Filming Southern Histories Class Documents Slavery, Memory

Ben Pate ‘22

Staff Writer

Dr. John Wertheimer and Luke Gloeckner work with students on their documentary film. Photo by Olivia Forrester ‘22.

When Dr. John Wertheimer of the History Department set out to create a history course based in film, he had no real idea of what to expect: “I knew nothing about film.” He quipped, “now I know very close to nothing about film.” 

For the 2017-2018 academic year, Wertheimer wanted to build a course based in history, but that would allow students to create something more creative than the typical paper. Now in its second year, each student in the course, entitled Filming Southern History, is responsible for a roughly five-minute section of a film in which they do everything, including film, sound, interviews, and editing. The course is funded by the Mellon Grant, which is awarded by Davidson’s Justice, Equality, and Community committee.

That first year, Wertheimer came in with a topic in mind, and the students worked with graduate students from the Wake Forest University Documentary Film Program, a master’s degree program focusing on the creation of historically minded films. One of these Wake Forest students is Luke Gloeckner, an aspiring documentarian, who assists in the production and more “behind the scenes” work needed to complete a movie. 

This year, graduate students from this program continue to help Wertheimer and his students in the process, but the students were more involved in the selection of a topic. Julia Bainum ‘21 is in the course this semester, and she noted that “we read an article about how [the Emanuel AME Church shooter]’s understanding of slavery and race in Charleston… how his perceptions of history led him to do what he did.”

 In 2015, Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans during a service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston. Roof’s actions were part of a rising tide of white supremacy that forced communities to confront the legacy of the Confederacy. At this stage, the film explores the city of Charleston’s City Council 2018 apology for its role in slavery, and debates the real meaning of that apology in the context of American memory of slavery. The apology itself was passed by a 7-5 margin by the City Council. 

According to Bainum, the concept of historical memory, or how today’s society remembers the events of the past, plays an integral role in the way the class wants the film to turn out. “Something we’ve struggled with as a class is ‘what’s the value of apologizing? Does apologizing without concrete changes limit progress?’” Bainum commented, “I would like people to understand that historical memory and understanding history are always ongoing.”

Over the course of the past semester, students in Filming Southern History have learned everything from an in-depth history of the slave trade in Charleston, South Carolina to how to edit sound their part of the film. Wertheimer says this intersection was the whole point: “I wanted to give the students the ability to learn the technical aspect of filmmaking as well as the history behind the film.” 

In order to film their segments of the documentary, students travelled to Charleston this semester to learn more about the history of Charleston, as well as record footage they may need for their segment. Wertheimer recalls the minutiae that came up in the process of recording in Charleston: “you never really realize the amount of work that goes in to getting one shot […] from constantly adjusting the exposure [on the camera] to recording background noise just to have it, students and myself learned so much from that one trip.” 

The film will debut this evening at 5:00 PM in Hance Auditorium, but that film will be far from the final product. Gloeckner, one of two Wake Forest graduate students assisting with the class, describes the additional work that will happen on the film over the summer and in to next year. “Our goal is to find the common thread in […] essentially nine stories and connect them all with one story, and we have no idea what direction that will go right now,” he said. 

Along with Gloeckner, Bainum and Caroline Macaulay ‘20 will stay on campus over the summer to refine the film, courtesy of Kemp Endowment scholarships. Although not recipients of Kemp grants, fellow Filming Southern History students Patrick Casey ‘20 and Laura Collins ‘21 will help during their free time.  Hopefully the students and Gloeckner will help “find the story within the story that we really want to focus on,” stated Wertheimer. 

Ultimately, according to Gloeckner and Wertheimer, the goal of the film is to be a focused piece centered on one person’s story during slavery in Charleston. This cohesiveness would allow them to enter the documentary in to various film festivals, but “my dream” said Wertheimer, “is to one day have this film or another we create air on a PBS station near here.”

HIS 454 Filming Southern History’s film “The Apology” will be shown this evening in Hance Auditorium from 5:00 – 6:30 PM. 

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