On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
When it came to finding a subject for their documentary, the Sitar Arts Center students chose a topic close to home and to their hearts: an artist and longtime volunteer teacher at the center who was dying of liver cancer. The resulting film, “Life as a Collage,” is as much about the students dealing with the subject of death as the teacher himself.
- Maureen Dwyer Executive Director, Sitar Arts Center
- Lance Kramer Producer and co-founder, Meridian Hill Pictures
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. The Washington art critic, Joe Barber, died yesterday at his home. He was a man that a lot of people knew, but few seemed to know well. He joined us regularly on this program to talk about movies and arts. We'll talk more about Joe Barber and his contribution to the Washington art scene tomorrow.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut now we go to another Washington arts institution. The teenage students making this documentary decided to train their lens on a volunteer arts teacher at the center where they were taking their class. But this small subject was quickly enveloped in a larger one. The teacher was very sick and would die in the course of making the film. And while the film started out drawing lessons from the life of a beloved art instructor, in the course of making it, the students realized their film was about themselves and how they would deal with the heavy themes around illness and death.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss the film and the Sitar Arts Center where the students got this extraordinary opportunity is Maureen Dwyer, executive director of the Sitar Arts Center, which is an arts education non-profit here in the District. Maureen Dwyer, thank you for joining us.
MS. MAUREEN DWYERThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Lance Kramer. He is a Sitar Arts Center teaching artist and co-founder of Meridian Hill Pictures. Lance Kramer, thank you for joining us.
MR. LANCE KRAMERThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDII'll mention right now before we run out of time that the premier of Sitar Arts Center's first student documentary, "Life as a Collage" is tonight 7:00 p.m., 1700 Kalorama Road Northwest in Adams Morgan. That screening is free and open to the public. Maureen, the students made this documentary in a program at the Sitar Arts Center. Tell us about first Sitar.
DWYERSitar Arts Center is a multidisciplinary arts education center that provides the children and teenagers of Washington D.C. with enriching arts experiences, and a safe after school haven every day and on Saturdays and during the summer. And our mission to ensure that kids who wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity do, and therefore we reach out to families of very limited economic resources, and each semester 80 percent of our students come from low-income households.
NNAMDIAnd you provide classes for as many as 700 students a year.
DWYERThat's right. This semester we have 500 students enrolled, a little more than 500, and across the year about 700 students.
NNAMDILance these were high school students making a documentary, a pretty extraordinary opportunity. How did you get involved in teaching students?
KRAMERWell, we do it for a living with our production company, Meridian Hill Pictures where we produce documentaries, but often they're done in a highly community-based and participatory and educational approach. So in all of our projects that's -- we're both filmmakers and educators in fact, and I think that with this particular project, our studio is based in the same neighborhood as Sitar Arts Center. We're just right across the park, Meridian Hill Malcolm X Park.
KRAMERAnd on our way to lunch one day we actually just were walking by the center, had realized we had never been inside, peeked through the windows, saw all kinds of art and kids playing and got real excited, asked for a tour, and shortly thereafter proposed the idea of teaching a class. Not necessarily at that point knowing that it would be about this subject.
NNAMDII want to get -- I want to stay general before we talk about the documentary for a second here because, Maureen, art and music programs have been cut in a lot of schools because of budget cuts, because there just isn't the money. But you don't feel that art programs are a luxury, do you?
DWYERAbsolutely not. I think arts education and artistic expression are absolutely critical to the human experience, and I think it is necessary that we ensure that every single child and adolescent in Washington D.C. has access to a comprehensive arts education, and of course Sitar can't do that alone, so I look forward to the vision of the day where it's in all of the schools and we compliment that.
DWYERI feel that it teaches critical thinking, creative thinking, collaboration, I think the life skills that come out of an arts education and at Sitar Arts Center in particular with the high expectations we set for the students, it really ensures them for success on their path to adulthood, not just their experience as children.
NNAMDILance, this started as a film about a teacher named Tim Gable, but you've said that it became something else as it progressed.
KRAMERYeah. I would say that that's definitely been case where, you know, as a group -- a small group of about half a dozen students, when we first started the class, we had a number of different subject ideas as to what we would make a film about, and the students really were the ones who decided they wanted to make a piece about this teacher, Tim Gable, who at the time when we were starting the project had recently been diagnosed with cancer and it was relatively clear that his time was limited.
