Editor's note: this is one of six profiles republished from Rowland Hall's 2018–2019 Annual Report feature story, "Winged Lions on the Rise." Millennial alumni are finding their voices and already shaping their fields and communities—from physics to film, music to medical innovations, and environmental policy to conservation-minded real estate. Learn how Rowland Hall impacted them, and how they’re impacting the world. From left, Jared Ruga ’06, Claire Wang ’15, Phinehas Bynum ’08, Jeanna Tachiki Ryan ’01, Tyler Ruggles ’05, and Sarah Day ’06.
Rowland Hall lifer Jared Ruga grew up directing friends in eccentric homemade movies, including a “sci-fi space opera retelling” of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for freshman English. The young auteur was self-taught, though he did glean inspiration from attending the Sundance Film Festival every year since age 16. One decade and three advanced degrees later, he founded Vavani Productions. And in 2018, Vavani’s first film debuted at Sundance—it was chaos.
Jared and his team crafted a stirring documentary in Quiet Heroes. It tells the story of Dr. Kristen Ries and physician assistant Maggie Snyder, the only Utahns treating HIV/AIDS patients at the peak of that crisis. Vavani submitted a rough cut to Sundance expecting a rejection, so when it got in, they scrambled to finish it. Then came the thrilling-but-exhausting process of shepherding the film through the festival—Jared delivered his second Q&A with a 103-degree fever. He looks back on the madness and laughs, noting he’ll know to handle it if there’s a next time: “Maybe have the film totally done by the time you submit.”
Jared's time at Rowland Hall taught him that focus and commitment yield long-term rewards, even if it takes some short-term pain.
Still, Vavani’s bold moves paid off. Quiet Heroes secured three distribution deals. A TV showing qualified it for a Daytime Emmy, and in May, the doc won in its category—even edging out an Oprah special. Quiet Heroes was a challenging film to make over three years, Jared said, but his time at Rowland Hall taught him that focus and commitment yield long-term rewards, even if it takes some short-term pain. Plus, he knew the narrative deserved attention, and he was fueled by Salt Lake City’s supportive LGBTQ+ community.
Jared learned about Kristen and Maggie while earning his JD, MBA, and film MFA from the University of Utah (he credits Rowland Hall for sparking his interdisciplinary curiosity). As a gay man from Salt Lake, he was embarrassed he’d never before heard of the duo. “The scourge of the AIDS crisis in the ’80s and ’90s is a crucial part of Queer history that we in younger generations must understand and appreciate,” Jared said. So he shared the story, and it moved local audiences to tears: people who’d lost family to the epidemic told Jared the film was a beautiful, meaningful portrayal of that struggle. Plus, the movie’s message extends beyond that crisis: it’s about standing up for your community amidst adversity, and creating a sense of family for people who are otherwise ostracized.
There’s a sense of duty that you need to pay it forward. Twenty years down the road, I hope that I’ve created an ecosystem for change.—Jared Ruga ’06
And that’s why Jared got into filmmaking. Upon founding Vavani, he wrote an ethos to tell compelling, socially conscious stories from underrepresented perspectives. The philosophy reflects his Rowland Hall roots: “Teachers were focused on making sure we weren’t just learning facts, we were learning how to be good stewards of our society,” he said. “There’s a sense of duty that you need to pay it forward.” Jared and his team have already released another documentary, and eventually hope to have a few films out every year. They’re also exploring “impact campaigns,” which could involve sending movies on tour, creating survivor-support networks, and more—part of Jared’s greater goal of advancing the conversation. “Twenty years down the road, I hope that I’ve created an ecosystem for change.”
Top: Jared in a Vavani Productions writing session for narrative TV series Graduates, one of several projects in development.