It seems when most people hit the age of 20, they have a premature mid-life crisis. Moving away from the carefree teens and entering into adulthood is a frightening transition, and the twentieth birthday seems to be the demarcation. Agnes M. Chu '02, a Visual and Environmental Studies concentrator from San Diego, Calif., faced this same problem. "On my 20th birthday last year I sobbed all day. It sounds very melodramatic, but it was terrible," she explains. But whereas most adults going through mid-life crises buy convertibles or divorce their spouses, Agnes decided to pursue a different outlet for her dilemma. She took a digital video camera and during the summer shot footage of Hong Kong and parts of Italy in an attempt to capture and wrestle with the idea of aging and self. She describes it as a "personal travel documentary," a project that involves her as a filmmaker not directly in the footage, but rather through the subtle way in which she sees and views the world through the lens of a video camera.
Funded by a grant she received from Radcliffe, Agnes decided to investigate foreign spaces from an outsider's perspective. The disparate locations of Hong Kong and Italy are bridged not by content, but by the traveling experience of the filmmaker. As a child Agnes would travel to Hong Kong yearly to visit her extended family, but prior to her film project she hadn't seen most of them for seven years. So for her it became a revisitation of a time past and of a family that remembers her as a young child. And her travels to Italy led her to a land of unknowns, where she didn't speak the language or have any contacts. So the project became about the collision of a place in the past where people remember you from afar and a place where you are untraceable. The Hong Kong footage focuses on her grandfather, who has lost most of his hearing and memory. He doesn't remember Agnes, and the shots of him preparing for the day are long takes, as if the filmmaker were examining a person she once knew, wanting to get close, to bridge a gap, but knowing that there are difficult obstacles in the way. On filming her grandfather, Agnes says that "it was hard in that he didn't really know who I was, he wasn't self-conscious in that respect, but at the same time it allowed me to get close with him and get to know him. I don't think I would have spent as much time with my grandfather had I not had these reasons." In a particularly poignant sequence, her grandfather struggles to brush his hair, put on his shoes and button his pants. Agnes helps the viewer and herself to explore the pains of everyday life that age forces us to endure: "He's really great to hang out with. I think my family thinks that he's immobile, but the more time I spent with him, the more I found to the contrary." Through these scenes with her grandfather one gets the sense of both the fragility and dignity of aging as captured by youthful eyes.
The Italian footage offers the view of a tourist meandering through a foreign landscape, happening upon scenes and subjects. Agnes shot pure observational footage in Italy, never developing any particular characters or a specific narrative, but focusing on the spontaneity of situations. In one scene she shoots an intimate moment between a boy and a girl by the sea in Naples, and in another she captures a church procession. It seems a daunting task to take your camera out and film strangers, but Agnes says that "what lent itself to this idea is that I'm a tourist and I'm carrying a camera around, so either people thought I was sightseeing or that I was a journalist for a TV station. In that sense I was never really bothered by it or uncomfortable. And sometimes people actually liked it, especially in Italy. I was passing by one small town and I saw an old man's card club-the entire room was full of old men playing cards, and I spent three hours there filming, and they loved it." In this spontaneity, the relationship of the filmmaker with the subjects is revealed as both the delicate interaction between strangers and the bridge between generations, cultures and languages.
Through the exploration of Hong Kong and Italy, the viewer gets a sense of the filmmaker's personal nature, rather than stock footage of a particular place or tourist location. It is this personal vein that is most evocative and interesting in Agnes's work, exploring places she has never been or revisiting ones from her past, in order to offer us something exciting about ourselves and the way we can look at the world through the newness of experience. Although Agnes's video is still in the post-production stages, one awaits the opportunity of not only seeing foreign places, but also perceiving them from the viewpoint of a young filmmaker on the threshold of adulthood.
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