How do you continue making a film when the access, plans, and conditions underlying it suddenly dissolve? Students in Amitanshu Das's class grappled with this question last semester when, in the midst of creating documentaries with/of students across Philadelphia highschools, the COVID-19 pandemic put an abrupt stop to both on-site filming and the programs the Penn teams were focusing on.
Graduate students in the School District of Philadelphia and Penn Graduate Student of Education Film Program, study ethnographic filmmaking by making films in the community. The program is led by founder Amitanshu Das (Senior Fellow and Director at the Penn GSE and the Annenberg School for Communication) with the Ethnographic Filmmaking courses taught by Amitanshu Das and Kathleen Hall. In the fall, Penn students first learn filmmaking and are introduced to ethnographic principles, approaches and methods. They visit Philadelphia high school communities- students, teachers and staff- so that everyone can get to know one another. Planning for this years program started more than a year ago in Spring 2019, when Philadelphia high schools were invited to apply to be one of three selected schools, finally resulting in Sayre Highschool, Girls High, and the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts being chosen.
Penn GSE Films, the district, and each selected high school began communicating early in the summer 2019, in order to prepare for a logistically and technically complicated program. The program works differently in each unique Philadelphia school, making these planning sessions critical. Later in the fall or early spring, both high school and Penn students choose a subject they would like to make into a film and what kind of film it should be.
This hands-on education in ethnographic filmmaking builds towards a grand project for each filmmaking team: a finished short film by students, about students, that reflects the voices, interests, concerns and perspectives of students. In early May, these documentaries, narrative or experimental films are first premiered at the School District of Philadelphia then broadcast on PSTV (the school district of Philadelphia’s television channel) and posted to YouTube.
This year, graduate student teams were organized at three high schools: Student teams were already knee-deep in plans and filming when the global COVID-19 pandemic hit in February, followed quickly by an abrupt closure of Philadelphia schools in early March. Facing an unprecedented shift in the educational experience, Amit Das fully expected the early May deadline to change dramatically, and that was only if students were able to finish the films by summer at all.
Completing a documentary film is a daunting task even in the best of times---conflicts can arise seemingly out of nowhere, critical footage can be lost. In a pandemic that disrupted schooling, personal lives, and human life on a massive global scale, it must have seemed impossible. With only some of the filming complete, and thus planned edits and original storylines no longer possible, the students and the high school teams would have to reimagine their original projects entirely. Surprising everyone, each of the three teams did just that, with three completed films coming in just under the deadline.
The SDP-Penn GSE Film Program is coordinated by PSTV and PennGSE Films, sponsored by the SDP-CIO and Penn’s Netter Center For Community Partnerships. Ethnographic Filmmaking Parts 1 & 2 are Netter Center supported ABCS (Academically-based Community Service) Courses and are closely affiliated with Penn’s new Center for Experimental Ethnography.
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