Last week, I sat in a darkened classroom in the UNO Performing Arts Center and watched 17 short films.
Despite the absence of popcorn (an oversight I won’t commit next time), the two-hour premiere was as entertaining a screening as I’ve experienced in a while.
Student-filmed, written and directed, the documentary shorts didn’t have the luxury of special effects, sweeping original scores or multiple camera shots. Yet these small snapshots of New Orleans people and events captured the city in a way that big-budget Big Easy-set films often don’t manage.
In one, pastry chef Melissa Samuels explains her philosophy of wedding cakes. In another, health advocate Iman Shervington talks about hard discussions about HIV with local high-school students. In a third, curator Miranda Lash explains her thought process in selecting works for the New Orleans Museum of Art.
The topics are diverse, but the central theme the same: Who are some of the people involved in the local culture and community, what are they doing that is interesting, and what do they have to say about it?
UNO Film Arts Assistant Professor Laszlo Fulop has been teaching documentary production for a number of years. His students are required to produce a short film as part of their coursework, and they have access not only to his expertise (recent credits include Tim’s Island and The Sunken City: Rebuilding Post-Katrina New Orleans), but also to digital cameras, editing equipment, audio suites and the like. UNO, after all, has one of the best film departments in the South.
But finding interesting stories and making the contacts to film them can be the most daunting part of the assignment. For students who are not from New Orleans, it can be particularly difficult to pinpoint subjects and arrange interviews.
So for the fall semester, we at NolaVie partnered with Fulop and his class to help students explore the cultural byways of the city. In August, we gave documentary production students a list of story ideas and accompanying interviews – people we know at cultural institutions, theaters, schools, and the like, who had agreed in advance to make their institutions and themselves available for student productions.
The results speak, literally, for themselves. In these short, eloquent projects, curators, musicians, teachers and artists talk about their particular niches in the New Orleans community. Each piece has a beginning-to-end narrative, point of view, supportive music and solid (if not fancy) production values. That, of course, is what Fulop requires of his pupils.
What we at NolaVie appreciate is that each has a story to tell. With the advent of Youtube, iPhones and video streaming, anyone these days can be a filmmaker. What these students understand is that the ability to record sound and pictures is only the initial step in a process that takes understanding and collaboration between filmmaker and subject.
What does a photographer hope to portray in a series devoted to the homeless camped under the Claiborne overpass? What is the tango teacher trying to convey in the way he holds his dance partner? Why has the Habitat for Humanity volunteer returned to New Orleans six times since Katrina?
Professor Fulop has chosen number of the final film projects to publish online, and NolaVie is proud to post one per week for the next couple of months.
The first was posted last week, a feature by Seth Rodriguez about Nola Art House Music, an organization devoted to increasing the awareness of contemporary New Orleans composers and musicians, and a concert the group held over the weekend.
Today, NolaVie publishes “Rebuilding Hope,” a look by Ivonne Kubitza at RHINO (Rebuilding Hope in New Orleans), the St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church’s ongoing rebuilding efforts following Hurricane Katrina. (See accompanying story.)
In the coming weeks, we will be publishing short videos that range from the New Orleans Opera’s exportation of arias to local bars to the young artists of YaYA, from a look behind the scenes at the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra to what goes on at the World War II Museum’s Stage Door Canteen.
Enjoy. And don’t forget the popcorn.
Renee Peck, a former feature editor and writer at The Times-Picayune, is editor for NolaVie.