Ex-Professor Melody Gilbert: “I wanted to show Americans who you are.”
Melody Gilbert, JMC ex-professor, returned to AUBG for the screening of her latest documentary movie “The Summer Help” on Wednesday, Nov. 2, in the full hall of Delchev Auditorium.
Lynnette Leonard, JMC department chair, welcomed her former colleague and then gave the word to Bojan Mircheski, a third-year student and AUBG’s Documentary Movie club president, who congratulated her on her latest work. He reminded the audience that the club (also organizer of the event) was founded by Gilbert.
The ex-professor was pleased to see a lot of familiar faces in the hall and shared some jokes with her former students. She talked about the movie and how it has evolved since last year’s screening of the rough cut, again here, at AUBG.
In the next hour the audience witnessed a new different perspective on the so called Work And Travel programs – honest to the limit, naturalistic, without make up. In the movie we see the experiences of eight young people, the main characters being two then AUBG first-year students, as they leave Bulgaria in their quest of ‘summer help’.
Moreover, seen are only real moments from the lives of a group of teenagers as they struggle to adapt to the new culture, find more jobs, help their families and also explore the world around them. And there’s no place either for unsubstantiated criticism, or for false advertisement – we see things just as the students and the director saw them.
Main characters are Nikoleta and Elena, two best friends who we meet at the time of separation with their families. They look vulnerable, emotional, scared of the unknown, but also determined to literally work their way to a better life and education.
One month of searching for a second job, weeks when six hours of sleep are considered a blessing, forms of bullying and lack of understanding, misjudgments, trust issues, disappointments, nostalgia takes a toll. On the bright side you slowly started making new friends, learning what your limits are and how to go on even after you have reached them, learning to value the smallest moments of joy, like finally going to the beach on a holiday, celebrating the Independence Day of the United States and getting to know the culture better.
Nikoleta and Elena managed to get both the good and the sad parts of their first journey to America, while the audience was given the chance to experience everything at first hand.
A Q&A session with the award-winning independent filmmaker Gilbert followed where she shared with the audience details about the work on the film and how everything started. Gilbert talked about her first year at AUBG where she was introduced to the Work And Travel Programs her students were all so excited about.
“It didn’t make sense to me to pay $1000 just to go to work there. That made me crazy. Then I just had a feeling, I knew I had to do it,”explained Gilbert on how the idea for the “The Summer Help” was born.
The work process, almost fully self- financed and finished with the help of a Kickstarter Campaign, continued for four years and went through many different versions that were aiming to combine both Gilbert’s and the Bulgarian students’ views.
Gilbert considered filming not only the beginning and the end of the Work and Travel story, but also the two years in between: “But it’s different. And I wanted to get that freshman experience, the very first summer.”
She shared how she thought the film had finished after the summer and only realized she had the proper ending three years later with the graduation of the girls.
About the big change in the movie’s pace after the first rough cut, the director confessed she wanted the audience to be able to breathe while watching, to be able to understand what is happening better.
“It’s the first movie I’ve done in such a slow paced, European style, but I think it was better for the story. I wanted Americans to see you as whole people. I wanted to show them who you are. You are special.”, explained Gilbert.
To illustrate the significant change, she gave an example with a scene where Nikoleta is cleaning the toilet, that was supposed to last 20 seconds. In the final version it is one minute long.
AUBG Associate Professor Nedyalko Delchev, part of the audience at the screening, was also interested in the details from the ‘behind-the-scenes’ work.
“It is a big advantage of the film – to see them actually working,” praised the decision the Theatre Professor.
Gilbert shared that the key moments she took from the footage make the American viewers uncomfortable, but according to her the girls’ experience is not all negative, just very confusing.
She talked about the different reactions of the movie in America and how guilty the citizens felt for not knowing anything about those hardworking young people, that are taking the jobs which American students the same age refuse.
Guests of the event were Elena’s mother and sister, Petranka Georgieva and Iva Ivanova. They shared a short but emotional interview with Melody Gilbert in front of the audience after the screening.
“The film brought very nice memories of my sister and my grandparents. I was sad because I haven’t seen them in a long time, but I’m also happy,” shared Iva Ivanova.
Gilbert explained it is the meeting with the families that makes you feel closer to the students.
“Thank you for sharing your family with me!,” added the director.
According to Melody Gilbert, every good documentary movie has the characteristics of a live action movie. The Summer Help had indeed a thought–provoking and engaging plot, included big challenges for the main characters, unexpected love story, sad end of a friendship, emotional background story and characters and also humor, seriousness and tears.
Different opinions about the movie also included a few criticisms. Denis Zhelyazkov, AUBG second-year student, shared that he expected more from the film. According to him, the movie was focused on two girls who were very old school Bulgarians in some ways – they have never been on a plane, never left the country and so on.
“Keeping in mind that the movie is focused on people from AUBG I just wasn’t pleased with the fact that they were the main focus, simply because they were extremely alike. It felt more like a biography of one person rather than a documentary about “the summer help” in America,” shared Zhelyazkov.
Reasoning his higher expectations, the student also added that the typical AUBGer wants to “conquer the world, to change it and to pave a brighter future for everyone.”
The event did not finish even after the Q&A session as the whole Documentary Movie Club gathered around Gilbert with more questions and stories for their club’s founder.