Bringing museum filmmaking into the classroom

Filmmaker Sosena Solomon, who has been filming in Africa for a major Metropolitan Museum of Art redesign, taught Documentary Ethnography for Museums and Exhibitions to graduate students this fall.

Images from student short films.
Students in Sosena Solomon’s Documentary Ethnography for Museums and Exhibitions class showcased their final projects at the Charles Addams Fine Arts Gallery in December. These included short films on Tibetan religious pilgrimages (left), landscape and culture in Greenland (top right), and the Red Guards in China’s Cultural Revolution (bottom right). (Image: Erica Moser)

In the Charles Addams Fine Arts Gallery one December night, a six-minute video projected onto one wall showed people on the Tibetan pilgrimage journey from small villages to religious sites in the city of Lhasa. The quiet and reflective piece, showing people walking and prostrating themselves across icy, unforgiving terrain, was created for the fall course Documentary Ethnography for Museums and Exhibitions.

Tairan Hao, a second-year Master of Fine Arts student working in video installations and new media art, says he was inspired to create this piece by a visit to Tibet five years ago, when he saw a crowd of people performing these full-body prostrations around Jokhang Temple.

Making the film gave him “a closer connection to people from different backgrounds and cultures,” says Hao, who compiled the video from archival footage and an online interview with a Buddhism practitioner. “What I learned from the interview is that enduring the hardships of this journey is special and important.”

This video was his final project for a course from the Center for Experimental Ethnography, taught by award-winning social documentary filmmaker Sosena Solomon. Other students created five- to seven-minute videos on the Red Guards in China’s Cultural Revolution, Greenland’s landscape and culture, and existential dread, screening and explaining their work in an end-of-semester exhibit.

It was a busy semester for Solomon, who has also been shooting and editing 10-minute videos in 11 African countries as part of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s major renovation and re-envisioning of the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing. The wing is scheduled to reopen in 2025.

From museum to classroom

More than a year ago, The Met announced it had named Solomon a research associate “who will be instrumental in creating new digital and in-gallery content—a collaborative project with World Monuments Fund (WMF)—that will reframe the Museum’s African art galleries.” The museum charged Solomon with researching and designing content related to cultural landmarks and heritage sites in Africa, many of which are inaccessible casual visitors.

Solomon began filming—working with a local drone and gimbal operator and a preservation architect from WMF—in Great Zimbabwe, before heading to Kilwa Kisiwani in Tanzania and Kilwa Kisiwani and Tigray in Ethiopia, her home country. She has also filmed in Ghana, Liberia, Madagascar, Uganda, Nigeria, and South Africa.

A few days before the student exhibit at Penn's Addams Gallery, Solomon previewed her work at an event at The Met about cultural heritage sites in Africa. The day after the student exhibit, she left for Togo and Benin to film at Koutammakou, the final site.

“It’s been a whirlwind doing it and teaching this class at the same time,” Solomon says. But that means she brings her knowledge—and the challenges she has encountered—into the class. As she figures out story arcs and determines who to foreground in interviews, she is guiding her students on how to do the same.

Solomon has been a lecturer at Penn for seven years, but says that, while teaching Video I and Advanced Video Projects is streamlined, this course is very abstract. She talks about installation and museum filmmaking for one day in the other courses, but this one gives her an entire semester.

“In-gallery videos are looping, and they tend to be very short. It’s very different from theatrical storytelling,” Solomon says. Another difference is that “most of the time, the visuals don’t necessarily match up to the audio. You can really create two separate forms of expression and then bring them together.”

Solomon began the class defining documentary and the different types of documentary styles. She had students tell a story in seven shots with only seven seconds per shot. She discussed ethnographic interview techniques, had students interview each other, and assigned them to create a visual montage representing the storyline of an interview they heard in class.

Her students did not all come in with video skills, and so the course also touched on basic shooting techniques, cutting and editing, music, and how to build a narrative. Solomon also showed a lot of examples from other filmmakers and artists.

“I’m not here to tell you what to film or why to film it. The challenge is to question your own motives,” Solomon says. “But I give you the kind of structure in which this type of narrative exists, bringing in the possibilities and the tools. I’m just really trying to help the students understand who they are as story tellers and to support and critique and give them the tools to be better story tellers.”

People watching a film installation in a gallery.
Attendees of a December exhibit at the Charles Addams Fine Arts Gallery watch Di Tian’s piece on the Red Guards in China’s Cultural Revolution. (Image: Courtesy of Alissa Jordan)

Revolution, Greenland, and existential dread

Di Tian says that as a new media artist primarily doing interactive installations and 3D animations, he viewed the course as a great chance to step outside his comfort zone. Like Hao, Di is a second-year MFA student.

He created a five-minute film on the Red Guards, a student-led paramilitary group initiated by Mao Zedong in 1966 as part of the first phase of the Cultural Revolution. In October, he facilitated interviews with two people connected to the Cultural Revolution: an elderly man whose daughter was beaten to death at age 18, and a man who was sent to jail. The piece is about sacrifices and the connection between past and present, Di says.

He asked the father how he viewed his daughter’s sacrifice and was surprised to hear the man say the purpose of her dying was worth it. Di says the perspectives he heard were “completely different from many views of the current generation, especially those of the young people,” and that it was interesting to see people who viewed the Cultural Revolution positively.

“The starting point is from the current stage in China,” Di says. “People are oppressed. They’re not willing and they’re not able to speak up, so the current situation is far different from the one in the past.”

At the front of the gallery, two side-by-side screens displayed footage of the blue and white glacial landscape in Greenland, while a video on a smaller screen highlighted the country’s culture and identity. This was respectively the work of Jiachen Sun and Jixuan Guo, master’s students in landscape architecture.

“Greenland has a long history of being colonized and controlled by other countries, and during this history Greenland has been losing its voice,” Sun says. Her film shows one of the impacts on the landscape: remnants of United States military bases. The cultural impact, Guo says, is forced Christianity and the emergence in Greenland of a “third culture,” one that is neither foreign nor its own.

They traveled to Greenland for two weeks as part of their studies in the Department of Landscape Architecture but also used that time to make their videos for this class. Sun says that in a hike on their first day they were struck by a feeling of loneliness and had the sense that life there is about survival.

Claire Elliot watches her film.
Claire Elliot watches the short film she made on existential dread for Sosena Solomon’s Documentary Ethnography for Museums and Exhibitions class. (Image: Courtesy of Alissa Jordan)

A small room at the back of the gallery, outfitted with chairs and pillows on the ground for viewing, showed Claire Elliot’s final project on existential dread, which pieced together an interview she conducted with religious studies professor Justin McDaniel and her own experiences with the feeling. McDaniel teaches a course called Existential Despair.

Elliot says her goal was to evoke the feeling of realizing one’s own existence or being. She shares in her film her first memory of that feeling: She was 11 and had just gotten ice cream before seeing a show, when she realized that she could be doing something else. She stood there for a long time before making her feet move. A doctoral candidate in religious studies, Elliot is doing an ethnography on dreams in Thailand and Sri Lanka for her dissertation, and her interest in ethnographic practices led her to this class.

As the student showcase wrapped up and visitors began to trickle out, Solomon said she was “blown away” and commented, “It’s amazing, because all the students conducted at least one interview and used that interview to express really interesting cultural tensions and socioeconomic tensions.”

Sosena Solomon and students at a film screening in a gallery.
Sosena Solomon, center, poses for a photo with students Claire Elliot, Jiachen Sun, Tairan Hao, and Jixuan Guo. (Image: Courtesy of Tairan Hao)