Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Three films documenting the City of Bethlehem’s transformation premiere at festival

From small community movie theaters to the corner Blockbuster, independent films have carved a sizeable and impressive niche in the film industry. Here in Bethlehem, this medium has found a welcome home in the SouthSide Film Festival, which for one week each summer showcases the depth and breadth of talented filmmakers. The festival highlights both the struggles of the filmmakers and celebrates their works of art.

Three Lehigh University graduate students have had a taste of the work involved in producing such a film. On June 19, they were also able to see its rewards. Earl Kunkel, Elena Demchenko and Jeffrey Remling, all students of the class "History and Storytelling in Documentary Film" premiered their documentaries at the SouthSide Film Festival at Godfrey Daniels.

The class, instructed by John Pettegrew, director of American Studies, and Julia Masserjian, digital library project coordinator, gave students the opportunity to work in this medium for the first time. And the festival, which not only shows films, but supports and encourages emerging filmmakers, provided a venue for their work.

“The impact the festival has made on Bethlehem shows how the city and our film festival is different from most of the other film festivals,” said Phillip Clauser, director of administration for the College of Arts and Sciences, who also serves on the festival’s board. “We have activities for the filmmakers to do things together and get to know and share stories.”

The City of Bethlehem took the lead role in each of the three documentaries that will premiere on Thursday. Bethlehem, which is undergoing a dramatic transformation, is also rich in history. In that respect, says Pettegrew, documentary filmmaking is a part of the ongoing process of self-discovery in Bethlehem.

“Bethlehem is a laboratory of American social, industrial, labor and ethnic history,” says Pettegrew, who also co-directs Lehigh’s South Side Initiative along with associate professor of English Seth Moglen. “In addition to using Lehigh’s intellectual capital and expertise to contribute back to the greater community, films on Bethlehem add to our historical understanding of modern American.”

Kunkel, a first-time filmmaker will show "Gambling on Steel,” which looks at gambling through the eyes of four people and will examine how a new casino, slated to open next year, will impact the Bethlehem community. “What the film reveals is that the casino becomes a life force itself,” says Kunkel. “As the casino brings its entertainment, it also brings less desirable things that may lead to the decaying of the city and community.”

Demchenko’s film “American Dream” and Remling’s film “Urban Renewal in the South Side” examine another aspect of South Side Bethlehem. “It reveals the life stories of two women who immigrated to the U.S. several years ago and now work at Lehigh,” says Demchenko of her piece. “One of the women came from Puerto Rico and works as a cleaning lady, the other one came from the Dominican Republic and works in dining services.”

Pettegrew says that documentary films have become an increasingly popular alternative to writing history. "It's part of public history—like museums or historical tours, documentary film is an effective way to offer up the findings of historical research for public consumption."

Masserjian has been working to promote the use of digital media at Lehigh. Along with other members of the Library and Technology Services (LTS), she created the Web site “Beyond Steel: An Archive of Lehigh Valley Industry and Culture.” Collaborating with members of the Steelworker's Archive, the National Museum of Industrial History, the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, the Bethlehem Public Library, and former Bethlehem Steel CEO Hank Barnette, among others, LTS has created a site that centralizes, indexes, and makes accessible through keyword search the widest array of written, audio, and visual digital material.

“Documentary video is an increasingly popular option for students and faculty interested in replacing or augmenting traditional research papers with multimedia,” says Masserjian. “The process of video production combines research and writing skills with the art of storytelling through interviews, image selection, and narration to go beyond the written word through the powerful medium of audio/visual communication.”

An interdisciplinary working group has been created to develop ongoing projects and begin new efforts in making Lehigh a leading digital repository in the world for historical data on the City of Bethlehem, steel making, and steel workers. One component of the working group will focus on new opportunities for documentary filmmaking on both Bethlehem and other subject matter. In addition to the documentary film classes, Lehigh's Digital Media Studio has become an invaluable resource for student and faculty film production. Further collaboration with the SouthSide Film Institute and Festival will also be an asset to these efforts.

“Bethlehem's South Side is at a turning point in its long and interesting history. From its 19th-century boom, its mid 20th-century decline, to its current challenges and opportunities, the community has shown a tremendous capacity for adjustment and reinvention—all worth capturing through documentary work,” says Masserjian.

--Tricia Long

Posted on Thursday, June 19, 2008

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