Students create documentary

by Lauren Sarner | 2/17/13 11:00pm

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Although Dartmouth students pride themselves in tackling challenges of many forms, from academic to athletic to artistic, few can say they have faced live bears and lived to tell about it.

Students in film and media studies professor Jeffrey Ruoff's introductory videomaking class spent the winter producing a documentary about Ben Kilham, a local scientist and farmer from Lyme who is raising and studying 27 orphaned black bear cubs. Kilham, who is working on his PhD at Drexel University, has attracted national attention for this unconventional approach to research.

This is the first time a project of this magnitude has been attempted, Ruoff said. In typical documentary classes, students are split into smaller groups that create several films.

"This is the first time that I've taught a class where we've just made one film. Everyone works together on one project and we try to make it a professional quality film," Ruoff said.

Two previous documentaries have been made about Ben Kilham, one in 2001 for National Geographic titled "Bear Man," and another in 2004 for the Discovery Channel called "Papa Bear."

Rena Sapon-White '14, the documentary's director, said that this film will focus on Kilmam as an individual, not solely a scientist.

Harry Boling '16 said that the other documentaries about Kilham have amplified the dramatic aspects of raising bears.

"I think our film will have some commonalities with those two documentaries," Boling said. "But we're not trying to win over the public with some thrilling, bear-crazed man."

The film is best described as a character portrait, not a nature documentary, head editor Annie Munger '13 said.

"We'll treat the audience to some cool visuals of bears," sound editor Ben Feeser '13 said. "But the documentary is really about [Kilham] and how he's overcome his struggles, and his life philosophy."

Sapon-White said that Kilham's story is compelling because of the personal struggles he has had to overcome.

"Because he's not formally trained, he's had a hard time getting his work disseminated in the scientific community," she said. "On top of that, he's dyslexic, so he's got this learning disability that makes it difficult for him to read and write."

Sapon-White described Kilham as highly intelligent and talented in a way that the conventional education system overlooked.

"He's such an interesting character because he's got this outlook [that] he's out to prove something because he got rejected by the standard schooling process," Feeser said.

The class comprises a range of students, from senior film majors to freshmen with no prior filmmaking experience. Munger, for example, previously worked with the award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns, and Milo Johnson '13 received a grant last year to make a documentary about beetles. For others, including Boling and Jenna van de Ruit '15, this is their first film class and project of this nature.

"There's a total spectrum of [students]," Sapon-White said. "There are some who have never taken a film class before, there are some who have gotten research fellowships. I think it's the best combination; older students can pass their knowledge along, and nobody's really behind or slacking."

Feeser, a film minor, enjoyed the opportunity to mentor the freshmen and sophomores in the editing room, he said.

In the process of making the film, students learned some unexpected information about bears.

"You realize they're not these aggressive, vicious animals they're sometimes portrayed as," Boling said.

Van de Ruit was surprised to discover the proximity of the black bears' location to campus.

"It's funny because you don't think bears are so close, but [Kilham] lives just by the [Dartmouth Skiway]," she said.

Sapon-White described the bears that Kilham has raised as expressive and humanoid. She said her favorite part of the project was getting the opportunity to hold a baby cub.

"It was asleep in my arms, sort of groaning and snoring, it was so cute," she said.

Boling said he did not expect to be in close proximity to bears his freshman year of college.

"I guess that's why you come out here. You won't get that at urban schools," he said.

Although the visuals that appear on film may be cute, they are the result of hours of hard work, students said.

"If you have three hours worth of footage, you may only use three minutes of it," Jonele Conceicao '14 said.

The class collected hundreds of hours of footage, and many long nights have been spent in the editing room.

"The hard part is setting out to find what's interesting," Feesen said.

A lot of the film's theme has come out in the editing process. Kilham by himself is not a story, and students had to discover what builds the story and the thought-provoking elements behind his work, Sapon-White said.

"Part of the excitement of documentary-making is being flexible, having the focus of the project change and discovering it again in the editing process," Ruoff said. "Documentary is partly a kind of gamble with reality. You are not scripting the action you don't know what's going to happen."

Students said they hope the audience will take a number of messages away after viewing the project.

"It's important for people to know what the film department has been up to, I think its often overlooked," Munger said. "People are doing really incredible things with the arts at Dartmouth. "

Because a finished film looks seamless, it can be easy to overlook how much effort has gone into it, Ruoff said.

"I hope that, in addition to learning about Kilham's remarkable story his personal struggles, his unique methods I hope the audience also understand the tremendous work that the students put into the project," he said.

The documentary will be screening in the Loew Auditorium on March 8. Kilham will attend the premiere.