With graduation on the horizon, Park Scholar seniors reflect on their time at IC
Saturday, March 16, 2013
By Amy Obarski, '13
You would think that producing one thesis film in a semester is more than enough work for a senior cinema and photography major who keeps up her grades, organizes the LGBT educational ZAP! panels, volunteers for the Advocacy Center and has the tiniest social life in the universe. Anymore would be overkill, right? Well, I’m the masochist who decided to do two.
The senior film thesis course is an intense four-credit class (which in reality should be eight credits) during which you produce a film, either by yourself or in a group that is to represent the culmination of your studies in the Ithaca College cinema program. There is no restriction on length, medium or content. The silver screen is the canvas, and the camera, your paint.
Upon starting the semester, I had no intent in creating two films. Over the summer I had signed on to co-produce and DP (be the director of photography) a dark, medieval comedy entitled “Damsel.” When the semester began, so did the intense production meetings. While I was thoroughly immersed in the project, and enjoyed working with my two other producers, “Damsel” didn’t really feel like my project. As a cinematographer, you are handed a script, and you collaborate with the director about how he or she envisions the plot will visually play out. It is a job that requires you to think on your feet, and feel how the story will look. I was engrossed in “Damsel,” but I wanted to have a project that was both a personal statement of myself as an individual, and a representation of my skills as a filmmaker.
I didn’t realize this second project would develop in the form of a documentary. While I was turning idea after idea over in my head I visited my photography professor. I had worked with her over the summer on a personal project of hers during which we combed through and scanned dozens of photographs her father had taken in the 1950’s. In revisiting her family’s past, I wondered more and more about my own.
My grandparents had always amazed me. They were this mysterious force in my life that I couldn’t quite feel until we became increasingly displaced geographically. In 2001, Papap and Babcia moved from their house at 2509 Palm Street in Natrona Heights, PA to the Concordia nursing home in Cabot, PA, a whole twenty minutes down the road. They lived in their house for fifty years, but Pap could no longer manage the stairs and my Babcia started showing signs of Alzheimer’s. My brother, who is eight years my senior, grew up with our grandparents caring for him and watching him while our parents were at work. When he went off to college, their health declined, and I helped my parents clean their apartment and take care of them.
During the fall semester of my Junior year, my grandfather died at the age of 98. Babcia was unable to attend the funeral because she was, and is now, so dependent on care that she couldn’t walk. She hasn’t spoken a word in almost two years. The saddest thing about her absence was that I didn’t realize she wasn’t there until my mother made an announcement to the congregation. I was upset at myself, and scared that one day, I would not be able to remember a life that I had built, that I would leave those who I loved with a frail frame of myself whose memories are lost in sun-bleached photos and letters.
I decided I wanted to produce a documentary on my grandmother. I didn’t want to focus on the effects of Alzheimer’s or how she had changed because of the disease. I wanted to focus on her, on how she was full of vigor in her youth, and how the fragility of life plays tricks on our expectations of reality. I even wanted to tap into the controversial “sanctity of life” vs. “quality of life” debate.
Starting with super 8 mm footage of my grandmother, Frances Michalek, my assistant editor and I combed through the reels, labeling and marking what would be useable, still uncertain of how a story would emerge. My mother thankfully made a detailed log of what reels had Frances, and I soon began to renew the image of my grandmother as this flickering, saturated character on celluloid. I then ventured out to Cabot, PA with my sound mixer/composer/boyfriend, Will, at the end of September to film Frances in the process of living her everyday routine at Concordia. Only two hours into the trip, we hit a deer on the highway at 70 mph. Time stood still and yet sped up in an instant. My little white Corolla had taken a severe hit, and the SUV in front, which had also made contact with the deer, seemed untouched. Thankfully, Will and I were alright, and we continued on our journey the following day from Cuba, NY.
Sunday morning we woke up at 5:45 am, and got to Concordia for 6:30, the normal time for Frances to wake up. She is fed three meals a day, and in between those meals, she is either carted to local events around the building (sing-alongs at the piano, church, a movie) or sits in her room with the television on. The state of my grandmother didn’t shock me. I’d seen it before. The nurses had even done her hair because they knew I would be coming. But I couldn’t help but feeling like a voyeur, safely placed behind my camera. When I framed my shots, I was worried that I would be exposing her in a way she didn’t feel comfortable, but I didn’t want to leave anything out. This was how I experienced life around my grandmother. This is what I saw and this is what I felt.
It is during the editing process in documentary filmmaking that a filmmaker develops his or her story. I was nervous that I had collected and shot all of this footage with no clear idea of how it would pan out (pun totally intended), but after I compiled it all together, my doc began to grow. I created a tableau of my grandmother, a sort of “day in the life of Frances Michalek.” Sans narration, I cut back and forth between her life at Concordia and her days at 2509 Palm Street. While I am not a huge fan of editing, I found this process extremely easy. It was as if the clips fell into place themselves.
Looking back on it now, I couldn’t have made my documentary without also having worked on Damsel. If I didn’t distract myself with the duties of a DP, I wouldn’t have been able to harness my energy in editing my doc. During the first few seconds that my doc (now entitled “A Life Imagined”) appeared on screen, my heart started to beat uncontrollably. It was the first time in a long time that I could hear a pin drop in the audience at Park. During the entire production of my doc, I hadn’t shed one tear. I remained so steadfast and driven to complete my film that I hardly let myself feel the impact that the sequence of images and sounds had on me as Frances’ granddaughter. But after a minute or so of it screening in the auditorium, I couldn’t hold them in anymore. I grasped my mother and brother’s hands tightly for the ten minutes and fifty-six seconds of the film, and I had never felt more connected to my family or my history in my life. “A Life Imagined” was the first film I was truly proud of at Ithaca College.
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