Instructor in Dance Wombwell Showcases Documentary on Family Life of Students, Faculty

Viewing “The Family Project,” a collection of interviews with 25 members of the Phillips Academy community about the composition of their families, students and faculty gathered in Kemper Auditorium on Friday evening. A part of a Hersey Community Fellows project by Instructor in Theatre and Dance Judith Wombwell, the film represented the diversity of family experiences and the similar challenges that individuals from different backgrounds confront. The project was filmed with the familiar backdrop of classrooms, apartments, and dorm rooms, and consisted entirely of interviews. The film had five sections: Commitments, Gender Roles, Children & Parents, Separations, and Transitions. Ms. Wombwell intentionally designed such a progression to allow the themes to intensify as the film evolved. She also chose to omit her own narration, because, as she said, “the stories alone really tell themselves.” Alex Colaianni ’03 spoke of the risks of marriage, humoring the crowd with a description of marriage being “as stifling as the college process.” Reference Librarian Tim Sprattler recounted tales from his children’s youth. One of their family traditions was watching The Simpsons together, then determining moral lessons from the sitcom, while he asked his family, “What did The Simpsons do wrong that we’d like to avoid?” Instructor in Physics Clyfe Beckwith spoke of how his parents were always available for him when he was a child. He described how difficult is now, as a dorm counselor, to have to limit the attention he provides for his children, because of his responsibilities as a dorm counselor, teacher, and coach. Even so, few students spoke of being overlooked by faculty. Chiara Motley ’03 offered a unique view on family life from the first-hand perspective of an adopted child, describing the unusual relationship she has with her biological mother. “I never felt like it was a big deal,” she said. Angelica Godoy ’03 explained how sometimes it seems as if every student at Andover has the “perfect family” and how this presents a challenge for someone who comes from a more unconventional background. “[My mom] is the most important person in my life…she is my biggest role model,” she said. Ms. Wombwell hopes that the film will remind people to be more accepting and less judgmental about different types of family, and to put into practice a familiar slogan: Know assumptions, No assumptions. “You can make no assumptions when it comes to family,” Ms.Wombwell said. “Things came out of this project that I think are hard to get to from other directions. It was a thrilling process. A lot of people have learned so much and have given me a true sense of community. I think they are courageous to share their stories with us.” While Ms. Wombwell originally intended the film to be shared only with members of the PA community, she has since looked to expand her audience. “I was very pleased with the turnout, and I know the audience got a lot out of it,” she said. However, she also does not see an additional screening of the film. “I know there will be this wave of ‘Oh, we missed it, we want to see it. When will you show it again?’ It is emotional for me and it is emotional for the participants, so I really don’t see [showing] it again,” she continued. The Family Project was first developed last year when Michael Mueller ’02 conceived an idea for a project designed to analyze gender within the family. Ms. Wombwell said that she “immediately latched onto the idea.” At first, Ms. Wombwell wanted to call the project “The Changing Family” to examine how changes in modern-day society have added significant pressure to family life. Director of the Brace Center for Gender Studies Diane Moore and Instructor in History Pamela Boehm, who helped in the project’s planning stages and greatly supported Wombwell’s endeavor, resisted the idea. “From their point of view there have always been single moms, and there have always been families with two parents working to have an income, so the picture is much more complex than maybe I would have made it had I just gone forward with my personal point of view,” Ms. Wombwell explained. With more brainstorming and discussion, the blueprints of the project began coming together. Ms. Wombwell decided she would look at family structure by interviewing people, collecting anecdotal stories, conducting research, and putting together “some type of presentation.” Ms. Wombwell received a huge response within just days of sending out an all-school email seeking participants for the project. Astonished at the time, she admitted, “[After receiving 80 positive replies] I figured, ‘forget the research—forget the things that I’m thinking, based on my own personal experience. What I need to do is talk to people and just listen.’” Despite the challenges of limited financial assistance and experience in film-making, Ms. Wombwell persevered and slowly whittled down the pool of participants, conducting 27 lengthy interviews and constructing what she hoped would be a powerful composition. Ms. Wombwell noted that the interviews were very draining for her. “I feel things very deeply,” she said. “To go from one interview to another and to carry the stories around with me for a while was challenging.” Her interview subjects, many of whom told stories of traumatic and painful experiences, confronted the same trepidation. “There were a few times where right in the middle of an interview someone would just take a deep breath and plunge forward,” she said. “I don’t think they knew originally what I was going to ask, or how deeply I was going to go into things, and so they had to make that decision.” Ms. Wombwell concluded, “[I’ve learned] to be empathetic, to be sympathetic, to walk around and realize that everyone is a human being and they have their own stories…I have a lot more respect and awareness of people coming out of this project. You just don’t know what other people have endured.”