Summer Centered: Doculab Recaptures the Spirit of the Bicenntennial
This summer’s Doculab Fellows are staying close to home as they produce a documentary project about the 1976 American Bicentennial celebrations in Philadelphia.
A bundle of film equipment and a handful of SEPTA passes have given this year’s Summer Doculab Fellows the opportunity to reinvent their perspectives on the nearby city of Philadelphia. Funded by the John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities, the four students have been part of a team that is researching the history and memory of the city’s 1976 celebration of the American Bicentennial.
“The film examines a group of creative Philadelphians looking at 1976 and the Bicentennial as a vexed site of possibility,” said Visiting Assistant Professor Thomas Devaney, the project’s leader. “The rub is that the official channels and celebration all but failed. It was an event that had been discussed for 20 years before it happened, yet all but fizzled.”
In order to accurately present Philadelphia’s bittersweet memory of the summer of ’76, the students have taken on a range of tasks, from consulting archival footage of the event for research to setting up cameras and lighting for an interview with local artists.
“Each day varies from the next, so we may be in the city filming b-roll footage of modern-day Philadelphia and meeting interview subjects, or we might be at VCAM editing footage and creating clip selects,” said Grace Sue BMC ’20, a member of this year’s documentary team.
“I was really interested in creating a film that focused on perspectives of the city as it was in ’76 and is today,” Sue said. “This project has allowed me to learn more about Philadelphia—its history and the physical structures relating to the Bicentennial—and the people within its fabric.”
This is the second year of the Summer Doculab Fellowship, a donor-funded program that supports student-faculty collaboration around documentary films that was launched with the opening of Haverford's new VCAM (Visual Culture, Arts, and Media) building. Last year’s fellows worked with Assistant Professor of Linguistics Brook Danielle Lillehaugen on a film about Zapotec language and culture in Oaxaca, Mexico, which they premiered on YouTube as a 10-episode webseries before screening it at festivals.
This year’s subject—the Bicentennial—was the brainchild of Devaney’s, following a course he taught on the city of Philadelphia as part of the inaugural semester of the Tri-Co Philly Program.
“In the face of a great yet broken promise, the film explores how a number of Philadelphia writers, artists, and creative people used the moment to find their own way to their life’s work,” he said.
Though their end-goal is to create a film on the city’s history and collective memory that is informative for the audience, the project has been just as educational for its filmmakers.
“It has allowed me to see Philadelphia in a new light and to better understand the history of the city,” said Julia Coletti ’21, a political science major working on the documentary.
Like Sue, Coletti, who minors in visual studies and concentrates in peace justice and human rights, is continually developing the knowledge she’s acquired in her coursework as the filmmakers advance through the creative process. The research taken on by the team calls for a historical lens, as they delve into the city’s archives, in addition to a more sociologically-based outlook as they interact with the film’s interviewees.
“I find this project—both as a documentary work and something of a public-history project—to be an interesting opportunity to combine and apply my different areas of study,” said Coletti. “Researching the Bicentennial has turned out to be a fascinating study of populism and social movements, relaying political and social dynamics not unlike some of our current moment.”
For Coletti, the Doculab experience has also been a chance to acquire hands-on practice with technical filmmaking skills, as the students are entrusted with heading each stage of the process, from the first shot to the final cut.
“Filmmaking is something that I have been really interested in learning more about for many years, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to try my hand at it until this past academic year,” she said. “I’ve been realizing that film and art in general have a great deal of potential to make academic research that I may do more accessible to a broader audience.”
To accomplish their goals, the group has had to rely on communication and teamwork as they rein in the independence that the project has afforded them. Sue and Coletti and this year’s two other Fellows (and fellow filmmakers) Jia Jixin ’21 and Cole Sansom ’19 have had the benefit of guidance from seasoned Doculab veteran Eddie Ogborn ’19 and Hilary Brashear '13, who both worked on last year's project, as well as filmmakers Matthew Suib and Aaron Igler, who are also part of this year's Doculab team.
“I feel like I have learned what it is like to coordinate and work together with people who have different strengths,” Sue said. “Over the weeks, I have discovered what I am strong at and what other people bring to the table.”
As the summer draws to a close, the Fellows have amassed a vast repository of footage, research, and interviews. Though they can step away from their summer work with an increased confidence in their production skills, they’re eager to devote time this fall to the editing process as they make progress towards the finished product, which they plan to exhibit in December.
“As we move into the post-production phase," said Coletti, "which will continue throughout the fall, we will be spending a lot of time in the VCAM editing suite, trying to weave the many tangled stories and bits of information into a compelling visual narrative."
“Summer Centered” is a series exploring our students’ Center-funded summer work.