On Tour: Sara Terry in New Jersey

14 Mar

March 5, Monmouth University, Long Branch, NJ.

Okay… Sorry, but I’m going to get a little touristy here before heading into all things (or at least some things) film… I got to Long Branch with some time off on my hands – and I’ll admit it, I couldn’t resist driving south about 10 minutes or so to Asbury Park, NJ. Yes, I was a huge Springsteen fan back in the day, and am still an admirer of the man… I drove past the Stone Pony, where he and the E Street Band played all those years ago, and went along the boardwalk and cruised downtown, thinking about what it must have been like back then for a young Springsteen – feeling the presence of times past and the people who lived them. I felt that several times during my two days in the area.

The bed and breakfast where I stayed was actually one of at least 3 (huge) guest houses built on the rambling estate of a wealthy man whose main mansion no longer exists (the large guest houses are mostly gone, too). This is a community that was “the” place to be for summering magnates and their wealthy friends, a place where US presidents in the early 20th century came for a bit of rest along the seashore. There’s not much left these days to let you know that was ever the case – except perhaps for Wilson Hall on the campus of Monmouth University, a palace built a nouveau riche magnate who went bankrupt and lost everything. The building remains, stunningly renovated in recent years… again, the presence of times past and the people who lived them.

Interestingly, part of the post-screening Q and A at Monmouth also dwells on the idea of presence. I’m asked about how I worked in the field as a filmmaker and what I was able to accomplish with cinema verite scenes — footage achieved when the camera merely observes what is taking place in front of it , without direct comment to camera by the people in front of it. The camera is almost a bystander, allowing the viewer to be a fly on the wall. I love cinema verite and the skill that it indicates in the filmmaker; it’s not easy to get your subjects to forget that there’s a camera in your presence and at least one or two people standing there with the camera.

Getting these kinds of scenes was one of the hardest things we did in making Fambul Tok. There’s just no way that white people with cameras can melt into a crowd in a small village in rural Sierra Leone, west Africa. Often, in fact, you’re surrounded by small children who are fascinated with your every facial gesture or move. For us, the challenge was a serious one – we were living proof of the law of quantum physics that the act of observation changes what is being observed. There were a few occasions, at least, when our presence at a bonfire inhibited a perpetrator from coming forward to testify. In the early days of filming, before people had become familiar with us, some Sierra Leoneans thought we were members of the Special Court, come to take testimony on camera to be used in prosecutions. That’s what white people with cameras had come to signify. Over time, as Fambul Tok the program became more established – and no prosecutions resulted from perpetrators coming forward – our presence was less of an obstacle. In some communities, where we filmed several times, we were welcomed as brothers and sisters, and given local names that became the names which everyone called us. It took time, and there was never any way to minimize the fact that we were white – and that we were carrying cameras – but our presence became something that we all negotiated together. And in the end, the film is graced by several cinema verite moments that are a testament both to the skill of my crew (Henry Jacobson, Virginia Lee Hunter, Eric Becker and Jake DeVito) and to the generosity of the people we filmed. Thanks to them all, the presence of place and people and events has been recorded – and is not left to the imagination of those who come in later years, wondering who was once here, and why.

Post by Sara Terry, OSIP touring filmmaker

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