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Villanova University Social Justice Documentary “Heel’d” Selected as Student Academy Awards Finalist by Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Film Tells Story of local Philadelphia nonprofit Hand2Paw’s Mission to Bring Homeless Youth and Homeless Animals Together to Create Positive Change in Each Other’s Lives

Heel'd Poster

VILLANOVA, Pa. – Villanova student filmmakers from a social justice documentary course in the University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences may soon be “walking the red carpet” at the Student Academy Awards in Hollywood.

Thomas Smith and McKenna Hinkle, co-directors of “Heel’d,” a short documentary film that tells the story of Hand2Paw, a local Philadelphia nonprofit,  and its mission to bring together homeless youth and homeless animals, have been selected as finalists in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ 41st Student Academy Awards competition. Announcement of their selection in the documentary category was made by the Academy May 2.

The Villanova students are two of only 41 students from 23 U.S. colleges and universities as well as 10 students from foreign universities chosen to receive the honor. To reach this stage, U.S. students competed in one of three regional competitions. “Heel’d” vied with contestants from a 41-state region, excluding the Western states, New York state and Puerto Rico.

Academy members will next vote to determine up to three winning films in each category. “Heel’d” is one of 11 documentaries under consideration. The winners, but not their medal placements, will be announced later this month. The winning students will be brought to Los Angles for a week of industry activities and social events that will culminate in the awards ceremony on Saturday, June 7 at the DGA Theater in Hollywood, at which time the gold, silver and bronze medalists will be revealed.

“I'm ecstatic that ‘Heel’d’ has been named a finalist in the Student Academy Awards. This project meant a lot to me personally because of the issues involved in this film,” Smith said.

He added, “What I want people to take away from this film is that youth homelessness is a major issue that needs to be addressed in our society. The issue can help be addressed by organizations like Hand2Paw.”

“’Heel’d’ chronicles how homeless youth who volunteer through Hand2Paw to work with homeless animals waiting to be adopted at local animal shelters develop poignant relationships with the animals while learning valuable life and career skills. Watch the film’s trailer here.

“Working on this film was one of the best experiences of my life,” Hinkle said. “Every day when leaving film shoots in Philadelphia, I would think about all the trivial stuff I may have been consumed by earlier that day, and they seemed to not really matter anymore.”

She added, “I hope when people see this film they want to take action in some way. Maybe they want to adopt a dog, volunteer at an animal shelter, mentor youth suffering from homelessness, or donate to Hand2Paw. The more people that aid in trying to solve the problem, the less of a problem it will become.” 

“Heel’d” was produced during the fall 2013 semester by a nine-member student crew under the guidance of department of communication faculty members John O’Leary and Stephen McWilliams. The social justice documentary film course is one of the programs supported by the Waterhouse Family Institute for the Study of Communication and Society (WFI). As participants in this unique program, students learn about film while creating documentaries that allow them to become advocates for important societal issues.

“It is especially satisfying to see ‘Heel'd’ gain this kind of national recognition because every frame of the film reveals the deep respect the students held for the people you see on the screen,” O’Leary said. “This was a labor of love and compassion for the students – they took their impressive film making skills and put them to use in the service of social justice.”

“Our goal with all of our films is to create awareness of the many special people in the Philadelphia region who change lives every day,” McWilliams added. “We hope our films inspire the viewers to realize that every little contribution that we all make to the betterment of others, defines and strengthens community.”

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences established the Student Academy Awards in 1972 to support and encourage excellence in filmmaking at the collegiate level. Past Student Academy Award® winners have gone on to receive 46 Oscar® nominations and have won or shared eight awards. They include John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Robert Zemeckis, Trey Parker and Spike Lee.

The 41st Student Academy Awards ceremony on June 7 is free and open to the public, but advance tickets are required. Tickets may be obtained online at or by mail.

About Villanova University: Since 1842, Villanova University’s Augustinian Catholic intellectual tradition has been the cornerstone of an academic community in which students learn to think critically, act compassionately and succeed while serving others. There are more than 10,000 undergraduate, graduate and law students in the University's five colleges – the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Villanova School of Business, the College of Engineering, the College of Nursing and the Villanova University School of Law. As students grow intellectually, Villanova prepares them to become ethical leaders who create positive change everywhere life takes them.