovers (Beth and Gary) were just so much fun to be around. They are unbelievable,” Hannapel said.

Greer remembered having Hannapel as a student.  “I had Jessi in a couple of classes, but I remember particularly her work in the Advanced Post-Production course. She had such a great feel for story and dramatic pace,” he said.  “As an example, one of the assignments in the class was to produce a spec trailer for a film. The producers of the film ended up liking her spec trailer more than the original one they had produced.”

“Apparition Hill” is currently premiering in more than 30 theaters across the United States, Ireland and Mexico. Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have contacted the crew and suggested the film be submitted for an Academy Award.

“Being part of a project like this has been amazing and at times, overwhelming…There was even a time I had to film while I was crying and had to focus the shot through my tears,” Hannapel said.

Hannapel is keeping busy with promoting the film.  “I’m going to ride this wave as long as I can,” she said. “This small team and I love working together and are thinking of what we can do next.“

To watch the trailer, visit https://vimeo.com/164656961.