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'Quiet Heroes': USD Alumnus' Film Documentary Debuting at Sundance Film Festival

Utah resident Jared Ruga is a busy man these days. On Sunday, Jan. 21, he’ll be in Salt Lake City. On Jan. 23 and 26, the 29-year-old will be in Park City, Utah. At each stop, he’ll spend a good amount of time in a movie theater. Upon hearing that, it might not seem like a person who is on a business trip, but it's true. Actually, it's about having a strong commitment. It’s about spreading awareness, directing much-needed attention, respect and honor toward individuals who are taking care of people with unconditional dignity. In all, Ruga's three-year involvement is about to result in the world premiere of his film documentary, Quiet Heroes, at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.

Ruga, an Honors Program triple-major undergraduate alumnus of the University of San Diego (International Business, Philosophy and Communication Studies) and a USDtv alumnus, is the co-director, co-producer and co-executive producer of Quiet Heroes, a 69-minute story on the work of Dr. Kristen Ries, an infectious-disease specialist, and the patients statewide she's treated who've been afflicted with HIV/AIDS.

Quiet Heroes Film Doc

Ries arrived in Salt Lake City on June 5, 1981 — the same day the Centers for Disease Control first published a report on what would become known as AIDS. By the next year, Ries encountered her first patient with the disease. Because of stigma and fear surrounding both AIDS and homosexuality, Ries and her eventual partner, physician assistant Maggie Snyder, became the only medical professionals in Utah willing to treat a growing number of people with HIV/AIDS. These patients, facing certain death in the early years of the epidemic, often had to keep their status a secret or risk ostracism from their families, workplaces, and religious communities. Quiet Heroes reveals the impact of the disease in a conservative part of the country and shares the evocative story of these caregivers and their patients.

Ruga, who earned Law, MBA and MFA degrees at the University of Utah post-USD, is the founding president of the Media and Entertainment division for Sentry Financial, a company founded by his father in 1986. “My division invests in media companies, and we currently have three in our portfolio: Vavani (a socially conscious multimedia production house Ruga founded that produced Quiet Heroes), Rigby Road Studios (a state-of-the-art recording studio in Salt Lake City), and A Beautiful Perspective (a large-scale festival and conference management company with a content platform and impact/music conference),” he says.

“As president of Media and Entertainment, I craft and supervise the execution of our short- and long-term strategies, manage my team, and consult on projects with other divisions of Sentry that have media overlap,” he continues. “I get to use the expertise behind all five of my degrees, and haven’t been bored a single day since I started working. The startup life is definitely not for everyone, but I’m profoundly grateful to be in a position where my team and I work every day to build something that can influence positive change in the world through the stories we tell.”

Quiet Heroes is a candid look at HIV/AIDS, a disease that caused fear and anxiety in society due to the unknown in the 1980s and 1990s. In Utah, the presence of HIV/AIDS deepened the fear and anxiety amongst residents, particularly those devoted to the Mormon faith.

“The religious monoculture severely complicated the AIDS crisis, where patients received no support from — or were cast into exile by — the political, religious, and medical communities,” states Quiet Heroes’ website film synopsis. “Further, Mormon culture encouraged gay men to marry women and have a family to cure themselves of their ‘affliction,’ counsel which led to secret affairs and accidental marital transmissions of HIV. In the entire state and intermountain region there was only one doctor to serve all HIV/AIDS patients. This is the story of [Dr. Ries’] fight to save the lives of a maligned population everyone else seemed willing to just let die.”

Questions and Answers with Jared Ruga

Ruga has been preparing for the documentary’s debut at Sundance this year, but the festival has been a constant in his life. He’s experienced Sundance many times, including as a USD student in the annual Intersession course, COMM 433, taught by Communication Studies Professors Roger Pace and Eric Pierson. He took a few minutes recently to answer a few questions about filmmaking, education, Quiet Heroes and his longtime appreciation for Sundance.

USD News Center: What makes you happiest about the documentary being made and having it premiere at Sundance? 

