Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Beyond Hollywood
   Let's make a movie

Left: Richard and Catherine Saltz watch a multimedia production at the Bigfork Veterans Assembly about their son, Matthew, who was killed in Iraq. The production focused on the beauty of Matthew’s life. Through creating and watching productions drawn from the real lives of our communities, we clarify the common core of feelings and ideas that bind us together. We now have the tools to create powerful public art born of our social life, revolving around celebrations, rituals, and recurring community events such as marriages and deaths.

The Montana Heritage Project is celebrating its tenth year this year. After a decade of paying attention to work done by high school students across the state, I realize that what sticks in my mind–that is, what really matters--are the moments of beauty.

In Bigfork this year I attended a school-wide Veterans Day Assembly put on by juniors in Mary Sullivan’s classes. Part of the program included a multimedia presentation using photographs and music to pay tribute to Bigfork High School graduate Matthew Saltz, Montana’s first casualty in the Iraq War.

The format was simple--images of Matt accompanied by music. But the production transmitted a powerful message about what matters to one group of people in a small Montana town, simply because the photos were ones that Matt’s family and friends had chosen to record and save. People document what matters to them.

Quite a few values were celebrated, and thus taught. Work hard. Take care of family. Learn to be good at things. Set goals. Take life seriously. Have fun. Have friends, and remember them. The production was a powerful event in the community’s history–the sort of art by which cultures are created and transmitted.

The entire assembly, which was carefully staged, got me thinking about the role of beauty in teaching. We are drawn to beauty. This is important for communities to remember as they think about how to educate their youth. Teachers today compete for the attention of kids who live in a world that is noisy with seductive and sophisticated claims on our consciousness.

It’s a hard world to grow up in. Many kids have questions about what really is important. If we want our youth to stay with us, caring for what we care for, we need to invite them into the beauty we know, teaching them to see it, to feel it, and to create it.

I like what I see happening in the Heritage Project. A student in Phil Leonardi’s class in Corvallis made a movie based on newspaper research into an eighty-year-old unsolved crime. Students in Darlene Beck’s classes in Townsend used images and recorded voices to explore the local culture of quilters. Students in Dorothea Susag’s classes in Simms did a documentary production that brought to life the Sun River Valley as it was in 1910. Students in Nancy Widdicombe’s classes created a documentary video about three families who have ranched near the Snowy Mountains for more than a hundred years.

Digital tools for making movies and music have made this possible in ways that didn’t exist a few years ago. Kids today have at their command the power of a symphony orchestra. They have in their computers access to movie wizardry unavailable even to Hollywood producers in the recent past. They have the tools. What they need are good ideas about what these tools are for.

Already, the power and sophistication of local productions is limited less by our tools or budgets than by what we haven’t yet learned. The learning could be a joy. Students today need to be critical viewers of the media that surrounds them. The best way to learn how perceptions are shaped by camera angle, framing, juxtaposition, and editing is to create their own videos. The work of researching, scripting, shooting, and editing a video can be a collaborative process, a series of conversations about appearances and realities, about possibilities and results, about what matters and what does not.

Over the past ten years, the world has become noisier. Learning to focus our attention is getting to be a survival skill. We can help young people, and ourselves, by ignoring many of the distractions and making space to have important conversations, to do research, to reflect, and then to do something beautiful. Let’s make a slide show about the history of this river. Let’s make a documentary about the building of this school. Let’s make a movie about your grandfather’s life.

If we pass on our cultural heritage by using our new technology to find and celebrate the beauties of life in Montana, we will be thinking about and teaching what matters.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 12/07 at 10:34 PM
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© 2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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