Williams binges on film-making

Williams College has recently experienced a surge of student film-makers on campus. They’re talented, driven, often artsy and have been working on a number of slick projects this Winter Study. Record Features decided to catch up with a few of the promising video artists of our community.

“Ciao Williamstown” is a glitzy television late night show produced by Lucas Goodbody ’03, Karthik Ramanathan ’03, Sam Cecala ’04 and Mike Winton ’03. “It’s ‘Jay Leno’ meets ‘The Daily Show’ meets Williamstown,” Winton said. “Complete with a host, an audience, a bandleader and commercial breaks featuring Drew Newman.”

Over 10 days of shooting, the crew accumulated 15 hours of footage and are currently in the process of editing it into a half-hour show. The show is scheduled to air in February on Willinet – Williamstown’s personal, albeit unknown, television channel – amidst much fanfare and celebration. “The show parodies local culture and college culture and celebrates the craziness that forms such a large part of our daily life at Williams,” Goodbody said.

Annie Moore ’04 and Eliza Segell ’04 used Winter Study to film a documentary focusing on queer students on campus. Through friends and advertisements in the Daily Advisor and Queer Student Union (QSU) listserver, they recruited and interviewed a group of students with diverse opinions on queer issues facing the Williams community. “We wanted to see if students are comfortable being ‘out’ here, whether they liked political activism and what they felt about the Queer Student Union,” Moore said.

“This documentary just shows the diversity of opinions within the queer community,” Segell added. “The majority weren’t associated with the QSU – most hated chalkings and some disliked Queer Bash.”

The two want the documentary to be included in the First Days Program for incoming first-years but feel that it’s going to be hard to push for that. “It’s a big deal for us, but administration here is pretty conservative. It might seem like we are promoting a certain kind of activism that they are not comfortable with,” Moore said.

Peter Van Steemburg ’03 – actor, director and film enthusiast – was involved in “high-scale guerilla film work” even in his high school years. At Williams, he has taken a number of video production and film theory courses, worked with the Williamstown Film Festival and interned with different filmmakers. This Winter Study he decided to make a movie about the apathy that pervades our campus.

“We talk politics, debate possible wars, but at the end of the day we just get caught up in petty things,” Van Steemburg said. “I wanted to make a film on boredom, on wanting to go out and change things and then simply losing interest.” His video includes scenes from his room, Wal-Mart, a cemetery and a pharmacy and will be showcased tomorrow at Goodrich Hall.

Another group of filmmakers brainstormed their project during a late-night train ride from Italy to France last summer. It was there that Steve Seigel ’04 and MJ Prest ’04 decided to make a movie about, quite simply, a relationship between a boy and a girl, and Erin Kempster ’04 hopped on board the project later in the game. “[The movie] takes place over the course of an evening. There are a number of flashbacks to past relationships that explain and reveal the present dynamics of the couple,” Kempster said.

The directors held an open call for student actors on campus, and of the 20 students who auditioned, five were selected. “Our actors battled severe frostbite and near hypothermia in temperatures of negative 15 during the predominantly outdoor shoots,” Seigel said. “And we were in a constant fear of getting arrested because we had constructed an illegal fire outside.”

Moreover, the trio felt that they acquired good practice in the “whole process” of film-making – from extensive scriptwriting to shooting to editing – a perspective impossible to achieve in any one class.

Is there something special about the medium of video that allows these artists to express themselves more lucidly? “It’s a much louder medium,” Segell said. “The motion of image and the texture of sound make video more animated and special.”

Others draw attention to the fluidity of their artistic expression, the easy accessibility and less expensive nature of digital video. It is of little surprise, then, that film theory and video production classes at Williams are highly sought after. “Film is a magic window that allows you to experience someone else’s reality. It’s so powerful – it can bring together and alienate at the same time,” Van Steemburg said.

Liza Johnson, assistant professor of art and a video artist, drew attention to a new initiative at Williams to support film and video offerings, placing it in the evolving context of a liberal arts education. Of the movement, she said, “Media work draws on storytelling and the ability to structure information.” “It depends on visual literacy, sensitivity to sound and music, performance and all aspects of movement. Plus, a film really demands an idea, so liberal arts training is enormously useful for what is now called ‘content development.’ It’s not only the Zeitgeist, but also the curriculum that is producing this momentum around student film-making.”

Many students, however, expressed frustration at the lack of facilities at Williams. Ramanathan felt thwarted by the small number of video classes and the absence of a film department at the College, while Cecala, who is pursuing a contract major in “Film Studies and Video Production,” drew attention to Wesleyan’s “incredibly well-renowned film department” and Colgate’s 24-hour student-run television network. “We have no film production or television production facilities and it seems like this is just not a college priority,” he said.

In spite of this, almost all students had an overall positive outlook about film at Williams. “You’re not off to a bad start here,” Van Steemburg said. “While you might not get extensive technical training, you manage to study film as an art, and that’s very important.”

Last Sunday, Bronfman Auditorium hosted its first-ever student-based film show. The Gizzo Film Festival, organized by Guy Danella ’03, showcased a dozen films by students at Williams, NYU, the College of Wooster and the University of Connecticut. The festival ran into some technical difficulties, but the sheer number of filmmakers and enthusiasts in the audience attested to the fact that Williams is experiencing a form of cultural renaissance.