|Professor Learns Along with Students by Producing "Memory Project" Film About Her Mother
January 04, 2011
|Prof. Maggie McCarthy
by Kelly Beggs
In the spring of 2010, Professor of German Maggie McCarthy gave students in her "Memory and Film" class a choice-write a traditional research paper, or create a "memory project" film that documents a person, place or experience.
The creative assignment was one that McCarthy could not resist. She shifted from professor to student, completed her own assignment, and screened the film about her mother late in the fall semester.
This was the first foray into filmmaking for the coordinator of Davidson's film and media concentration, and the experience provided her with valuable insights into teaching the subject. She said, "It's easy to forget what it's like to be an absolute beginner student. And that's very much how I experienced the whole process of learning to make a film."
The project was a valuable addition to her long-time experience in film studies, which dates to her years as an undergraduate at Connecticut College. McCarthy's academic specialty is German film. She's the co-editor of the book Light Motives: German Popular Film in Perspective, and she has written several scholarly articles in that area.
However, as she shifted from an analytic to a creative approach to film, the tenor of her work became more personal. "At some point it became clear to me that I would make a film about my mother," said McCarthy. Her mother passed away four days into the spring 2010 semester, and the project took on new meaning as a part of her grief and healing. She said, "I began the process of mourning her as I taught the course, so I thought hard about how to combine pedagogy with the personal in ways that would enrich the course."
Because her mother had suffered a series of strokes that gradually impeded her ability to speak, McCarthy wanted to reclaim her voice in the film. The final film includes voice-over narratives, interviews with both of her parents, still shots of old photos, 40-year-old Super Eight movie sequences and video from recent years, including scenes from her mother's nursing home and funeral.
"The film shares some of the ‘mom lore' I've known since my childhood, and includes some of my sleuthing to find out more, like the scene of my daughter and me poking around dusty hatboxes in my parents' attic," she said. "It shows the bowls of coins my mother hid away in various parts of the house, which my father speculates might have to do partly with the lingering effects of a Depression-era childhood."
By creating this film, McCarthy felt first-hand some of the challenges the topic of memory presents to the film medium. Though film captures only sight and sound, the most powerful sensory triggers of memory are smell, taste, and touch. She said, "One of the filmic approaches I borrowed in making my film was to suggest the relationship between the body and memory-the stiff feel of the 1950s crinoline skirt that I show and the attic aroma it carries. That takes me back to dressing up in my childhood, and helps me imagine my mother's life while she was still a single, working woman."
Ten students joined McCarthy in making films for their final projects. To gain a broad understanding of possible cinematic techniques, the entire class read scholarship about memory and studied more than a dozen films that deal with the subject. For example, they analyzed the surreal manner in which Vertigo represents trauma, and judged the effects of Memento's reverse narrative. They covered themes such as false memory, suppressed memory, nostalgia, and memory's place in national identity.
McCarthy believes that the progression from an analytical to creative approach to film is productive. She said, "Filmmaking is a logical corollary to film analysis because it lets you participate in the production of meaning and combine analytic skills with creative impulses. We tend to put the creative and the analytic in different boxes, but these boundaries should be more porous."
If Davidson's film and media concentration develops in the way that McCarthy foresees, a well-rounded understanding of the analytical, creative and technical aspects of film will be essential to her classroom pedagogy. She hopes that the concentration could even become a major someday, and it mayinclude many additional production courses. She said, "I wanted to begin learning the ropes so I can evolve along the same lines."
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,900 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.