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Chester County Press

Two filmmakers set to travel the country, focusing on people being true to themselves

11/20/2013 01:34PM ● By Acl

Jon Ristaino (left) and Levi Schenk are best friends who will be traveling across the country to make a documentary.

By John Chambless

Staff Writer

On Dec. 26, Jon Ristaino and Levi Schenk will be setting off on a cross-country journey in search of good. 

Ristaino, 23, and Schenk, 24, grew up together in Landenberg, and they both went to Avon Grove High School. As best friends since sixth grade, they are about to spend a little over 25 days together in the same car, traveling to 15 cities and filming people for a documentary to be titled, "Be Who You Are." 

"Levi and I aren't out to make money on this," Ristaino said by phone last week from his Philadelphia apartment. "But if we can inspire somebody to get up and do something they wouldn't normally do, to overcome something that's standing in their way, that's what we want to do."

On their just-launched website (, Ristaino and Schenk explain their vision for a documentary "about friendship, motivation and most importantly being yourself." They provide biographies of themselves, revealing why they've decided to set off on this idealistic mission. 

In his bio, Schenk admits that he was an underachiever in school, placed more emphasis on money than true friendships, and eventually turned himself around, self-financed his studies at Temple University, lost more than 120 pounds and "realized the power of education, both in my lifestyle and academically." He will be stressing the importance of education during the cross-country trip.

Ristaino writes that he was teased in middle school and high school, switched from Slippery Rock University to Temple University to study broadcasting and documentary storytelling, was dating "a great girl" for two years, but "I couldn't find out why I was so unhappy," he writes. "I started to realize I hated who I was and was uncomfortable in my own skin." 

Ristaino made some life changes, including admitting to himself, and the world, that he was gay. "I can say I feel lighter, happier and most importantly, true to myself," he writes. He will be promoting anti-bullying programs during the trip.

The documentary will reflect not only the lives of the two friends, but their stories will be echoed in the lives of the people they find along the way -- people who are being true to themselves and overcoming obstacles.

"Now that we're actually doing this, that's the scary part," Ristaino said. "It's getting more real each day."

Ristaino graduated from Temple a year and a half ago (Schenk has one more semester to go), and did some marketing and advertising work. He has since opened his own online marketing and web design firm, and he works as a bartender on the weekends. In just one part of a remarkably synchronized sequence of events, "the bar I work at was shutting down for two months to remodel," he said. "I was really upset about it, wondering what I was going to do. I had been wanting to do something like this documentary for so long, that I thought this was the time to do it. I took a bad situation and turned it into a good one."

Schenk initially thought there was no way he could carve out time to participate, but then "I changed the date of the trip so he could go," Ristaino said. "Levi raised a good point: When else are we going to have one month to do this?"

In many ways, the documentary was meant to happen. "We've been friends for 12 years," Ristaino said of Schenk. "We've always been best friends. He ended up really wanting to get out of his situation and go to school, and I really wanted to go to a school that would help with my media career. Ironically, we both ended up at Temple."

There will be two dimensions to "Be Who You Are," Ristaino said. "There's following us, and then there's the stories that we collect along the way, bundling together into one. You'll see us in the documentary, you'll see the car breaking down or whatever other things happen, and you'll also see the stories of these people. Our story kind of matches the stories that we're looking for."

To find people to interview, Ristaino and Schenk have been soliciting ideas from the public through their website and through Facebook. "We might go to a church, or to a community center, and we're calling places," Ristaino said. "You might call 45 places for two maybes. One might be a yes.

"There is serendipity involved, and we plan the stories around that," he said. "We encourage people to send story ideas to us. We don't have stories in every city yet, but it's starting to happen."

The duo plans to spend a day or a day and a half in each city, "so there's not a lot of time to sleep," Ristaino said. The itinerary at this point includes Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, St. Louis, Kansas City, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, The Four Corners, Albuquerque, Dallas, New Orleans, Atlanta, Charlotte and Washington, D.C. But that might change.

Both Ristaino and Schenk are tech-savvy, and they will be linked globally by Facebook and Twitter. Anyone who donates money to support their trip will get a range of perks -- mentions in the documentary credits, a postcard or other unspecified gifts from the road. The amount raised so far is encouraging, but Ristaino admitted they will be sleeping in the car for several nights when funds aren't available for a motel.

"People have been telling us we're crazy," he said, laughing. "What's really awesome is that you see the kindness of strangers. We've gotten more money from strangers than from people we know."

After the filmmakers get back home to Philadelphia, there will be editing and production work to complete. The aim is to have a screening in southern Chester County at some point. "We're trying to get the community on board with us," Ristaino said. "Our community is very small but there are a lot of people in it. We do plan on approaching some film festivals, but that won't be for a while. Hopefully it might go someplace like Netflix. That would be great."

For more information, and to track the progress of "Be Who You Are," visit