For many Vassar film majors, senior year proves to be their chance to set themselves apart through their art, and at the same time to collaborate on projects and support each other.
“We make these films with the hope that they will be great material to showcase and show other film makers,” said Ashlei Hardenburg ’13, who is currently in Film 327: Narrative Workshop. “We’re also making connections with each other, and hopefully will be working together later too.”
Film majors who are particularly interested in directing, cinematography, and other technical aspects of film enroll in Film 326: Documentary Workshop, taught by Professor of Film Kenneth Robinson, in the fall, and then Film 327: Narrative Workshop, taught by Robinson as well as Visiting Instructor in Film Jason Fox, in the spring.
In these selective courses, which require permission for enrollment from the instructors, students work in crews on 20-25 minute films that they screen for the public at the end of the semester. The crews film every weekend, and show the class their progress weekly for group critique and feedback from the professor.
“We watch them in their progress every single week in class, and we give each other commentary throughout the entire process, so really the whole class is involved in every single project,” said Elena Gaby ’13.
This emphasis on group work is a pivotal aspect of the class, and helps to prepare students for work in a field where artistic partnership and networking is key. “It reinforces the idea of collaboration,” Hardenburg expounded. “It is really nice to have outside input, and fresh eyes seeing things.”
Hardenburg and Gaby have worked together both in the documentary workshop and in narratives this semester. Gaby directed the well-received documentary, Paper State: Undocumented, Unafraid, Undeterred, and Hardenburg was the producer. Paper State told the stories of several undocumented teenagers in Poughkeepsie and Saugerties, NY, and the barriers that they faced during the college application process and in their day-to-day lives.
“The film was special because we were having people who aren’t allowed to be in this country come out and tell their stories on camera, which is something that takes a lot of courage on their part and is also very empowering,” said Gaby.
Kelly Nguyen ’13, who edited the film, found the process to be a rewarding experience. “Paper State was one of the most inspiring projects that I have ever gotten the opportunity to be a part of,” she said in an emailed statement. “We spent a lot of time worrying about how to technically make the film, and then were totally blindsided by the intelligence, eloquence, and bravery of the students that we interviewed.”
Gilad Thaler ’13, like Gaby, also directed a hard-hitting documentary last semester. Titled Fire on the Hudson, his piece details the quest of two grassroots organizations, Clearwater and Riverkeeper, to shut down Indian Point, a nuclear power plant just 45 miles north of Times Square.
“Indian Point is located on the intersection of two earthquake fault lines, making it vulnerable to a natural disaster,” explained Thaler in an emailed statement.
“It was also considered as a target in the 2001 September 11th attacks; these factors make local activists quite uneasy about the notion of keeping Indian Point for an additional 20 years,” he added.
As an environmentalist, Thaler feels that understanding the possible consequences of the power plant is important.
“I decided to choose the topic of Indian Point because of the environmental ramifications of a nuclear meltdown,” he said in an emailed statement. “I myself am an environmentalist and believe that more people should be aware of the pros and cons of nuclear energy.”
This semester’s narratives workshop contrasts starkly with the documentary class, and the students have had to take on a new form of film-making that highlights their diverse array of strengths. Hardenburg is directing a narrative film from her own original script, with Gaby working on the cinematography, that tells the story of two brothers who try to overcome their resentment for one another to save their father.
“I learned a lot from Elena last semester, so it was nice being a part of that process,” said Hardenburg. “We’re still in preproduction phases right now. We have a great cast, and a great setting.” The film department holds open auditions for the narrative film projects, and actors from all over the Hudson Valley come to try out.
“Most of the actors are 40 years old and up, so it’s exciting to work with people much older than you who are trusting your judgments,” said Hardenburg. “It’s great to work with people who are already in the film industry. You have to make sure that you’re responsible and respectful because they are trusting you.”
Thaler is directing this semester again as well, this time working on a project that tells the story of an Orthodox Jewish grandfather who tries to reconnect with his secular family during a Passover Seder.
“The film has a great multicultural message and speaks to my religious Orthodox upbringing,” explained Thaler in an emailed statement. “While it is critical of closed-minded Orthodoxy that condemns intermarriage, it also speaks to the richness of Jewish culture, traditions, and stories.”
The senior films will be screened to the public in May during the exam period, and the Vassar community will get to see the products of these students’ collaborative efforts, who hope to publicize their work and get into the film industry after graduation. “It’s so much more than a class,” reflected Gaby. “It’s your life. It becomes you.”