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College documentarians look at sustainability — and at the world of St. Louis

From event poster

Emily Colmo knows a whole lot more about sunflowers today than she did three months ago. Back then, she began her sunflower journey in distressed parts of St. Louis, where vacant land has been planted with these tall and vivid flowers. Colmo came to discover the importance of increasing our levels of environmental sustainability and our responsibility for distressed and decaying areas of all sorts. Now, she's ready to show all of us what she's learned through a documentary.

In digging in on the complex and contentious subject of sustainability and recognizing the necessity of our getting busy if future generations are to survive, she gained perspective on the St. Louis region, the planet on which we live and her place in all of this.

On 7 p.m. Tuesday Dec. 8, her documentary will be shown at the Missouri History Museum. It will be in the company of 11 other short documentaries, each produced by an honors college student who’s spent the autumn semester learning to create something packed with meaning, an act of art and of journalism.

Colmo, a junior and a history major at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is also student in UMSL's Pierre Laclede Honors College. She believes her involvement with the sunflowers and urban St. Louis is important to her development as a student and as a person.

“The work leaves me wanting to learn more,” she said. “I know much more about St. Louis than I knew before. This is one of the most beneficial things I have done in college, seeing what the city is all about.”

It is a good bet is you won’t be disappointed when you see this work, especially if these 4-minute shows measure up to the shorts produced last year. The 2014 documentaries are found at Nine LAB | UMSL Beyond the Buildings | Fall 2014. The generating program is called "Beyond the Buildings" and it is a collaborative project of the Nine Network's NineLAB, the University of Missouri-St. Louis and the Landmarks Association of St. Louis.

The 2014 documentaries

Jake Branson struck a rich vein when he met with architect-preservationist Ray Simon, a pioneer developer on Cherokee Street east of Jefferson. Simon’s career has focused on small, worthy projects of genuine substance that, in toto, amount to substantial mending of the tattered urban fabric as well as contributing to the built world.

Simon and his stories were perfect for Branson: The alley building Simon transformed into a splendid and stylish residence for himself had a fallen-in roof when he started his renovation-rehabilitation. Branson’s major is civil engineering, so he had a practical “Beyond the Building” experience with Simon and his enthusiasm comes through in his documentary.

Branson, a junior, said he was enriched by his experiences in the program. “I had the opportunity to connect with the community and to talk to St. Louisans who are rebuilding and revitalizing the city. And it was cool to relate preservation and civil engineering.”

Beyond the Buildings: Stories of the Community received a $2,500 grant from the Missouri Humanities Council. The program Tuesday at the History Museum begins at 7 p.m. It's open to the public and free.

Marta Kersulis is pursuing a double major in music and music theory. Her 2014 documentary looks at members of an architectural firm called Space, located in the ever more vibrant neighborhood called the Grove.

Her documentary, she said, deals with the firm’s active participation in the rejuvenation of the Grove, and the rescue of the Grove from the sort of decay that crawls through marginal parts of American cities like a viper and eventually kills them. Manchester Avenue is the Grove's Main Street, and its east and west boundaries are Vandeventer Avenue and Kingshighway, or close to them.

Kersulis echoed Branson’s remarks about the opportunities the program presents, specifically connections with St. Louisans active in renewal and rehabilitation projects. She also regards her Honors College work not as an assignment but an investment, one that involves working with engaged people and, through her documentary, demonstrating to the broader community what the involved folks are up to. The dividends are knowledge, awareness and a sense of the importance of saving rather than wasting resources.

Is that sort of experience something that translates as useful in a life as a musician?

“Certainly,” she said. “It’s a place to pick up real life skills.”

The program

NineLAB’s Mike Pagano is the managing producer. Rob Wilson, a lecturer in the honors college, integrates the NineLAB training into his service learning class. Service learning connects regular classroom experiences with real-life lessons learned through active service in the community. “Beyond the Building” qualifies thoroughly.

Students come into the lab at the Nine Network to learn how to create documentaries.
Credit Provided by the Nine Network
Students come into the lab at the Nine Network to learn how to create documentaries.

Professor Wilson said the program attracts an intellectually and vocationally diverse group. Representing various disciplines are students in the university’s nationally recognized department of criminology and criminal justice; its anthropology and history departments; in engineering, as we’ve seen with Branson; and in the glories of music performance and the formal underpinnings of it, music theory.

The Landmarks Association performs a vital service as a talent spotter for the fledgling cineaste – especially for student producers who want to tell stories that focus on issues of sustainability. The subject is approached through various means, including the rescue and revivification of buildings all too often considered disposable.

Program chief Pagano was asked whether he believes that this genre, the documentary – with its recitations of history by men and women who’ve lived these stories, or have received them as a legacy – is enjoying new life. He said, “That question affirms my notion that the work we are doing is taking on a new role outside professional media. So what we are doing, this kind of training, is important.” Everyone with a cellular telephone can make a documentary. Making one that matters, Pagano said, is a different proposition. It depends on discipline, and on “breaking down a story into bite size pieces. It is a means of sharp-focus looking, and reducing something sprawingly big to something manageably small -- a reduction to a tenth of its original size, from 45 minutes to four.”

Pagano says he starts with teaching the language and basic components of a video. Once students have the basics of shooting, both interviews and b-roll, they go out into the community and capture a story. The interviews usually produce about 45 minutes of footage that have to be edited down and then crafted to build a 4-minute narrative with more research, images and video as needed:

“Then they add all the supporting elements: transitions, text, and music to create a finished story.”

Pagano said he appreciates the collaborative nature of the project and the contributions of community partners, including Landmarks, which connects the students with their subjects and characters for the videos and takes them on a bus tour to show them the realities of urban vitality and urban diseases, and the Missouri History Museum, which provides support with learning about oral history presentations and provides the students a wonderful place to share their stories with the community.

The documentary form

The documentary form is almost 140 years old now, and the seeds for the bounty the students are harvesting today were planted first by Eadweard Muybridge in 1877. That year he photographed sequentiallythe movement of a horse at a gallop, and among other things, proved conclusively there are times when all four equine hooves leave the ground.

St. Louis owns a significant piece of the documentary form's history. One of the great documentarians of the 20th century had a close connection with the Nine Network of Public Media, then called KETC-TV, Channel 9. The Academy Award winning producer-director Charles Guggenheim moved to St. Louis in the early 1950s; he'd been hired to help to launch KETC-TV. He had definite ideas about the role of educational television in public life. Not terribly long after settling in here, he was fired. He moved on to Washington, and to glory.

Later, would later create, among other great motion-picture documentaries, the beloved “Monument to the Dream,” the film that tells the story of the building of the Arch in the words of the men who did the work. Guggenheim’s film been seen by many thousands in the theater beneath Eero Saarinen’s gleaming celebration of westward expansion, and it will be featured in the new Arch museum.