Discovering the Stories that Define a Place
A place can be defined by many characteristics, including its architecture, neighborhoods, history and people. When immersed in a place, how do you step back and capture it with fresh eyes? Organized by the City of Kettering’s Rosewood Arts Centre with support from the Ohio Arts Council, a ten-day artist residency aspired to do this with high school students in Kettering.
From January through May 2013, filmmaker Melissa Godoy made Kettering her studio as she embarked on this residency, working closely with Fairmont High School’s Interactive Media students and instructor Laura Hutchens. Her task was to develop a meaningful relationship between her participants and the city—its surroundings, assets and stories. With a short amount of time to embark on an ambitious project, the 21 students met several times a month to share ideas, pitch stories and create new short films.
“The challenge was to tell stories that were hidden in Kettering,” said Godoy. At first the ideas pitched included focusing on the history and architecture of the city. “Although [the students] could have chosen anything in the town that intrigued them…they all chose to make short punchy films about a hidden story that emerged from teachers in the school,” she continued. “They saw living heroes every day in their classrooms.”
Godoy’s films have been featured nationally on PBS and at film festivals, including the documentary Do Not Go Gently, narrated by Walter Cronkite. She is currently filming and co-editing a narrative documentary about the struggle to restore Cincinnati’s historic inner city in Rebirth of Over-the-Rhine. Working with a range of ages, cultures, and socio-economic backgrounds is a core element to Godoy’s practice and enriched the content of the residency experience at Fairmont.
Hutchens, who has been instructing media classes at Fairmont for several years, was excited to bring Godoy’s perspective into the classroom. “This is one of the main reasons why we love to partner with outside professionals and organizations,” Hutchens said. “This was a great way to bring the outside production world in to our classroom.”
The students spent several sessions analyzing documentary films and audio stories, including stories from “This American Life,” “Radiolab,” and films by the Maysles Brothers. From this material, students learned interview techniques and honed their listening skills to find a compelling story from the people around them. “Everyone has a story if you just scratch below the surface…Melissa really opened the students’ eyes to a variety of storytelling techniques,” Hutchens said. “She helped them apply that to their own films.”
While the entire class participated in the residency, four students led film projects with guidance from Hutchens and one-on-one feedback from Godoy. “There was a lot of pitching of ideas, evaluation of footage, creative problem solving and critiquing that went into each film,” said Hutchens. The stories included an experience living in Honduras as a Peace Corps volunteer, a malfunctioning piece of classroom equipment, a high school a capella group achieving national recognition, and the life of a former body builder turned assistant principal.
Not only did the students participate in exercises, presentations and critiques with Godoy, each continued to develop their new skills in Hutchens’ class. Vérité was one of the favorite techniques utilized in the residency, or as one student eloquently defined it “the style of the camera just being there in the environment.” Another student learned to “keep the camera rolling a while before and after your interview segment. It helps get those moments of deep-felt feelings from your subject.” An additional student stated another lesson resulting from the process: “I learned that people respond differently when they feel comfortable around you.”
The final project of the residency was to create a fifth film focused on a Kettering artist, Phoebe Gaughan, who has been creating art her whole life, from the School of the Dayton Art Institute to New York and to Rosewood Arts Centre. The multi-generational collaboration involved several of Hutchens students leading the filming of Gaughan, and Godoy assisting the Rosewood staff in leading an interview. The students then helped teach Rosewood staff the techniques of editing the hours of interview footage.
Creating five films was a lasting product of the residency, however the value of the learning process extended far beyond those finished pieces. “During the first day of pitching project ideas, one girl pulled me aside, red in the face and said she didn’t think she could do it…she was terrified of speaking in front of groups of people,” said Hutchens. “Flash forward to today where she can speak with confidence. She was able to take the suggestions offered by her peers and use them to improve.” Hutchens remarked on another example of development in her classroom. “There was a young man who had never use a camera before,” said Hutchens. “He always worked quietly in the corner and didn’t talk a lot in class. After his film played he got a huge round of applause from the class because he nailed it. He let the video speak for him.”
Though the residency was only ten days, the positive impact continues to resonate for everyone involved. “There are an endless number of personal stories out there and this was a very engaging way to cover this content with my students,” said Hutchens. “I suspect there is much more we can uncover in Kettering.”
The results of the artist in residence program with Melissa Godoy including the short films and the participants are on the website uncoveringkettering.wordpress.com. Photographs and the short films are on view at Rosewood Arts Centre at 2655 Olson Drive in Kettering through August. Learn more by calling Rosewood at (937) 296-0294.
This story was originally published by the Dayton City Paper on July 2, 2013.