William & Mary

From St. Petersburg to Swem

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Sasha Prokhorov had seen St. Petersburg many times through the eyes of the William & Mary students participating in his study-abroad classes to Russia. Never had he seen it through the lenses of the video cameras they carried. This summer, he did. The difference, he found, transformed the research venture.

Prokhorov, associate professor of Russian studies at William & Mary, explained that the transformation came through the number of individual encounters among his students and Russian citizens necessitated by the requirement to produce documentary films in lieu of standard research papers. “It was 10- to 20-times greater than during traditional research trips involving city tours and museum trips,” he estimated.

Substantive encounters occurred as the W&M students partnered with students from St. Petersburg’s University of Cinema and Television to select interesting subjects and to arrange video interviews. Deeper encounters came during the interviews themselves.

“Looking through a camera lens, you see things differently, and every time someone else is behind the camera things are different because it’s not only about the camera it’s about this moment of human interaction,” he said.

As co-teacher for the course, Cindy Centeno '16, media specialist at the Charles W. Reeder Media Center, was responsible for ensuring that the students had the requisite skills with the basic equipment — lights, microphones, tripods, cameras — to conduct the video interviews and secure footage for future editing. As a recent graduate, she was familiar with the stresses they faced and helped them see that the vulnerabilities they were experiencing were opportunities to see things differently and to learn things that, in her words, “really matter.”

“They sit down with the person they’re interviewing, they’re asking them these questions, they’re having this human interaction, they’re talking in a language that is not their primary language, they’re really immersing themselves in this experience, and that’s how they learn, how they begin to understand this different perspective,” Centeno said.

“Then, through the process of creating film, they begin to connect people,” she explained.

For more information about the trip and the film-making process, see the class websiteTo hear more of the music of the W&M Russian Music Ensemble, visit its website.

A final screening of the films is scheduled for Nov. 30 at 5 p.m. in the Botetourt Theatre in Swem Library.