For the course “Documentary Film and the City,” Princeton University Urban Studies students have a ready-made laboratory less than 15 miles away: Trenton. The capital city is a gold mine for the kinds of issues they explore — rising crime, failed housing developments, abandoned buildings, and policy problems.
But the urban setting also offers a window into how these problems might be solved. The students have been working on “The Trenton Project,” a collaborative collection of mini-documentaries about housing in the city that will be shown next month as part of an ongoing film series at the School of Architecture’s Betts Auditorium. Interviewing developers, social workers, housing specialists, and residents, the students have seen the proverbial lights at the end of the tunnel.
“Out in the field, they have been really amazed by the dedication of the social workers they’ve been talking with,” says Purcell Carson, a documentary film editor who is teaching the course. “When you think of a welfare office, you don’t normally think of people being totally emotionally invested in their clients. But that’s what they’ve seen, and it’s been eye-opening for them. They’ve also seen that problems of the city are not just public policy, but have to be thought about by individuals as well. They’ve been really interested in the developers, small and large, who see opportunity where others see problems.”
The Urban Studies Film Series has been screening documentaries and other films, followed by talks with various scholars, writers, and filmmakers, since early March. Greetings from Asbury Park is scheduled for April 23, followed by a discussion with the director. On April 30, La Sierra, about Colombia’s bloody conflict, will be shown. Works in progress from The Trenton Project will be screened May 7. The final showing of the Trenton Project will be May 20 at Artworks, in Trenton. All programs are free and open to the public.
This is the first year that “Documentary Film and the City” has been offered to University students. They are working in conjunction with the University’s Community Based Learning Initiative (CBLI), which pairs students with local non-profits to do community-based research. As part of the course, they have learned about issues in Camden, the Mount Laurel decision on affordable housing, and other related subjects. They took part in a history of public housing tour last month.
“They are looking at questions such as ‘How do you come in with this knowledge of a living place, and tell the stories that are unfolding right before you?’” says Alison Isenberg, a professor of history who co-directs the program in Urban Studies. A recent screening of The Pruitt Igoe Myth about a public housing project in St. Louis attracted up to 50 people, who came not just from the University but from Trenton, New Brunswick, and beyond.
“One of the opportunities of a series like this is to take the scholarship embodied in this kind of documentary, and use it to help animate a discussion about a place like Trenton today,” Ms. Isenberg adds. “The turnout, to me, was indicative of exactly the interest in that crossover. What can we learn from both the historical and ongoing efforts at rebuilding? What can we take from this discussion in a living and breathing way, for the very same questions that swirl in the policy decisions that people are making every month? We hope to sustain the discussion of those issues through the next couple of weeks.”
For Ms. Carson, who is contracted to teach at Princeton for three years, the course has a double goal: to educate students about documentary film, and about east coast post-industrial cities and the problems they face today. This semester’s focus on housing is “a way of having each of the short films they make create a broader mosaic portrait together,” she says. “My goal at the beginning of the semester was to find situations and circumstances along the spectrum of housing, and put my students in those situations to make these very short, slice-of-life portraits.”
Working with CBLI, Ms. Carson has paired her students with subjects through the Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness and Greater Trenton Behavioral Healthcare, among other agencies. Some of the students have focused their lens on the former Miller Homes high-rise housing project near the Trenton Transit Station, which will become the Rush Crossing community of townhouses. “They’ve been talking to the local housing authority, the developers, and the people who used to live in those homes and were kicked out when the city decided they were a problem that was unfixable,” she says.
Other students are making films about the thousands of abandoned properties in the city. Their research has paired them with a representative from the Isles organization, a developer, and other members of the community.
“These students are mostly sociologists and public policy people,” Ms. Carson says. “Documentary film is a really interesting way to make big problems legible and expose them through a different lens.”