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Rescuing Half the History

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Tisch Faculty Fellow Jennifer Burton's film project tells the stories of remarkable women whom American history has often ignored or forgotten.

Screenshot of Half the History film

The stories we tell are an expression of what we value; of the people, places, and ideas we want to survive to inform and inspire future generations. The stories we don’t tell, that don’t endure, say perhaps more about us; of the things we willingly or carelessly abandon to anonymity and obscurity.

Tufts professor Jennifer Burton, a filmmaker and 2014-2015 Tisch College Faculty Fellow, has made it her mission to rescue some of those stories. Her multimedia project, Half the History, presents the often unknown stories of influential women throughout American history who have, for the most part, been forgotten.

It is a personal and professional passion for Burton, Professor of the Practice at the Tufts Department of Drama and Dance, who has devoted a large part of her scholarship to exploring the role of women and African Americans in literature and film. “As an artist, you take your own interests and think about ways to make them larger and into an artistic project that will speak to other people,” she says. “And there’s so much room for telling these stories because they haven’t been told before. It’s not like finding your own little thing to say about Jane Austen.”

Stories Lost to Time

Burton began the project with the story of Jane Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister, who corresponded with her brother more than anyone else but whose letters were mostly thrown away—while his were kept.

“By looking at the story of a brother and a sister who were very close, who had similar personalities, who were both the youngest children, it eliminates some of the variables that complicate when you’re trying to compare certain people in history,” Burton explains. “For Jane Franklin, gender was really the dominant variable that made her life experience different from her brother.”

Burton, who works with her four sisters as part of the aptly named Five Sisters Productions, filmed parts of the Jane Franklin project at the historic Royall House and Slave Quarters, located minutes away from the Tufts campus. Last month, she turned her camera on the story of Belinda Royall, herself: a slave who was abandoned when her master left the country in the 1780s, and successfully petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for financial compensation.

It’s a story perfectly situated at the intersections of race and gender that have been central to her creative career, and the availability of the Royall House—thanks to support from Medford’s nonprofit Royall House and Slave Quarters organization—was almost too good to be true.

“It’s not only the right period, not only the right mix of economic levels—the Royall family and the enslaved people—but it was actually her house!” says Burton. “A lot of these images will be, not just beautiful, but accurate.”

The Royall piece will feature a reading of “Belinda’s petition,” a poem by former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove, as well as additional film and multimedia elements. “We’ve thinking about what kind of evocative imagery we can use to bring out the weight of the experience and the emotion to the petition,” says Burton.”

A Workshop for Emerging Filmmakers

The work has also involved—like the Jane Franklin project before it—substantial contributions from Tufts students, many from Burton’s Advanced Film Production Course. They are deeply involved in every facet of the production, as Burton gives them strong direction as well as a great deal of responsibility.

“Together we become a production team,” says Burton of her work with students. “That involves everything from working on what the script will be, casting … the whole gamut of the practical considerations and logistics of what you need to do as a filmmaker.”

That kind of immersive, comprehensive experience has proven invaluable for aspiring filmmakers like Maya Zeigler, A16.

“It’s very student-run from start to finish,” she says. “The first project we did last semester for the Jane Franklin piece was a very new experience for me, being an undergrad who is spearheading a project with other undergrads, with someone who’s guiding us but very much lets us operate with a wide berth in the creative process.”

Zeigler’s initial interest in filmmaking stemmed from a desire to be a screenwriter. Her experience working on Half the History, and her interactions with the film industry professionals whom Burton also involves in the project have now shifted her interest to producing and directing.

“I’ve had a chance to see a lot of different sides of things that I never thought I would end up exploring,” says Zeigler, who credits Burton’s approach with empowering students to begin developing their own artistic visions and envisioning future careers in the industry. “I think that her teaching style allows students to explore themselves as potential filmmakers,” she says.”

More Stories to Tell

For Burton, the work of her students is one aspect on the wide-ranging support she has received from Tufts University and particularly from Tisch College, which, through the Faculty Fellows program, is providing both financial support for her project and an engaging community of like-minded scholars who share ideas about incorporating active citizenship into their work.

“I am loving it, and I feel like it’s an extension of Tufts in general, where there’s a kind of engagement with society: you don’t have to argue for the positive value of trying to bring about social change here,” she says. “It’s great to be in this faculty group where we can talk about all these issues that we’re grappling with.”

She has received enthusiastic support from outside the University too, including frequent “pitches” for other stories of women whom history has forgotten. One of the next Half the History projects will focus on The Wayside, a historic home in Minuteman National Park lived in by literary icons Louisa May Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The piece will focus on the role of Harriet Lothrop and her daughter Margaret, whose preservationist efforts are largely responsible for the house still standing today.

Burton and her sisters are also developing a feature film on the Mercury 13, women who underwent and passed the physical and psychological tests given to astronauts in 1960, but were never considered for the space program because of their gender. She hopes that Half the History will serve as an umbrella for these and many other projects; part of a broader effort to shine a light on the tales that so many have chosen to ignore or simply forgotten.

“I think it is our responsibility to think about what kinds of stories we want in the world, and this is modeling being that kind of filmmaker,” says Burton. “It’s part of a larger project that considers the stories we haven’t told, stories that allow us to think about our past differently, but also to think about our future in new ways.”

Watch the trailer for Half the History: