News: Russian Studies

Visualizing Saint Petersburg – One Month In (July 15)

After a month, students in the Saint Petersburg study abroad program find themselves in the thick of their documentary productions, taking advantage of every opportunity while in the field. Producing a documentary film is not an easy task. It takes a lot of research and planning to develop a story idea, to consider which concepts and themes to pursue, and decide what tone the piece should have to convey the film’s overall message. After answering these questions, one needs to start considering what the piece is going to look and sound like; in other words, what are the scenes that will make the piece turn into a coherent film? Will it need interviews? If so, with whom? Will the piece be best told through narration, or archival footage, or footage of a place within the city? If so, you need to arrange for those shoots. And all of this work is even before you pick up a camera!

Documentary filmmaking is a time intensive practice, as many of these students are learning. But it also takes determination, confidence, and a willingness to stick your neck out. It’s hard enough to do it in your native language. These students have been doing it in Russian. And they’ve never made a documentary before.

What has been the biggest surprise for me has been the access we have been getting while in St. Petersburg. For example, we interviewed top government personnel about the construction of the Marine Facade development. This is a controversial and sensitive issue for many, yet we were sent a car to drive us around the Facade to get B-roll footage of the terminal while it is still under construction. For another project, we spoke with Father Viktor, who oversees Smolensky Catedral and Saint Xenia Chapel. Father Viktor, who could have easily waved us away, graciously agreed to sit with us for a morning and talk in front of a camera about the younger generation of Russians in the Russian Orthodox Church. He then took us through the Cathedral and allowed us to film while a service was going on. On other occasions we’ve gotten access to film inside the historic Aurora Theater, inside the landmark Cafe Singer, and the renowned Pushkinskaya-10 art coop.

Collaborations with St. Petersburg University journalism students have benefits not only the projects, but the entire experience. In a sense, these students are our field producers, helping us acquire access to interviews and helping out during shoots. They offer advice on the story and suggestions as to the direction the pieces could go. With only two weeks left, students are pushing to get as much accomplished before they head home. Although hard work, the city has opened up to these students, which has been rewarding to watch.

Jes Therkelsen

Teaching Filmmaker-in-Residence
Environmental Science and Policy
Millington Hall 214
The College of William and Mary
Williamsburg, VA 23187