Kelsey Harkness’ goal is to one day make a career out of documentary filmmaking.
“Filmmaking is a creative way to share and spread your ideas with other people. I am fascinated by the way documentary film can blur the lines between entertainment and education. I hope to one day make my own contributions to the field,” says Harkness ’11.
She was able to receive a solid background in the filmmaking process through numerous projects as part of Lafayette’s new film and media studies program, including producing McKelvy: The Film, an 11-minute documentary on the College’s McKelvy House Scholars intellectual living community.
Designed by the renowned architectural firm McKim, Mead & White, McKelvy House was built in 1888. The granite mansion was converted to honors housing in 1962 and has since served as an application-only living community. Housing 21 students from diverse majors and backgrounds, the program fosters intellectual discourse, personal growth, and community engagement. The hallmark of McKelvy is its student-run Sunday night dinner discussions.
Harkness, joined by computer science major Justin Chando ’13 (Normandy Beach, N.J.), government and law major Jesse Ryan ’13 (Great Falls, Va.), and Jess Wason ’11, set out to chronicle the unique house and program. The documentary includes not only footage of current McKelvy residents, but also interviews with alumni, archival footage of the house when it was a private residence, old photos, and other details that give a rich portrait of McKelvy’s history.
The team visited the house regularly to film Sunday night discussions, interviewed current students, faculty, and staff, shot b-roll of the house itself, and sought out alumni to provide the perspective of past McKelvy residents. They also spent countless hours in the editing room.
The production, done as part of the Documentary Film course, is an example of the high-quality work Lafayette students are producing in the genre.
“Over the last few years, students working in various majors have made dozens of original short films, as well as all manner of media projects. Now, with the establishment of the new film and media studies major, we are constructing a flexible but coordinated study option that will serve our students well and about which we are all incredibly excited,” says Andy Smith, associate professor of English and chair of film and media studies.
Film and media studies, which was officially approved as a major last year, has been gaining momentum over the past decade, as the College has increased its course offerings, hired talented new faculty, and responded to demand from students. It also fulfills key elements of the College’s strategic plan to enhance Lafayette’s programs in the creative arts.
Although Harkness graduated in May with a self-designed major in film and media in politics, all students can now major in film and media studies. So far, 12 students have declared the major in its first year.
“The new major is already extremely appealing to our students—they are filling our new courses and declaring majors and minors, even ahead of the schedule that we expected,” says Smith.
The interdisciplinary major will allow students to take courses in film and media history, theory, and practice, and they will be required to complete a capstone project.
“Increasingly, all of the best liberal arts colleges have some version of a film and/or media studies program. Since we live in an increasingly media-driven world, this makes perfect and even urgent sense. We want our students to be critically literate in visual and media cultures, knowledgeable about the history and power of creative art forms like cinema and the web, and we want them to become thoughtful and effective media makers themselves,” Smith says.
Students studying film at Lafayette will soon have another advantage when the new Williams Arts Campus is completed on North Third Street. The arts campus will include a 200-seat, state-of-the-art screening facility, a professional shooting studio, an experimental black box theater, a sound stage, a costume and scene shop, a rehearsal studio, and a high-tech media and teaching lab. It will serve as the home for Lafayette’s theater and film and media studies programs.
Also, one of the key goals of the new program is to prepare students for their professional life, which Harkness believes has happened for her.
“I have a way of showing potential employers that I am capable of collaborating with other students to create a documentary film,” she says. “Yet, more importantly, I was involved with every stage of this film, and therefore got real experience in the entire filmmaking process, including pre-production, production, and post-production.”