SOUL OF A PEOPLE

September 15th, 2009 | Tags: , ,
The last televised interview with legendary oral historian, Studs Terkel.

The last televised interview with legendary oral historian, Studs Terkel.

by Mike Mian

When we started, nobody wanted to hear it,” says Andrea Kalin, producer and director of Soul of a People: Writing America’s History.“ Kalin’s film has an unsettling modern-day resonance. It tells the story of America during a time of unemployment epidemic, widespread home eviction, and economic turmoil. A time, too, when hopes centered on a new president and his ideas for change.

Soul of a People tells the little-known story of one of those ideas: the Federal Writer’s Project (FWP). This noodle in the alphabet soup of the Works Progress Administration tasked over 6,600 individuals with documenting America in the 1930’s. The results were incredible: an unprecedented series of 48 state guides written, nearly 4,000 life histories recorded, and some of America’s finest writers molded. Out of crisis emerged a powerful portrait of our nation.

The film, which received major support from the National Endowment of the Humanities, couples historical footage with present-day interviews of former FWP writers. Its focus on the first federal push to seriously document the American scene, along with its compelling narrative, fits well with Smithsonian Channel’s mission to tell America’s stories with a distinctive voice.

Wife and children of a sharecropper in Washington County, Arkansas.

Wife and children of a sharecropper in Washington County, Arkansas.

While filming in HD was a “genuinely enjoyable experience”, the challenge came in reformatting historical footage to HD standards. “We found a lot of extraordinary footage, but the stock houses would only let us use standard-definition intermediaries,” says Kalin. How could historical footage be presented alongside stunning HD shots? Kalin continues, “Archival film has been shot in so many different ways that it’s a dicey venture to create a uniform look. The quality depended on the original resolution, which was limited by film grain and frame sizes. We soon learned that just because archival footage comes from the same source, it won’t necessarily ‘look’ the same once converted and imported. To solve this, we used color washes and filters to even out all the footage.”

The end product: a high definition view into landmark American history, with a contemporary resonance. 

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