For the Love of Film, Two Young Documentarians Journey to Siberia

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Everyone falls in love a different way. Maybe it's a particular scene or the collected works of a particular director, or even just a catchphrase. Whatever the way, millions of people fall in love with film everyday and some of them, inspired by their own life experiences, make the journey to Hollywood to fulfill their ambitions.

For Elizabeth Rose, the romance began during her junior year at Harvard when the English major decided to take a course in experimental documentary filmmaking taught by Lucien Castaing-Taylor.

"I was drawn to study with Lucien by the sense of creative freedom in a safe environment that the course elided," says Rose. "It seemed like a good opportunity to have the experience of being part of an artist's collective."

That collective was Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL), founded and led by Castaing-Taylor which sent undergraduate and graduate students out into the field to produce films of their own. To date, the SEL has amongst its alumni, one student--Alexander Berman, who is Rose's filmmaking partner in her documentary current project--whose documentary work Songs from the Tundra premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam and won the Grand Jury Prize at Provincetown. Other notable alumni are John Hulsey whose work has been featured in the New York Times online, and J.P. Sniadeki whose film "Chaiqian (Demolition)" won at Cinéma du Reel.

"The Sensory Ethnography Lab has become very quickly become this experimental hothouse where filmmakers, phonographers, video artists, and photographers are rubbing shoulders, cross-pollinating one another's projects, and doing often utterly remarkable work," says Castaing-Taylor. "The sense of creative vitality and dynamism is palpable. Students who came to Harvard to write a straightforward textual dissertation are all of a sudden exploring the possibilities of trying to work, ethnographically and/or aesthetically, through various combinations of images and sounds, something they'd never previously considered."

Castiang-Taylor's own work as a filmmaker has won him nearly universal critical acclaim after its premiere at the New York Film Festival in 2009. His film with his wife and producing partner Ilisa Barbash, Sweetgrass, is a lusciously shot portrait of the lives of the few remaining sheepherders in Montana. Completed over seven years, the film jettisons many of the traditional documentary structures--narration is a missing key component--in favor of letting the subjects and imagery tell their stories themselves.

"At the SEL we became very well-grounded in the history of non-fiction filmmaking--as well as the areas where the line between fiction and non-fiction filmmaking gets a little murky," says Rose.

Perhaps sensing her own path as a filmmaker may lead down a different road, Rose decided to move to Los Angeles and learn how films were made for mainstream audiences. A high school internship at the Massachusetts office of Walden Media propelled her into another at Red Wagon Entertainment, the Sony-based production shingle of Lucy Fisher and Douglas Wick.

It was with Fisher and Wick--whose credits include Gladiator, Memoirs of A Geisha, Girl, Interrupted and many others--that Rose learned the importance of narrative in filmmaking.

"It really wasn't until I moved out to Los Angeles that I got a sense of what it means to make feature fiction movies for mainstream audiences," Rose continues. "Doug and Lucy are very erudite in the ways of storytelling and it's inspiring to watch them work. It was an invaluable experience because I learned what it meant to take an idea from its kernel and make story the most important thing."

That did not, however, lessen Rose's desire to experiment with the forms of filmmaking. So, nearly a year later, she headed back to Cambridge to work with another SEL alum, the aforementioned Berman, on turning his award-winning documentary short "Songs from the Tundra" into a feature-length documentary, tentatively titled The Volcano People. Berman's film focuses on the story of the Eveny people, a remote tribe living at the foot of the world's largest active volcanoes in Kamchatka Siberia, who are struggling to bring their traditional way of living into sync with modernity.

"It's a really compelling portrait of a people at a crossroads that I think a lot of Americans could identify with," Berman explains. "In the US, so many manufacturing jobs have been shipped away, never to return, and like the people in our film, they're asking, 'What comes next?'"

To answer that question, Rose and Berman are currently raising money to support their project, Berman will be a Fulbright scholar to Russia this year, and together they have a few smaller grants in support of the documentary's production. In addition to grants, the two are also soliciting donations from the public via Kickstarter, and are hoping to raise $10,000 by the end of this month.

"Alex and I understand what we're doing is ambitious but we think with the grounding we have in SEL-style filmmaking combined with some Hollywood know-how, we have a sense of how to make a non-fiction film on the scale that we want to make one," Rose continues. "The education I received from Doug and Lucy--about how one tells a story, what to emphasize, what people want to see and how to hit the right points--will all have a really positive impact on this film."

And what about the possibility of failure?

"If we fail, we'd like to fail spectacularly, and on a large scale, so we can learn. Given that both Alex and I are so young and trying to make a non-fiction film, people are generally actually really helpful," Rose says. "And that's an advantage that, as a young filmmakers, we have now--not in five or ten years."

If you would like to support the creation of The Volcano People, you can make a tax-deductible donation to the project by visiting the project's Kickstarter page.

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