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Students' 'Symphony' kicks off Global Film Festival

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They swept aside their prejudices, their conceptions and misconceptions, and their biases about the area that engulfs the world in which they live, play, and learn.

The Film Studies students in Professor Tim Barnard and Jes Therkelsen’s class last semester had one task: find out as much as they could about the “real” Williamsburg, collect hundreds of hours of film, then tell the story – in 15 minutes or less – in a style that hasn’t been seen in more than half-a-century.

Barnard and Therkelsen demanded that the film be modeled after a “City Symphony,” a genre of documentary filmmaking that dates back to the silent era, grew out of avant-garde filmmaking, and was heavily influenced by the Soviet montage movement.

“The City Symphony genre gets called a kind of poetic form of documentary filmmaking,” Barnard remarked. “You go out into the city – that becomes the subject or protagonist – and you gather footage. That becomes the documentary. Where the poetry comes in is in the editing – the sort of montage you create, the piecing together the different images to try to create a composite image where the relationships generated between the different clips captures a poetry or a movement or a feel for the city.”

But why “Symphony?”

“Each clip (of film) you piece together is like a note,” Therkelsen said. “As you start accumulating clips, you start making melodies. Whether they are harmonious, discordant, or melodic depends on how the clips are put together.”

A “Williamsburg City Symphony,” leads off this year’s four-day Global Film Festival on Thursday, Feb. 16, at 5:30 p.m. at the Kimball Theatre.

To compose their symphony, students visited a senior-living center, the transportation center, world-famous Duke of Gloucester Street, the New Town section of the community, the annual art festival, the Grand Illumination with its spectacularly timed fireworks display.

“The biggest challenge that we took on as a team was filming off campus, getting away from the community that we know,” said Greg Thompson ’13, one of 14 students who were divided into three teams that spent up to six hours a week filming around the area.

“Our first week of class, I hopped in my car, got as far away from campus as I could within the city limits, so I could get something that other people wouldn’t be able to get on tape. I went driving around with my camera, and discovering different areas I’d never seen before.”

They spent time with Colonial Williamsburg’s famous Fife and Drum Corps, filmed while in an airplane hovering over the city, visited nightclubs, and a day-care center among many other venues and sites.

“The idea of getting everyone’s voice heard about Williamsburg was a guiding principle for us,” said Lizzy Pelletier ’14. “One of the things we were trying to do was to debunk the myth of Williamsburg being a boring place where everybody drives 20 miles n hour and sleeps all of the time. I found that Williamsburg does have a lot of energy.

“We visited a retirement community, which you would expect to be one of the slowest places in the city, but we went to see older women doing water aerobics, and they had a ton of energy.”

And they visited that Williamsburg institution known as the pancake house – lots of them.

“One of my favorite moments was filming all of the pancake houses,” said Dana Hayes ’14. “They’re such a tourist joke; people driving around seeing all of these pancake houses. We did five or six of them, and they made for a funny moment in the film.”

But even pancake houses have a hidden reality behind tourists and their children happily munching.

“One thing we did that was eye-opening was we shot behind the scenes at (a pancake house),” said Pelletier. “We’d see people eating pancakes out front, what the tourists see, and then kind of behind the scenes the workers flipping the pancakes in the back.

“That’s representative of a contradiction we tried to address in our film, the idea that Williamsburg is a tourist town so there’s lot of play and leisure. There’s also a lot of work behind the scenes that has to happen.”

Pelletier admits that one semester probably wasn’t enough to even “scratch the surface of Williamsburg,” that “it has big-city resources in a small town, mechanisms that are very urban, with wonderful cultural resources.”

However, Thompson added that he believes that the film will serve its purpose.

“What we’re going for is you coming out of the film having learned something you didn’t know about the city,” he said, “having had that sense of discovery that I had that first week with the camera, going around finding new things. We want to give that to the audience as well.”