A film still from the class documentary “Exit 426: Watsonville.” The film will premiere as a featured local documentary at the 2012 Santa Cruz Film Festival Sunday at the Nickelodeon Theatre. Photo courtesy of Lusztig’s Intermediate Documentary course.

We’ve all driven through it at one point. Still, some of us know next to nothing about our neighbor to the southeast.

Last winter quarter, assistant professor Irene Lusztig’s Intermediate Documentary Production course spent three months getting to know Watsonville through the creation of their documentary, “Exit 426: Watsonville.”

The film will premiere as a featured local documentary at the 2012 Santa Cruz Film Festival Sunday at the Nickelodeon Theatre.

Filmed in a slow-paced, meditative and observational style, the documentary follows the lives of local residents. From a farm harvesting its winter crops to local government officials discussing issues of housing, the film pieces together an inside view of everyday life for many in Watsonville.

Lusztig, who came up with the idea for the film, said she wanted students to get off campus and into the community.

“I’m thinking about how to encourage students to explore communities they aren’t familiar with, meet people they wouldn’t normally meet, go somewhere they wouldn’t usually go,” Lusztig said. “Watsonville is great for that — it’s nearby but demographically very different. A surprising number of my students have never been there.”

The class of 20 students worked in pairs to explore different aspects of Watsonville culture. From agriculture to city government, the main focus of the film is to have a real understanding of the community.

Timothy Irvine, a fourth-year film major and class member, said while half the class was initially put off by the idea of a professor assigning a collaborative project, he was excited.

“I think that’s how film classes should be taught, because that’s how film production works in the real world,” Irvine said. “In most film classes, every student does their own individual project.”

With only 10 weeks in the quarter, it was a struggle to create a feature-length film rather than the five- to 10-minute documentary that film students are used to creating. The entire class worked together, brainstorming, decision making, producing and editing.

“In most of our classes, students do their own film, and you have students making three or four projects a quarter,” Lusztig said. “It’s a really quick turnaround, and there are certain things I never get to teach in that situation — and certain things students never learn.”

Irvine, who enjoyed the teamwork on the film, said it could be thought of as a cinema mosaic.

“Confusion was sort of unavoidable because, with a collective thing, there will always be different styles between the people shooting it,” Irvine said. “It’s really important to learn about the complexities of a feature length co-operative filmmaking experience, instead of just doing individual projects.”

Ana Perez Lopez, a journalism and humanities major studying abroad from a university in Spain, said she has been working on films in groups throughout her college experience.

“I feel like teamwork is always better and it’s more realistic,” Lopez said.

Lopez, who has lived in Santa Cruz for a year now, didn’t know Watsonville existed until she took the film class.

“It’s just a place where we get things like produce from but we don’t really know the social dynamic of the town,” Lopez said. “The film really opens your eyes to what life’s like for some people in Watsonville.”

Through filming some of the day laborers in Watsonville, Lopez said she learned about the struggles undocumented workers experience on a daily basis.

In addition to supporting local cinema and local documentaries, Irvine said it’s important for people to see documentaries about things they might not otherwise pay attention to.

“The film wasn’t in Santa Cruz. It was a commute. It was getting off a campus away from pine trees and pot and student problems and the beach, and it was going to look at some place that, in my opinion, is pretty negatively represented in the media,” Irvine said. “Going there, talking to people and seeing so much of it, totally made me change my opinion on Watsonville.”