institute for documentary studies
 

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Week 7: Radio

For the past month, I’ve been time traveling. I’ve been venturing out of state to a living history museum that replicates village life in 19th century rural New England and getting to know the historical interpreters: those costumed men and women who operate the village for a curious 21st century public. Donning period clothes, they are trained in period skills, everything from doling out caramels at the general store to printing on an ink press. They do so with a wink and a lesson. Did you know that a skilled compositor, who arranged moveable type, could set 1000 characters an hour? Now you do. Historical interpreters have long fascinated me, the way some other little girls were captivated by Disney Princesses. 100-proof unadulterated magic. On every family vacation and field trip (it’s a rite of passage for most kids in the Massachusetts/Connecticut area), I would try to get one of them alone and ask the questions about who they were “in real life.”

 
I was never successful until Salt, with an ID card marked “documentary student” and a microphone to cut through the illusion. It’s been wonderful. I can follow my curiosity and ask all the questions I’ve always wanted to. In return, four interpreters—two men and two women with nearly 90 years of experience among them—have shared generously about their professional and personal lives. Their tape is rife with interesting material. The more I listen, the more amazed I am by the alignment of their working lives with their personal values: face-to-face conversation, simplicity, experiential learning, accessibility of history, awareness of food pathways, energy use, and labor. They’ve shared what it means to interpret history and have entrusted me with an interpretation of that intimate knowledge. In many ways, I feel like a historical interpreter to a second degree. I am plagued by a low-lying terror of producing a radio feature that won’t do their work justice.

 
The past three weeks have been a challenge for precisely that reason. At first, I took a multi-pronged approach to the story out of fear that eliminating angles would dilute the material. My first script read like an extended village scene, a knotted mess of quirky details (e.g. they made condoms from sheep intestines!) without a clear narrative. I began looking elsewhere, inspecting the tape with a spyglass for moments of tension. I wanted Mystery! Intrigue! I wanted to raise the stakes so listeners would take the work of historical interpreters seriously. My second script looked at the business side of living history and how museums had to make history digestible for the sensitive public. It thickened the plot, but with a weak agent. I hadn’t done enough reporting to make a conclusive statement about the managerial evolution of the museum. Back to the drawing board.

 
No small amount of hair has been spared extraction from my scalp as I’ve tried to salvage my script. I don’t know why it’s been so difficult, but it is. It is extremely difficult to distill real life in all its blithe wildness into a radio story.

 
Mary, another radio student who is skilled at getting to the heart of matters, took me aside the other day and said: “Why did this story interest you in the first place?” I thought about it.

 
The answer to that question is very simple: the people. I love these people.

 
“There’s your story,” she said.

 
And that is what my radio feature is amounting to. It’s tempting at Salt, where you have so much time, technology, and access to interesting people, to dream up a five-part saga fit for the History Channel. That’s a false idol, I’m coming to realize, for anyone but Ken Burns. Plus you don’t have Morgan Freeman’s voice. You have yours, your time, and your ability to work hard. My piece will probably be six minutes long. It will not make any grand statements or groundbreaking discoveries. Its scope has narrowed and its goals winnowed from a competing jury of many to the one most important: to bring historical interpreters into the purview of the listener and have the listener understand, for six minutes, why someone would want to spend 40 hours a week in another time period. Six minutes of suspended reality, six minutes I need to make worth your time.

 
Ironically, the person who understood this far better than I did was my main subject. She’s a radio junkie. It’s allowed a nice rapport to develop between us, a give and take that makes our interviewer-interviewee relationship mutually beneficial. She’s fascinated by radio production. I’m fascinated by historical interpretation. We try to make our jobs as transparent to one another as possible.

 
Our first conversation took place as she was seated behind the counter of a country store skimming a newspaper for sewing machine advertisements. Radio is the first thing we talked about. She understood that I needed to record ambient sounds of her sheep baaing for authenticity, remarking that she would notice if I had recorded sheep at another museum. She said something else too, something that I knew would never make it into the radio feature, would never be heard by anyone but me, but that articulated the challenge of her job, my job, and the job of anyone whose job is to interpret the lives of others: “I love the people who just tell the most boring, mundane, cereal eating parts of their lives, but they’re beautiful because of how they tell the story. It’s not taking the most extraordinary events, but taking everyday events and allowing them to be extraordinary.”