KRAMERSo there was a sense of immediacy. The students decided that at first the idea was that the piece would be about Tim and kind of a way to commemorate and honor his philosophies on art and life. What happened was that after working on the project for about six weeks, Tim ultimately passed away and we were at a crossroads thinking well, does that mean we can't make a film anymore because we can't have another interview with Tim.
KRAMERBut in fact what would up happening is that we turned the lens on ourselves and really looked from within as ourselves as teachers and then also, most importantly, the students to see how this whole experience had impacted the learning and growth of the students.
NNAMDIAs an artist, Tim the teacher who was the subject of the film, worked in collage and ultimately collage the theme of the film, did it not?
KRAMERYeah. And that's really something that's totally to the credit of our students. That's a connection that in particular one student, Forrest Penrod, made that connection and he talks about that in the film, how, you know, this was his first time making a documentary. In fact, a lot of the students didn't really even...
NNAMDIAllow me to have Forrest Penrod speak for himself.
MR. FORREST PENRODA documentary is a collage. In a collage, you take pictures from many different sources, different magazines, wherever you get the pictures from, and they could be different things. It could be like a fashion magazine, National Geographic magazine, and by doing a collage you create a bigger picture from all these little pictures that most people wouldn't really see a connection until you actually lay them out and glue down onto the canvas.
MR. FORREST PENRODAnd a documentary is very much like that because you have to interview different people, but by doing that, by combining them, you create one large story out of all these different stories from all these different points of view.
NNAMDISo I'm listening to the director of the film, Forrest Penrod, but I'm also listening to that music behind him. The music in this film is really interesting. I heard a little bit of it also before the show. It's my understanding that one of the students composed it.
KRAMERYeah. I mean, I think one of the really wonderful things about producing this piece at the Sitar Arts Center where it's a really multidisciplinary art space, where there's music and film and theater happening, is that you almost have kind of a built in production studio where you could turn to the music classes and say, we need a score. We need a really wonderful score, and know that there's someone there who is talented who can make that happen, and indeed that was the case with this project where another young female student named Cali composed this music, and this is really the first time to my understanding that she's had a chance to be a film composer, and has now had the chance to have her work shown and shared with all kinds of great audiences.
NNAMDICali Christopher, you go, girl. So these students wrote, directed, shot and edited this film as part of a program at the center. Maureen, did the film surprise you?
DWYERVery much so. When Lance and Brandon first walked into the center, I was so excited and inspired to have a documentary program, but I was anticipating oh, a couple minute piece on hip-hop music maybe. And when I heard the selection of their topic, I was incredibly moved. Tim has been a volunteer at Sitar Arts Center for ten years. He's dedicated his time and gifts, created our Saturday morning art program, and I thought the sophistication and the just emotion connection of their choice was really profound.
DWYERAnd when I saw the documentary, I was quite honestly blown away, and I know of quality of work that our students can put out, but this documentary exceeded any expectation I had. It was guided with such love.
NNAMDILance Kramer, what kind of effect did it have on the students to see an illness progress and to get close to someone who ultimately died?
KRAMERYeah. I think that maybe with youth especially there is a tendency to protect youth from situations or experiences that could be serious and difficult to deal with emotionally, and I think that that was certainly a conversation we had as a class and with the center staff is to what degree are we going to be sharing the extent of Tim's illness with the students. But ultimately I think all of us agreed that it was such an opportunity to get to know Tim, and also for the students to grow, and there was a real transformation that took place, particularly I think with Forrest where his mother I should say was also a volunteer caretaker for Tim.
KRAMERSo he was hearing about Tim's condition, but kind of scared about how he would deal with that, and I think the film and the arts really gave him an opportunity to engage with that experience, and grow and have a way of sharing his thoughts in a really productive and incredibly thoughtful way.
NNAMDIIf you want to know more about exactly what takes place at Sitar Arts Center, then you may want to use the opportunity to go to see the premier of Sitar Arts Center's first student documentary "Life as a Collage," because that's tonight, 7:00 p.m., 1700 Kalorama Road Northwest in Adams Morgan. I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Maureen Dwyer, thank you so much for joining us.
DWYERThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIMaureen Dwyer is the executive director of the Sitar Arts Center. Lance Kramer, thank you for joining us.
KRAMERThank you so much, Kojo.
NNAMDILance is a teaching artist and co-founder of Meridian Hill Pictures. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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