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Anthropology, Assignments, Documentary, Visual Anthropology, Visual Anthropology Class

Midway Conversations 2014: Neighborhood Documentary Projects Premiere

Midway conversations_2014

Neighbors watching neighborhood documentaries together at The Turf Club. May 2014.

On May 20th from 5:30-7:30pm at a local neighborhood venue, the Turf Club, this spring’s Visual Anthropology class premiered their final mini-documentary projects to a packed house of 100-120 people. This was the second such public event (the first was written about here) and the first to actually be pulled off during finals week at the end of the semester.

Together the students, their collaborators and other interested neighbors, friends and family came together to enjoy the documentaries along with bags of popcorn and dozens of extra-large pizzas.

The class is not about training filmmakers to make professional quality videos, but to use video to do research and as a methodology to learn. The students use very simple mobile visual anthropology research equipment and I am increasingly pushing them to get comfortable using their own mobile devices such as iPhones.

At a time when most of our lives are saturated with visual media the visual anthropology class focuses less on the actual product—the final video itself—than on the production of the work as a process.  As such, the final mini-documentaries have their share of glitches, sound inconsistencies, occasional wobbly cam and other indications of their amateur status. The point, however, is to bring everyone together as part of the process.

Our university is in the middle of a very special neighborhood—one that is regularly misunderstood by the undergraduates and many members of the university administration. As an urban neighborhood, the Hamline Midway neighborhood has spaces and people that are unfamiliar to those who grew up or live in more homogenous and often newer suburban or rural communities. One of the outcomes of the class is also to create connections between the campus and the neighborhood.

The neighborhood is filled with very warm-hearted, generous and active people, many retirees and new young families—neighbors who have been very willing to volunteer to work with students on their projects year after year. Many neighbors take students into their homes, cook them dinner, talk about their lives, introduce students to their children and pets and amazingly let students film them.

For the first half of each semester every student in the class is assigned four short five-minute micro documentaries with their neighborhood collaborators. Each of the documentaries is intended to mimic the styles of early ethnographic and documentary cinema—while at the same time offering the opportunity for students to build rapport with their collaborators and get comfortable with the equipment. The mini projects consist of a still photo collection, silent black and white, narrated documentary and cinéma vérité interview. Since they are preliminary assignments and may be rough, students are only required to share them with their collaborators and in class. If the students and their neighbors are happy with the results and both agree to share them publicly, however, we post them on our class YouTube channel: HUVisAnth Here are some nice samples of each: the silent black and white, the narrated documentary, and the interview. Along the way many students experiment with different types of reflexivity in their work—such as this interview with our neighborhood coffin maker.

For the last month of the semester, students work in groups of 3-4 on longer, more ambitious mini documentary projects that are intended to be broader—in terms of participation—and deeper in terms of detail and amount of work. These final projects are then the ones shared with the neighborhood. This year there were four final projects which dealt with “houses and home spaces,” “art and music,” “gardening and community,” and “people and their pets.”

For the third consecutive year I have been amazed at the way putting a camera in students’ hands becomes the perfect excuse for exploration and asking questions. I continue to be surprised how students will spend many dozens of hours tweaking their projects until they are “just right.” Working with video—especially work that will be publicly shared—seems to really develop a sense of respect and responsibility to their neighborhood collaborators. We were pleased that this year our work even caught the eye of our local newspaper.

Since last year’s class didn’t get to do a public showing this year we also included three of the five projects that were done for the spring of 2013. The entire program for the evening is here.

2014 Projects

“Hamline Midway Houses and Home Spaces” (12:05)
“Art and Music in the Midway Neighborhood” (12:47)
“Plants, People, & Community in the Hamline Midway Neighborhood” (15:34)
“Pets of the Hamline Midway” (13:12)

2013 Projects

“Brushes, Tiles, & Spray Cans: Midway Public Art” (11:09)
“Hens in the Hood: Roostin’ in the Midway” (13:30)
“Little Free Libraries of the Hamline Midway” (12:24)
“Midway Wellness” (14:52)

This years premiere evening was a great success with well over double the attendance that we would have considered enough to be successful. The class was very pleased to have such great support from our neighbors, friends and family members. Also, we received very generous support from the Hamline University Anthropology Department, a gift from an anonymous anthropology alumni, the support of a the Turf Club and a neighborhood relator.

 
 
This years students got so into their projects that one evening while working late in the video lab they recorded their reflections. The comments were then edited into a nice short set of reflections:

 

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