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Week 7: Writing

“To be a writer is to betray the facts. It’s one of the more ruthless things about being a writer, finally, in that to cast an experience into words is in some way to lose the reality of the experience itself, to sacrifice the fact of it to whatever imaginative pattern one’s wound requires.”
– Christian Wiman

 

I am an over-sharer by birth. In my family, feelings are like food: to be set down on the dinner table and shared, chewed over and digested. I make friends on airplanes to San Francisco, or elevators to the tenth floor – any enclosed space where it is perfectly okay to ignore the people around you, avoiding their eyes by staring down at your shoes. I don’t know how to have acquaintances, or peripheral friends — my friendships are founded on the kind of tell-all, late night conversations that necessitate a life-long bond; as a child, over tubs of ice cream in my parent’s kitchen, and now, on a bench in the park, or in the corner of a bar. A moment of connection, a lesson that we are only as misunderstood as we let ourselves be.

 

Our culture thrives on over-sharing. Thanks to Facebook, I know what my lab partner from my sophomore year of high school ate for dinner, and how it sat in his stomach. We’ve grown out of modesty. Left privacy at the door. A few weeks ago at Salt, we had a Skype session with a social media guru who urged us to build our social media presence, establish our beat, and curate tweets to fit within the Twitterverse.

 

I might seem like the prime user for social media, but in fact, I hate it. Sharing my thoughts comes naturally with my closest friends, but not with an unlimited amount of strangers on the internet. The same goes for the personal essay, which happens to be our next assignment in writing class. The idea of showing my essay to my fellow writing students doesn’t make me lose much sleep, but the prospect of making it accessible to all of the internet unnerves me.

 

In “The Limit”, Christian Wiman writes about the dark underbelly of his family; his words are so hauntingly raw that it is easy to forget the risk he is taking in exposing his personal history. Writing for “the reader” is a daunting task. Who is this reader? How will they judge me? And addressing my own personal history, it would be impossible to not include others. Rarely are people flattered by their portrayal on the page or their face on the screen. Somehow, I run the risk of not doing my loved ones justice, betraying their essence, filtering the facts through my own experience. By striving for honesty, will I inevitably falsify my experience?

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Salt Fundraising night at Otto Pizza March 19!

Please join us on the evening of Tuesday, March 19 for a Salt fundraiser across the street in the dining room at Otto Pizza (574 Congress St) – order pizza/salad/drinks (dine-in or takeout) between 5 and 9pm and a portion of the evening’s proceeds will go to Salt! Stay tuned for more details on Facebook.

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Tickets + schedule for this year’s Maine Jewish Film Festival

 

News from our friends at the Maine Jewish Film Festival - get your tickets for this year’s screenings (including a free one here at Salt on March 11) now!



 

 

 

 

The new website is launched and tickets are on sale now. To see the full line up, go to mjff.org. We’ve got films that will make you laugh, cry and cheer. We’ve got filmmakers visiting and available for post film q&a – and a movie trailer of our own to share. We’re ready for MJFF 2013, and hope you are too!


Upcoming Events
Wednesday, February 20 at 8:00pm at One Longfellow Square
The Maine Jewish Film Festival and One Longfellow Present Naftule’s Dream
Join us in welcoming Boston’s Naftule’s Dream to Portland for the first time.

Originally a side project of the Shirim Klezmer Orchestra- Glenn Dickson, Clarinet; Michael McLaughlin, accordion; Eric Rosenthal, drums; James Gray, tuba; and Andrew Stern, guitar- the band has prospered into its own band of Jewish ties. Incorporating Klezmer as well as new age rock and jazz into their music makes Naftule’s Dream unique, creating a significant name for themselves and the sound of new Jewish music.

Tickets are $10 and are available online at onelongfellowsquare.com, through the Box Office located at 181 State Street in Portland or by calling (207) 761-1757.

