After the Fact: A Director’s Musings on the Go Public Experience

A Day in the Life of the Eliot Middle School Library

Student Daniel Pinto-Teixiera hunkers down for a test

The following is recollection of the day’s events during my participation in the Go Public Documentary Film Shoot.  Each crew member was asked for their reflection on that day, and this was the document that I submitted to Producers Dawn & Jim O’Keeffe.  –S.

In retrospect of filming, I am left with a wealth of emotions related to the day’s events.  In the first place, a week prior I took the opportunity to sit down and meet not only with my subject Mrs. Large, but Eliot Middle School Principal Mr. Pannell, and two students, Daniel Teixiera-Pinto and Carter Robertson.  The brief time spent during my initial encounter was enough to leave me with an impression of the place and these people.  Add to that, the memories of my own time spent in Eliot’s wise old library as a former student, and it is safe to say that I was carrying around some very distinct feelings of this place.  Most tangible to me was the importance of this tiny segment of a very personal and human institution, and a sense of responsibility that I had as a filmmaker to reveal my impressions.

Prior to filming, I set myself into a certain mindset however.  It is the same as when I pick up a still camera to capture an image: I prefer to distance myself from my subject.  I do not want to be felt as a presence to the subject.  It is enough in capturing the things that I see, that I will imprint a certain impression upon an image.  It is unavoidable.  That being said, it might have come off to some of the people that I encountered on Tuesday, that I was somewhat distant.  The fact that I had the fantastic talent of my  D.P. Neil de la Peña, and sound mixer Richard Newton, allowed me that luxury.

Arriving at the Home of the Large family early in the morning, was like being tossed into the deep end of a swimming pool.  Mrs. Large had spoken with her family about what to expect on the day of the shoot. Most importantly, she had told her three children, Eric 8, Penelope 5, and Frida 4, that they should ignore the camera.  As you might imagine, it’s near impossible for three filmmakers to “disappear” to a houseful of excited young children.

The plan to shoot that morning was to go strictly handheld, and capture the frenetic nature of an early morning as Mrs. and Mr. Large got their brood ready for the day.  We captured that, and the loving, curious and outgoing nature of this family.

After arriving at school and settling in to filming, I was once again left with a little trepidation in capturing what I saw happening in the library, and doing so in a vérité fashion.  A quiet place, with quiet activity taking place; all in an atmosphere where your subject is likely to be suspicious of your presence.

When I met Mrs. Large the previous week, I knew that this small statured, gentle-natured person was someone quite special.  She didn’t need to be someone of large flourishes or grandiose personality to leave her mark on me, or the walls of the library.  The day of filming left me with concrete examples of what I already sensed of her.  A gentle, thoughtful way of leading students toward learning.  Deep caring not only for her students, but of what she does.  The more I was there, witnessing the day’s activities, the more I began regaining personal sense-memories of my considerable days hanging out in the Eliot Library.  Before long, I had the realization that the library of any learning institution, is not only a physical “mind”, but the soul of the institution.  Sanctuary.  Whether you are a child who gets straight “A’s” and sees all of a school as a place of learning, or perhaps someone who might dread going into a certain class because they aren’t achieving the highest grades, the library and her caretaker are there to offer safe haven to a mind.

If the Pasadena Unified School District, and indeed the entire State of California choose to cut these sanctuaries from their schools, what are we leaving for our children?  Cool factories for learning?  At the very least, an institution without sanctuary.  Even prisons have sanctuaries for learning. 

I didn’t have to worry about a lack of material, but what became more and more difficult for me, was my ability to watch from a distance.  The entire school was a field of activity, with people coming in and out.  As the crew extended itself out of the library, we were a draw for these curious, kinetic personalities. . . Not just the students, but the active minds and hearts that were there to keep the chaos of a State testing day under control.  Not utopian in any sense, but smiles were everywhere around me.

My crew and I returned from shooting a few exteriors to find Eliot being evacuated to the field for a fire alarm.  Students and faculty all baking in the hot sun.  We had the chance to tell that story, through the eyes of Mr. Pannell and his staff.  We would follow it as far as his dealing with the student who activated the false alarm.  Later, I would discover I had even more story captured on camera than I realized.

By the end of the school day, I realized that we were only halfway through Mrs. Large’s day.  We followed her on her 33 mile trip back to pick up her kids, and once again to get the shot in the arm from their beautiful energy.  Drawing closer to the end of the day, I let the camera settle more.  Greater stasis, lock off shots with less movement.  A good idea that I think will pay off, but there was no keeping the energy of these kids contained.

By the time my crew and I sat down to dinner on the porch of Mr. & Mrs. Large’s home, it was clear that the modicum of distance that we strove for early on, was no longer possible.  Equal parts comfort and curiosity came from family and crew alike.  We managed to capture some nice impressions of them at the end of the day, and by the time we sat the family down to interview, it was dark and we had a tired but happy bunch on our hands.

After little Penelope asked me if the family could take a bow, Neil came up with the last flourish for the close of the interview.  Before it was halfway out of his mouth, I excitedly knew exactly what he had in mind.  But rather than spoil the moment, I’ll leave it for you to see yourself.

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