Jared Ruga: “Filmmaking is a tough gig — shoots can be grueling, the editing process is frustrating, and you find yourself getting sick of the project and wanting to walk away forever, but aren’t able to get the story out of your head. There are occasional moments — tiny flashes of insight, a brilliant accidental cut, the swell of a particularly powerful measure of music — that keeps you hooked until the film is finished. And when it is finished, the only thing left to do is to show it to other people; you don’t want your years of work to just go quietly into the night. Having Sundance, an industry tastemaker and the most consequential film festival in the United States, like your work enough to program it is a dream come true. It’s something I never expected, and am so humbled and honored to be included.”

How much did you know about the documentary subject prior to your involvement in it? Had you done any research or study in this area prior to joining the project?

"As a gay man, I’m in a demographic that experiences higher HIV transmission rates than the average, so I had a personal stake in being informed and getting tested regularly. I wasn’t really aware, however, of the depth of history of HIV in Utah, and the people, like Kristen and Maggie, the subjects of Quiet Heroes, on the forefront of that battle. That’s one of the reasons I felt compelled to make this film — too many people, particularly in my age bracket, were unaware of the heroes who battled on our community’s behalf when the stakes weren’t just civil rights, but literally life and death."

How did working on this documentary enhance your filmmaking knowledge?

"While I’ve done several narrative and documentary shorts, this was my first documentary feature, with a real budget and crew. There’s a whole additional layer of complexity when you’re playing in the professional realm; the stakes are higher and you feel more of a responsibility to get it right. I learned more lessons about filmmaking over the course of Quiet Heroes than I did while earning my MFA. But that’s true of all school, I think. Law school is similar: they teach you how to think like a lawyer, but not the intricacies and practicalities of practicing law. The film world is the same; I came into this project knowing how to think like a filmmaker, but was naive to all the complex dynamics that surround the process. Sometimes the only way to learn is to do."

What are you most looking forward to at Sundance this time around?

"I’ve been attending Sundance as a film fan since I was 16 years old; I’m 29 now, so that’s a good portion of my life. Last year was my first year attending the festival as a professional working in the film industry, which was a completely different experience. This year, that experience levels up: I’m attending as a filmmaker as well. I’ve known a few filmmakers who’ve had films premiere at the festival, and they described how utterly life-changing it is. I’ve gotten a glimpse into that already with the attention our project has received so far, six weeks before the festival. I’m most looking forward to meeting so many talented filmmakers and industry professionals. Being able to share in this special moment in time with people at the top of their field is an honor and privilege I won’t forget."

You attended Sundance as a USD student. How does it feel to come full circle?

"The crazy thing about life is that it often comes full circle. I had my initial meeting about the project that would become Quiet Heroes on the first full day of Sundance 2015; now it’s premiering at Sundance 2018. I attended Sundance 2009 as a USD student taking Independent Cinema with Drs. Pierson and Pace. Now I’ll be sitting in the same venues as a media executive and Sundance filmmaker, with students who are doing what I did nine years ago. Because I had so many great professors, mentors in the administration, and friends at USD, it’s definitely a community in which I’ll always feel at home. It’s fun to share in this astronomically unlikely success with that fantastic group of people."

Given the breadth of your college education, what has that experience meant in your outlook on life and how you approach an opportunity such as the documentary?

I often reminisce that I grew up at USD; I learned about the world in a comprehensive, interdisciplinary way — and then realized that despite triple-majoring in the Honors Program, I still only knew a tiny fraction of what exists in the universe. There’s no question that attending USD from 18-22 was an exceptionally formative experience, and I’d be a different person today if I’d gone somewhere else. I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to become a Torero. I continued my interdisciplinary streak in grad school at Utah with three different degrees. Observing the world through so many different lenses proffered a flexible perspective; it’s wired me to think about how interconnected everything is, which is a skill I use every day in work and life. This perspective-shifting is also useful for crafting empathic films, which I what I hope we achieved with Quiet Heroes.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

All photos provided by Jared Ruga