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  • NYS Writers Institute

Bi-coastal collaborators: Filmmakers Kenn Rabin and Sheila Curran Bernard

Kenn, a two-time Emmy Award nominee, is an internationally-recognized expert on the use of archival materials in film storytelling, with credits on projects including Selma, and Milk.

Sheila is an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning writer and filmmaker and writer whose credits include Documentary Storytelling and the film Slavery by Another Name, shown at the Writers Institute in 2012. At UAlbany, she is a tenured associate professor in the Department of History and the Documentary Studies Program and director of the Institute for History and Public Engagement.

We checked in with them via email.

How are you keeping busy?

Sheila: The semester’s still going on, and most of my students have been able to maintain an academic schedule, albeit a more flexible one. I miss our in-class meetings and think they’re troopers; this isn’t easy any of us, and it’s a lot harder for some than others.

Additionally, as director of the Institute for History and Public Engagement I’ve been working to get proposals out in collaboration with folks from across the campus, including Homeland Security and Atmospheric Sciences. Last week we submitted two, and we have a big one due Friday. Within the history department, we’re also working to get a virtual history harvest – focusing on the Tobin Packing Company in West Albany – off the ground.

Kenn: I’m hunkered down in my home office in the San Francisco Bay Area, having just completed a trip to Paris before the outbreak took hold. I was working on an exciting new four-part HBO series with producer Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro). Production is now shut down on that (and all my other projects, including a new series to re-introduce Court TV back to primetime). For obvious reasons, it’s a tough time for all production.

But as an avid photographer, I’ve been spending time working on a limited-edition portfolio of black-and-white images from my Paris trip, while also cleaning and organizing the office and doing the New York Times crossword puzzle every day to keep the brain cells working. And streaming lots of movies on The Criterion Channel.

What films or series would you recommend?

Sheila: When people think of “archival storytelling,” they think of Ken Burns. But pretty much every film incorporates images or sounds that are copyrighted by someone else, such as landscapes and aerials that few can afford to shoot themselves, specialized scientific photography, and soundtracks featuring current and classic hits. Netflix’s Tiger King uses a range of footage sources, for example. If you haven’t seen Virunga or Life Overtakes Me, I recommend them. Also the dramatic film Mudbound.

But in terms of getting away from the news, I’ve been listening to books on long walks, most recently Celeste Ng’s terrific novel Little Fires Everywhere, and am looking forward to seeing the series on Hulu.

Kenn: I would strongly recommend people catch up with Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, for an example of stunning use of archival visuals. For fans of jazz, Stanley Nelson’s documentary, Miles Davis: The Birth of the Cool is fun and compelling, and there’s an absolutely terrific CBC/Hulu biography that uses both public and personal archival footage and photographs: Margaret Atwood: A Word After a Word After a Word is Power. Along similar lines, if you missed Little Girl Blue (about Janis Joplin) or Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, you can find those streaming.

For fun, I’m spending as much time as possible “still in France” by re-watching a lot of French New Wave films, and I recently discovered the early coming-of-age films of the wonderful contemporary French director, Céline Sciamma, whose Portrait of a Lady On Fire played in art theaters just before the lockdown.

Like Sheila, I’m also doing my share of comfort-watching: Most recently, my mood was elevated by re-visiting the musicals of Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort) which pair the jazzy music of Michel Legrand with eye-popping 1960s “Luxe” art direction by Bernard Evein. And by my bedside is an epic American novel from the 1960s that I fell in love with as a student at UAlbany (I guess there’s a 60s theme here!), which I hope to adapt as a script for a Netflix mini-series.

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