Visualizing St. Petersburg

Visualizing St. Petersburg: Documentary Filmmaking Abroad

The documentary filmmaking process requires a tremendous amount of patience, discipline, creativity, and flexibility. You need to deal with people, but know how to troubleshoot technology; you must be organized, but open to spontaneity; you should be prepared for everything, but comfortable working in the unknown. For the eight students who studied abroad in the summer of 2011 in St. Petersburg, Russia, they had the added challenge of doing it all in Russian.

Over the course of the past three years, professors Frederick Corney and Alexander Prokhorov made undergraduate research the central component of William & Mary’s St. Petersburg summer study abroad program. Each year, students work on research projects concerning places of memory and urban development in St. Petersburg. Specifically, students examine how these sites are remembered within a larger, public representation. Professor Prokhorov, the program’s director during the summer of 2011, wanted to include an element of video production into this year’s project and that’s how I became involved.

As the college’s environmental filmmaking-in-residence, I’ve sought to incorporate media production into current research and coursework across disciplines on campus. Professor Prokhorov saw the potential for collaboration, and with the support of a Reves Center Faculty Fellows grant, students gained access to camcorders and microphones, learned field production skills, collaborated with St. Petersburg journalist students, and acquired international documentary production experience.

“Making a documentary is a lot of work, but it’s exhilarating after you interview someone,” says Sophie Kosar ’14, whose project focuses on the controversial construction of a new seaport and business district, the Marine Façade, on the western shores of the city. “You realize you had to forge this connection with your subject; you had to do this yourself.”

Will Lahue ’12, whose project explores how Russian Orthodox community and Goth subculture define Smolensky Cemetery as a site of commemoration, realizes the benefits of working on his film. “I’ve gained a more rapid acclamation into Russian society. Just running around getting things done, meeting people; it’s been a challenge. I’ve needed to accomplish a lot in Russian and that’s been good for me.”

Introducing students to video production in study abroad programs is incredibly enabling; the filmmaking process forces them out of their comfort zone, stretches their limits, and pushes them to interact in ways they would not have otherwise. The project has the potential to serve as a model for other study abroad program that want to challenge their participants to make connections, to pay attention, and to be creative.

“The biggest thing I’ve gained in this project is confidence in networking with people,” says Monika Bernotas ‘12. “It’s amazing how many people have returned my emails to say they would be willing to help out.”

On November 29th, these documentaries were screened to the larger William and Mary community. In March, they will be exhibited at the Slavic Forum at the University of Virginia.

Jes Therkelsen is a filmmaker, photographer, media consultant, and activist. His work has confronted issues such as human rights, sustainable development and environmental justice. His films have won a D.C. Peer Award, a CINE Golden Eagle and have screened in festivals across the country. He has been a Peace Fellow in Nepal, a Washington D.C. Artist Fellow, and a Flaherty Film Fellow. He is the Environmental Filmmaker-in-residence at the College of William and Mary.