Day In The Life
Fifth-graders in Greenfield document their families' histories on video.
Thursday, July 11, 2002
Photo courtesy GES Kids'' Films
Photo: Precious records-stills from A Day in the Life (above left), Nuestra Ascendencia (above right) and Voices of Chupicuaro Viejo (below) depict Greenfield''s history.
Though it''s not so far a drive, many Monterey County residents know little about Greenfield. Fifth-grade teacher Tod Spedding wants to change that, with a homework project that turned into two documentary videos.
After spending years in Alaska, Amsterdam and Israel, Spedding returned in 1998 to the Greenfield elementary school system, the place he first started teaching years ago, imbued with a new interest in cultural history. As part of a six-week project that first semester, he asked his students to research their family roots as far back as they could.
"What came in was a set of the most stirring photographs of these kids'' families, some going back 100 years," Spedding says. Spedding scanned the photographs and put them up around the classroom, but knew he wanted to carry the project further. He applied for three grants from the Rural Schools and Community Trust, and with funds in hand, began to turn his students'' family histories into film.
The result was two videos, A Day in the Life and Nuestra Ascendencia (Our Ancestry), produced by Spedding and his students over a two-year period. A Day in the Life takes a typical day from sunrise to sunset at Greenfield Elementary School and shows it in fast and slow-motion, set to the music of John Adams, from his 1970s opera "Nixon in China." The twelve-minute movie was filmed over the course of six months, and is edited from over thirty hours of footage, with much of the camera work actually done by the students. Some shots took several times to set up perfectly, but the adults involved were careful to allow the kids to get through these issues without doing all the work themselves.
The film shows the flurry of activity that makes up an ordinary day for these kids, from recess to lunch to writing notes to watching the clouds go by. It evokes a sense of the frenetic pace of a child''s life, the innocence and relative simplicity of their world. "This could be any school, anywhere," says Spedding. "The themes are universal."
The piece won first place in the 2002 California Media Festival.
Nuestra Ascendencia is an entirely different film. It concerns itself with the cultural background of Mexican immigrants in the Greenfield area, explaining in simple terms the significance of many events and customs in Mexican-American culture, including the Virgin of Guadalupe, the symbolism of the snake and eagle on the Mexican flag, and the story of the Conquest of Mexico. The film features Mexican music from the 16th to 18th centuries, and tries to convey the varied perspectives of current Greenfield citizens, Spanish conquistadors and the conquered Native Americans.
Because this film came directly out of Spedding''s family history project, it also features family portraits of Greenfield''s residents-parents and children together-along with historic family photographs. Most of Spedding''s students are mestizos, of mixed Spanish and indigenous Indian heritage, and he was fascinated by the complexities of their cultures and personal histories.
"How the heck does a Hispanic kid in Monterey County come up with the [Arabic] last name of ''Medina?''" he wondered. He later learned many of his students'' names-Zait and Saul, for example-came from the mixing of Spanish and Arab cultures in medieval Moorish Spain. "I wanted to explore the concept of being of mixed blood," Spedding continues. "The meshing of cultures is interesting- you can see it in their food. Tortillas were brought over from Spain and mixed with tomatoes, which are indigenous."
Spedding was intrigued to learn that his students think nothing of being visited by their dead family members in dreams. "Their connection with [the next world] is so fluid," he marvels. "It''s amazing, and we know nothing about it."
Greenfield, a town perceived by many as being full of poor Hispanics, is now developing a strong Hispanic middle class. Families are raising themselves from the fields and becoming business owners. Spedding asserts that many of his students are gifted, brilliant kids who with the proper financial and educational assistance, could go to Stanford if they chose; they simply need access to the same privileges as their more affluent neighbors.
The student films were produced on an IMac and edited with IMovie and Adobe Premeire, respectively, with noteworthy differences in production quality. Nuestra Ascendencia seems more professional, yet A Day in the Life doesn''t suffer for its lack of sophistication.
The films are surprisingly polished, and look at least semi-professional. The music is well-placed and the scenes are cut skillfully. Being that they were produced by kids, one might expect a bit of preciousness to the whole business. Not so. These films could very well have been made by a "real" documentary team. In fact, they suffer slightly because of this precision. Nuestra Ascendencia is so very educational, it seems at moments slow-moving and dry, as if the desire to be taken seriously drove the editors to remove a bit of the liveliness, which is a shame. It is still most certainly worth watching, and shows great promise.
If nothing else, the films show the quality of filmmaking that can be produced just with a computer and software that a lot of people have (or could get) in their homes. But more than that, they also demonstrate that children have something to say about themselves, their history, and their lives. And they show the rest of us that Greenfield is not remote, but a vital piece of our cultural landscape. In a county divided in many ways by actual and perceived financial and geographic barriers, any opportunity to unite and educate is welcome.
A Day in the Life and Nuestra Ascendencia, along with excerpts from Spedding''s next project on Chupicuaro, Mexico, will be shown July 16 at the Greenfield Public Library, and July 17 at the Monterey Public Library. Both shows are free, and start at 7pm. Spedding is looking for corporate partners to invest in GES Kids'' Films, a project to encourage the production of grassroots, community-centered documentary videography. For information call him at 659-7576.