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Student filmmakers praise VES program’s abundant resources

By Zhenzhen Lu, Contributing Writer

Video camera and microphone in hand, Ceridwen Dovey ’03 traveled to a winery in Western Cape, South Africa, to film her thesis for her joint concentration in Social Anthropology and Visual and Environmental Studies (VES).

And her experience as a film student in VES is not unique. Film projects have brought film students like Dovey to dorm rooms, community theatres, boxes at women’s football games and local sex shops. And this year, a students in a sophomore film class are spending spare time videotaping and interviewing anglers in Boston.

But outside of a few VES concentrators and film aficionados, Harvard has never been known for its filmmaking program. While theater has a notable presence in campus life, film seems content to be quietly tucked away in lesser-known VES offices in Sever Hall.

Students in the department say they get equipment and instruction that rivals even professional film schools. And many say the department has allowed them to follow opportunities—like visiting South Africa—that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

For Dovey, it was the lavish funding of the VES department that enabled her to produce a unique half-hour look at South African farming.

Dovey first filmed in South Africa the summer following a non-fiction video course with Ross McElwee, a visiting lecturer who encouraged students to take on independent projects.

She spent the summer before her senior year and three weeks this January collecting some 35 hours of footage, filming scenes from wine being bottled and farmers preparing their meals to the fanfare at the local talent show.

The complete edited version, a 35 minute movie, captures the complex interactions between the workers and the white farmowners. It also provides a glimpse into the changing lives of the workers under the new system of corporate land-ownership.

“I wanted to tell a positive story about South Africa,” Dovey says. “One usually hears about [negative things] like AIDS and corruption, but there is a lot of hope there as well.”

VES’s financial support is behind it all. Dovey obtains her equipment from the department, which provides a stipend to individual juniors and seniors. This is a substantial help, students say, since a ten-minute roll of film can cost hundreds of dollars to purchase and develop independently. Besides lending cameras to video-focused students like Dovey, the department also provides unlimited rolls of 16 millimeter film for those not shooting with digital cameras.

Even the most novice first-year film concentrators are given rolls of 16 mm film. And in the dark corridors of Sever basement, where students spend most of their time editing, there is expensive editing equipment.

At first, film students learn to cut and slice their films at editing tables; by junior year, they shoot their own projects. This system is rare even at first-tier professional film schools, like Tisch at New York University, where novice undergraduates typically “apprentice” and work on the projects of seniors. At some graduate film schools, students are not allowed to shoot their own projects until their second year.

“Kids who do film here are so fortunate…they have money, they have these filmmakers [in the faculty] who are so brilliant [and] amazing,” says Michael J. Palmer ’03.

Among the film faculty are McElwee, Hooker Professor of Visual Arts Alfred Guzzetti and Arnheim Lecturer on Filmmaking Robb Moss, who are all working filmmakers. Earlier this year, Moss’ documentary “The Same River Twice” was selected for the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. Moss also teaches Visual and Environmental Studies 50: “Fundamentals of Filmmaking,” a full year hands-on film course in which students learn basic techniques of documentary filmmaking and equipment use.

For his thesis, Palmer, who is also a member of Harvard’s band Invisible Downtown, wrote and directed a short film about a fictional band. The movie centers on a group of Jewish college students “coming to terms with love, religion, and music.”

“It’s a weird concoction of my life and all the movies I’ve seen and my friends’ lives,” Palmer says. “I think that’s how [most] art gets made.”

Palmer’s senior thesis budget allowed him to recruit actors and crew on a web site that attracts semi-professionals. Other film students look for their cast and crew by posting to the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club mailing lists and to film club mailing lists on campus.

“To have people give you money to make film doesn’t happen in the real world, but it happens here,” says Palmer.

Even though students receive generous funding and devoted instruction, not everyone is satisfied by the film program—some students say they think that it is not only small but also limited in many ways, including its tendency to focus on non-fiction ilmmaking.

Traditionally, film is divided between documentary (or non-fiction) film and narrative film, the type popularized by Hollywood movies.

For some, the heavy documentary focus of Harvard’s film program creates a gap in the program. And those seeking to work outside the department often find themselves without the financial and technical support they need.

Brooks Newkirk ’03 recalls the almost exclusively pro-documentary stance of the department, which prompted him to switch from VES to physics.

In his free time, he runs a club called Nightfall Films, which manages to make one or two short films a year. Newkirk is now applying to graduate school in film.

Because of his departure from VES, Newkirk voices the difficulties of obtaining equipment, getting funding and finding actors without department support. Filmmakers have to construct their own support structure, as Newkirk has done with Nightfall Films.

Still, film outside VES is alive, with extracurricular organizations such as the Journal of Cinematic Studies and the Dudley House Film Society. Scattered students, Newkirk included, shoot their own independent films.

“The [thing about] film is that there is no set route,” Newkirk says.

While the film program may not provide strong connections to the film industry like schools such as the University of Southern California and Tisch, it demands that students to learn filmmaking thoroughly.

And things have changed within the VES film department: this year a handful of senior theses involve fictional themes, and the department has benefited from luminaries like visiting lecturer Hal Hartley, who is well known for his work on narrative film.

“[The faculty] think of film as a way of going out into the world, exploring it and understanding it,” says Palmer.

After months of arduous filming and editing, the seniors are weary but wiser.

“[Making film] is about breaking out of the insulated world we have here,” Palmer says. “It’s great because you can really reach out to people outside [of the school].”

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