A blast from the past: Documentary film maker Ken Burns will teach at Hampshire College's new summer film institute

Monday, April 07, 2014
AMHERST — Hampshire College will be revisiting its youth this summer.

In July and August, the college will launch the Creative Media Institute, a four-week program consisting of intensive labs and seminars on filmmaking that harkens back to its heyday as a haven for budding filmmakers.

It is partly based on a program from the 1970s, attended by renowned filmmaker Ken Burns who is among Hampshire’s more famous alums.

Burns, 60, who has lived in Walpole, New Hampshire for the last 35 years, will be making a return to his alma mater to teach at this summer’s institute. He graduated from Hampshire College in 1975, five years after the college was founded on the innovative principles of self-directed approaches to learning in a college setting.

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“Hampshire is an incredibly creative place,” said Burns in a telephone interview. He is currently working on seven films, including a 10-part series on the war in Vietnam.

Of the program he attended in the 70s, he said, “It seemed like that sort of creativity-squared. People fell in love. People learned a lot. People had their molecules rearranged.”

Now, in efforts to grow, Hampshire is looking into its past for inspiration.“There’s a sense the college has reached middle age,” said Creative Media Institute director Andrew Hart. “We’re kind of looking back and thinking, ‘How can we become more cutting edge again?’”

Hampshire College president Jonathan Lash said the institute is part of a broader effort to revive summer programs on the campus.

When he was named president in 2011, he said, there had been no summer programs for several years. He pushed for the launch of the Food, Farm and Sustainability Institute in 2012. Other summer programs now offered include a training class in teaching English as a second language, a curatorial course, and an inventions workshop for high school students.

“I pushed very hard to get Hampshire to launch a set of summer programs because I thought we should be using our campus 12 months a year,” said Lash. “It seems really wasteful to only be running classes September to May. And also, summer programs give an opportunity to experiment with ideas.”

The Creative Media Institute, open to undergraduates and professionals, will run from July 13 to Aug. 9, featuring seminars, hands-on work, and evening and off-campus events.

Hart said he aimed to offer a program geared to emerging filmmakers and artists, and soon found that his ideas were aligned with the college’s early efforts. From 1971 through 1981, the college hosted an intensive program on filmmaking and photography led by the late Jerome Liebling, a mentor to Burns, and several other renowned artists including filmmaker Fred Wiseman, the late British documentary film director Ricky Leacock, and the late photographer Diane Arbus.

“When I really started to dig into the history, it just sort of knocked me back,” said Hart.

He said it was not his intention to revive an old program, but the college’s rich history certainly gave added meaning and resonance to a new film program.

“It’s just pretty amazing what happened, and the fact that there is little recorded history about it other than people that attended,” said Hart.

Hart said he was especially impressed by what seemed to be a strong sense of community that essentially gave students an opportunity to work closely with artists in their field.

“It was just this great place to go every summer,” said Hart. “It was as much a social happening as a deep study and celebration of film and video.”

The institute

The program will be divided into four week-long standalone sessions — giving participants the option of taking a one week segment or signing up for the full program. The institute relies on classroom instruction, lectures, hands-on filmmaking labs, and screenings of films. Some of film screenings will be open to the public at dates to be announced, and the Amherst Cinema is lined up to show the work of the visiting instructors on Mondays during.

The institute kicks off with a seminar on documentaries led by documentary filmmaker Robert Greene, known for “Kati With An I” (2010) and “Fake it So Real” (2012).

The second week-long session, led by Ivy Meeropol, director of the documentary “Heir to An Execution,” includes an opportunity for students to create their own documentaries. Meeropol’s film details the legacy of her grandparents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, two American citizens who were executed in 1953 after being convicted of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

For the third session, Burns will return to campus to help direct a seminar on the relationships between journalism, current events and documentaries, according to the program’s website. Screenings shown this week will be curated by Charlotte Cook, who is the director of programming for Hot Docs, a Canadian documentary film festival.

The final session will feature an editing lab led by filmmaker Brett Morgen and producer Erica Huggins.

Hart, 39, of Montague, moved to the Valley when he became Hampshire’s manager of media services for the Harold F. Johnson Library in 2007. He also works as a freelance camera operator and film editor, skills that came in handy in creating a humorous one-minute and 42-second YouTube video to promote the Creative Media Institute.

The video, which Hart directed and co-wrote with students, features Burns attempting to create an intimate documentary of Eugene Mirman, a comedian and Hampshire College alum, while poking fun at Burns iconic filmmaking style — elements such as a grand panning of the camera.

“He was ready to have a little bit of fun with how people perceived him,” Hart said of Burns.

Hart said the program will not be funded by the college’s budget, instead initially funded by donations from alums who are currently working in the arts — but he said he hopes that after a couple of years, the program will become self-sustaining. The full four weeks costs $4,520 while opting for a week session would be $1,220 or $1,420.

He said he also hopes to eventually expand the program into photography, as well as to open it up to working professionals who may not be artists by trade but would like to explore their creative side.

Burns said he hopes the program will give others a chance to experience what Hampshire College has to offer.

“I hope that people are able to touch a little bit on the magic — the secret sauce that is the Hampshire model,” he said. “I think Hampshire invented something that no one else has been able to duplicate.”

For more information and to apply to the Creative Media Institute, visit the Hampshire College website at: www.hampshire.edu/academics/creative-media-institute.htm.