With ‘Discovering Gloria,’ UF filmmaker Boaz Dvir explores late teacher’s life


Gloria Jean Merriex is shown in a file photograph at Duval Elementary School in 2005. Boaz Dvir’s new documentary about the late Merriex, “Discovering Gloria,” premieres today in a screening at Lincoln Middle School.

Doug Finger/Staff photographer/file
Published: Thursday, September 26, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 25, 2013 at 11:04 a.m.

An average teacher’s students fail the FCAT, so she blossoms into a classroom superstar. The story of that teacher, Gloria Jean Merriex, is the kind of narrative that compels University of Florida filmmaker Boaz Dvir: ordinary people who become extraordinary through instinct and circumstance.

Facts

‘Discovering Gloria’

What: Premiere of Boaz Dvir’s documentary about the late Duval Elementary School teacher Gloria Jean Merriex
When: 6:30 p.m. today
Where: Lincoln Middle School, 1001 SE 11th Ave.
Cost: Free

Dvir’s take on Merriex’s life, “Discovering Gloria,” is his second full-length documentary, and it premieres at 6:30 p.m. today at Lincoln Middle School. As operations manager at the UF Lastinger Center for Learning, Dvir had heard about the Gainesville teacher who had done the unthinkable: taken failing students, students written off as “special ed” or unable to learn, and turned them into math whizzes who not only aced their standardized tests, but truly grasped the material.

UF faculty studied Merriex’s methods — news of her progress spread like wildfire. She earned a prestigious grant from the Kellogg Foundation and saw her students achieve at the highest levels in the state.

The day after receiving the Kellogg grant, however, she died of a diabetic stroke.

At first, Dvir, who had never met Merriex, thought a documentary about her would be impossible to make.

“I didn’t think I could do a true portrait of Gloria because I never spoke to her, never met her, never filmed her,” Dvir says. Gloria’s friends, family and students were so eloquent and descriptive, however, that he made the film anyway.

The key to good documentaries is good journalism, Dvir says. The filmmaker and his stories are deeply rooted in Florida, but he didn’t start out that way.

He grew up in Kfar Ganim, a village in Israel, and moved to New Jersey when his father worked for the U.N. The family later moved to Florida and Dvir attended UF, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism, served in the Israeli army and then returned to Florida as a journalist.

When tragedy stunned his adopted hometown of Homosassa, Dvir’s identity as a documentary filmmaker began. In 2005, 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford was kidnapped, raped and killed by a convicted sex offender who lived across the street. Jessie, as her father Mark Lunsford called her, had attended the same elementary school as Dvir’s sister.

The case made national headlines. Dvir grabbed a camera and followed Mark Lunsford as the blunt high school dropout struggled with his daughter’s death and took action to prevent other fathers from going through what he did.

The culmination of two years on the road with Lunsford was “Jessie’s Dad,” an hour-long documentary capturing Mark Lunsford’s transformation from tattooed trucker to savvy fighter for child protection legislation.

The film has won several awards, including Best Documentary at the 2011 ITN Distribution Film and New Media Festival. One of the greatest moments of Dvir’s filmmaking career, however, was when he showed “Jessie’s Dad” to students at the Ivy League hub in Paris and found out some of them stayed up all that night debating the film.

He has similar hopes for “Discovering Gloria”: that the film will extend the discussion about education. Today’s premiere of the film is at the Lincoln Middle School auditorium in East Gainesville, where many of Gloria’s family members, friends and former students live.

Dvir says has a simple way to tell if documentaries are effective: “Are they on the edge of their seats? Are they laughing? Are they crying, and are they talking about it afterward?”

Anthony Guice, a parent volunteer featured in the documentary, says “Discovering Gloria” will bring back some painful memories. He was a close friend of Merriex and volunteered at Duval for eight years.

“The expectations [for teaching kids] are already high, but I feel like I have a greater part now in trying to help push what she believed in, her dreams,” he says.

Dvir has come to understand the commonality among the stories to which he’s drawn.

“It’s ordinary people who transform into trailblazers through the circumstances in which they find themselves,” he says.

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