Sunday, March 3 at 3:30pm at The Strand Theatre
“A Bottle in the Gaza Sea” (previously scheduled for Feb. 10, cancelled due to snow storm)

“A Bottle in the Gaza Sea,” directed by Thierry Binitsi, deals with 17 year-old Tal who has emigrated from France to Jerusalem with her family. Following a bombing, Tal writes a letter refusing to accept that only hatred can reign between the Israelis and the Palestinians. She slips the letter into a bottle and her brother throws it into the sea. Her letter brings a response from Naïm, a young Palestinian. A turbulent but tender long-distance friendship develops as they both seek to understand and change the history that divides them.

Tickets for admission are $8.50 and may be purchased at the time of the showing. For more information visit www.rocklandstrand.com or call (207) 594-0070. The film will also be screened as part of MJFF’s full line up in Portland.

 

 

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Salt Alumna Maisie Crow launches new project on The Atavist


The Last Clinic

By Maisie Crow and Alissa Quart

In Mississippi, a new law threatens to shut down the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the last abortion provider in the state. Award-winning filmmaker and photographer Maisie Crow and writer Alissa Quart provide an intimate portrait of the lives at the center of this political maelstrom. From one of the clinic’s doctors, who feels duty-bound to travel there each week from out of state; to a leading protester, a doctor who once performed abortions herself; to the young women wrestling with a decision that will change the course of their lives, this unique multimedia story takes you beyond the slogans. The Last Clinic captures the humanity behind an incendiary issue.

“I’ve been involved with the movement for women’s reproductive rights for over 40 years, both as an activist and a writer, and this is by far the best reporting I have ever seen on the subject. Alissa Quart and Maisie Crow offer a view from the frontlines of the abortion conflict that is both intimate and bracingly challenging.”

—Barbara Ehrenreich, founding editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and bestselling author of Nickel and DimedBait and Switch, and other books.

About Maisie Crow and Alissa Quart

Maisie Crow is a photographer and multimedia producer based in Brooklyn. She has done work for The Boston Globe, Bread for the World, MediaStorm, The New York Times, the Robin Hood Foundation, Save the Children, and the Virginia Quarterly Review, among others. Maisie has taught as an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and as a multimedia instructor at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.

Alissa Quart is the author of two nonfiction books, Branded and Hothouse Kids. Her next book is forthcoming in 2013. She has written longform pieces for Mother Jones, The New York Times Magazine, and many other publications. She was a 2010 Nieman Fellow at Harvard, is a contributing editor and author of the Reality Check column for the Columbia Journalism Review, and teaches in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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More than a rap sheet returns to Salt

Please join us Thursday, October 11 at 5:30pm in honoring Domestic Violence Awareness Month next Thursday at Salt with a project by Family Crisis Services. For one night only, we will be bringing back one of our most talked about exhibits: More Than a Rap Sheet [ the real stories of incarcerated women in Maine ]. We are showcasing the raw and powerful poems by incarcerated women in Maine as well as their portraits by our very own alum Christine Heinz. We invite you to take in the images, read the poems and also to stick around for a short program of live poetry readings that will begin around 6pm. It only happens just this once, so don’t miss it!

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Susan Orlean Reads at Longfellow Books

We are so excited to welcome nonfiction author Susan Orlean to Portland, Maine on October 14th, 6pm. Susan Orlean has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1992. She is the author of seven books, including Rin Tin Tin, Saturday Night, and The Orchid Thief, which was made into the Academy Award-winning film Adaptation. In addition to spending some time with our students, we’re sponsoring an event at the firecely independent and local bookstore, Longfellow Books. Orlean will be reading from her new book Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. Nearly ten years in the making, her first original book since the celebrated bestseller The Orchid Thief is a sweeping, surprising, and powerfully moving work of narrative nonfiction about the dog actor and international icon.

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Producer and Salt alum launches Faith in the Five Boroughs

Check out Faith in the Five Boroughs — a new project produced by Salt alum Matt Ozug and his wife Julia Elliot, along with Scott Elliot [all of 590 Films]. The project, funded through a grant from the Knight Foundation, documents the role that faith and religious communities play in the lives of immigrants and their children in the five boroughs of NYC.

And you have another story in mind, Matt says “Over the next year, we will continue to add stories and grow the site. If you have an idea for a faith community, compelling individual, or religious festival, we’d love to hear it.”

Please support this project by evangelizing! LIKE Five Boroughs on Facebook!

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