New genre of short films documents family histories, important events
DECEMBER 3, 2010 3:48 p.m. (0)
He remembers the rocks, driftwood and barnacles that were a part of his growing up on Killams Point in Branford, Conn.
There was the weathered one-lane bowling alley, the barn and stables that were part of a once self-sustaining farm in the 1900s.
And, now, thanks to Greenville filmmaker Jeff Sumerel, Goodwin can take a trip back to the 100-acre piece of land on which he spent his childhood and the first year and a half of marriage to his wife, Gale, any time he wants by popping a DVD into a player.
“It’s more powerful than a picture album,” Dexter Goodwin said. “It captures the essence of the beauty of the place.”
Unbeknownst to Goodwin, Sumerel took a side trip to Goodwin’s childhood home near New Haven while in New York to make what he now calls a “moving portrait.”
The idea came after Sumerel began producing short, personal works as gifts for close friends and family.
In addition to the trip back to Goodwin’s past, Sumerel has also turned footage from his nephew’s music school audition into “Session Day,” which captures the 17-year-old jazz trumpeter interacting with music mentors.
He also made a documentary for a man’s 60th birthday where he interviewed people the man came in contact with during his daily life.
While the people may not have known the man’s name, they recognized him after Sumerel showed them a picture.
Sumerel then weaved within the interviews an old movie that had a similar theme.
He’s also done pieces documenting the progress of the reconstruction of a Japanese temple for Furman University and put together clips of old footage of former U.S. Rep Bob Inglis.
Advances in technology have made artistic filmmaking an affordable type of art, much like fine jewelry and paintings, Sumerel said.
“It’s like what if Ken Burns could produce our home movies,” he said.
Sumerel began honing his filmmaking skills at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1974.
By 1976, two of his short subjects had been selected for numerous film festivals and picked for the South Carolina Arts Commission permanent film collection.
He is probably best known for two films: “Bragging Rites,” a film he wrote and directed about the 100-year football rivalry between the University of South Carolina and Clemson; and “To My Great Chagrin: The Unbelievable Story of Brother Theodore,” a film about a man from New York on the fringe of celebrity.
But it was an eight-year stint as a stand-up comic that really taught Sumerel how critical pacing is when telling a story.
“You can feel when the audience is starting to wane,” he said.
Sometimes when Sumerel begins to feel a “moving portrait” is beginning to move too slowly, he thinks about whom it is for.
“It won’t be slow to them,” he said.
Sumerel said the short, personal documentary films could cost from hundreds of dollars, if it involves editing photos and home movies a person or family already has, to thousands of dollars.
Goodwin said Sumerel had “almost an instinct” of what to capture about Killams Point, although he only had stories Goodwin had told him to go on.
The 10-minute film had no dialogue.
“It would have taken away from it,” Goodwin said. “I would call it a piece of art.”
As he watched the DVD and saw the weathered and gray bowling alley, Goodwin said it took him back to his childhood years.
When he saw seaweeds floating on the surf, he remembered days when he walked in the surf, picked up driftwood and examined every rock he saw.
“It was like he was walking in my feet, seeing with my eyes when I was a little boy,” Goodwin said. “And he did it without anybody there to guide him, just by remembering the stories I had told him.”
When Goodwin showed the DVD to his 90-year-old mother, she cried.
“It’s something that’s been enjoyed by four generations of my family,” he said. “So many people have interesting family histories. And this really is more powerful than a picture album.”
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