South Orange Seniors, SHU collaborate on documentary

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SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Cross-generational connections and inspirational perspectives were shared with the presentation of “SIX,” a documentary film created and edited by Seton Hall University students and featuring six South Orange seniors, that debuted at the South Orange Performing Arts Center on May 1. The project was as a partnership between local nonprofit South Orange Seniors and Seton Hall University’s College of Communication and the Arts.

The film was created under the supervision of professor William Pace, and with the support of professor Thomas Rondinella, who both teach in the College of Communication and the Arts.

“SIX” highlights the lives of six senior citizens — Lenore Berkman, Rosalie Sussman, Marvin Johnson, Sylvia Amato, Ann Wyllie and Marie Somers — who call South Orange their home, examining their ongoing journeys that led them to the thriving village.

Neither the South Orange Seniors nor the students who worked on the film could have guessed the lasting impression their collaboration would have when they started the project; initially, both groups had simply wanted to tell a story.

“We get program ideas from our focus groups,” South Orange Seniors co-founder Tonia Moore said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “We came away with these very interesting stories from the beginning and we were interested in capturing them. Watching a movie is a nice painless way to learn about things, and we’re always very interested in intergenerational ideas.”

Thanks to the positive relationship previously formed with the Division of Volunteer Efforts on Seton Hall’s campus, Moore and fellow South Orange Seniors co-founders Nan Simons and Peg Cimberg felt comfortable approaching the university for another possible collaboration. Rondinella then sought out Pace, proposing that he adopt the women’s project for his television field production classes, and the project was officially under way.

The fall semester was spent interviewing dozens of seniors from South Orange whose information had been vetted for the Seton Hall students by South Orange Seniors; the spring semester was spent editing the footage that had been shot and adding in background elements.

Though Pace’s classes always create a film as an assignment, he acknowledged that this one was an undertaking of significant proportions.

“A component of the class is to create a nonprofit video, and we are often reaching out looking to do something and it just happened that they came to us to do this specific project,” Pace said in a recent phone interview. “The students were curious, but they weren’t too sure about what it would entail or what would be the focus. Once the ladies described what their organization is about and what their focus is, it became much more clear to them.”

Once the class had a clear idea of what South Orange Seniors was looking for, they were off and running. Groups of five or six students each worked with six interview subjects, each student either taking part of the interviewing process, or editing the film once the interviewing was complete.

The students spent a considerable amount of time reviewing the biographies of the interview subjects before composing questions and actually conducting the interviews, though the conversations often took on a more unscripted form.

“I think they did very well with this project. If it had been just one semester, I don’t think it would have been as successful, and I was really glad that we were able to do it over two semesters,” Pace said. “We were able to come back and see what we missed and add to it before editing. I thought it was a great opportunity for them to see something more in-depth and how far they can take a project, as well as how more time and perspective can help you as opposed to just completing a project and moving on to something else.”

Senior broadcasting and visual media major Jennifer Valente, a student who worked on the film, appreciated the opportunity to complete the assignment during two semesters.

“I was in professor Pace’s class for both the fall and spring semesters, and last semester the South Orange Seniors ladies reached out to us and gave us a bunch of people to interview. I interviewed Marvin and my group and I formulated a bunch of questions based on his history, and the second semester we did all the editing and connecting the dots,” Valente said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “It was interesting, and I had the opportunity to choose a different professor for the spring semester, but I wanted to continue on with the project because I really loved it. In the beginning, we were wondering if it would be interesting, and not sure what they would have to say. Then when we met with them, and the stories they shared were so interesting and it was inspiring for me to hear how they overcome their obstacles.”

Valente will be graduating from Seton Hall in a few weeks, and said the project left a very real impression on her about how students and the community can connect.

“I sat across from Marvin in the theater during the screening, and at points during the film, I saw him wiping away tears. I don’t think we realized the impact that we would have on the interviewees, and it was a humbling moment because it wasn’t about us — it was about them,” she said. “I think it’s a great way to involve SHU students in the community to raise awareness of different organizations and I think it plays a huge part in the servant leadership mission. Overall, I think it was a great idea for Seton Hall to incorporate that element into the curriculum.”

Sophomore Matthew Lamb shared Valente’s sentiments, saying he did not initially realized the impact the project would have on both students and seniors.

“I had professor Pace in both the fall and spring semesters, and interviewed Lenore in the fall, and edited Marvin’s story in the spring,” he said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “It was really interesting hearing about their lives and what got them to South Orange. It’s always a really refreshing experience to hear about how times have changed over the years and get a perspective on their lives.”

Initially Lamb and his classmates thought the project would be a regular semesterlong endeavor that would conclude with the end of the semester. They soon realized that would not be the case.

“The whole process was longer than we anticipated; we thought it would be done by winter break, and didn’t think it would be such an extravaganza,” Lamb said. “It was difficult to figure out what you wanted where and what you were looking for, but we focused on what was their defining aspect that brought them to South Orange and what made their previous life so significant.

“At first it was just a project that was a class requirement, but on Sunday, I was really touched to have seen all of the seniors and the ladies of South Orange Seniors and family members who were there, and make something that the whole community will remember.”

Junior broadcasting and visual media student Brittany Neal also found the project to be a challenging task in the beginning, but was similarly affected by the end result.

“Going in, I was very overwhelmed because some students worked on this last semester, and I didn’t shoot any of it and I had never worked with footage that I never shot before and it was kind of difficult to get it the way I want it. None of us expected this to go to SOPAC or anything,” Neal said in a recent phone interview. “It was a good experience because I want to be a producer and editor, and I won’t always be able to film my own footage, so I just have to work with what I have. I won’t always get to have my personal vision, and sometimes it will be the best vision for the project overall.”

But perhaps the most significant takeaway for Neal was not the actual project, but the feeling she got as she watched the six subjects in the film and then as they took questions from the audience at the screening.

“I never got a chance to meet Lenore before the event on Sunday, but from editing her stories and listening to them over and over, it made me feel like I really did know them and that I had made a friend even though I had never met her before,” she said. “As I was watching her in the film, I was so proud to be watching my friend on the stage.”

Photos by Shanee Frazier