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Hannah Guggenheim ’86

hannah and chrisLaverack Award Recipient 2009

June 9, 2009

Remarks by Molly Tarleton ’91, Chair of Alumni Council

“I graduated from Applewild in 1991. It is a pleasure to be here today to introduce this year’s recipient of the Laverack Family Alumni Award—Hannah Guggenheim.

But before I do – How many students have siblings (or have had siblings) attend Applewild? Or for parents in the audience — do you or have you had more than one child attend Applewild? And for teachers—how many of you have called a student by their sibling’s name? A lot of family connections!

I had two older sisters attend Applewild before me, and oftentimes I can remember being just as connected to their classes as I was to my own. As a second grader when I started Applewild, I always looked up to my sisters and the kids in all the upper classes. So today it is a thrill for me to introduce Hannah Guggenheim from the Class of 1986 because she was one of those kids for me. I had the pleasure of calling Hannah a few months ago to let her know that the Alumni Council had chosen her for this honor. She was so thrilled to get my call. But what struck me as I talked to Hannah was that she wasn’t just honored to get this award for herself. She immediately felt and recognized that this was an award to recognize the support of her family and her community as a validation for the work she does day in and day out as a filmmaker.

hannah and guestsThe Laverack Family Alumni Award was established by Applewild’s founding Headmaster, William Laverack, his wife Persis Laverack, and his family to celebrate the values that Mr. Laverack held as most important in life: dedication and generosity – specifically, being generous with one’s time, one’s love and one’s life. Without the Laverack family, Applewild would not be the school it is today.

And while this award is named in honor of the Laverack Family, it dawned on me in talking with Hannah that in another way this award is also about family. By honoring an alumna like Hannah who, in the course of her work and volunteer efforts, has contributed unselfishly to the common good and whose character, spirit and benevolent service have provided leadership and support for community, we are honoring her family today (a family who made the investment to send their children to Applewild), and the family of people who have supported Hannah along the way including her teachers, classmates and community.

Upon graduating from Applewild in 1986, Hannah went on to attend Tabor Academy, The College of Wooster and then San Francisco State University where she earned a Master of Fine Arts through the school’s film production program.

Hannah has worked for PBS, LeapFrog, Turnhere and Dooftv. Hannah’s film work ranges from independent to industrial with an emphasis on directing and shooting documentary films. Most recently Hannah’s documentary film, Benji and Judah, had its world premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival and is screening nationally. I had the chance to view parts of the film from Hannah’s website. The film is an emotionally powerful story centered around identical twin brothers born with spina bifida and their mother, Jeanette, who struggled to find a home for her physically challenged sons and seven other children. Hannah worked with the family for three years (including teaching Benji and Judah how to use cameras) documenting their lives and the surrounding community of Oakland, California. Hannah is also known for her award winning Sanctuary City Public Service Announcement on San Francisco immigrant rights which was shown and debated on CNN and Fox News. And currently, Hannah works for TCHO Ventures, documenting an eco-conscious chocolate company as they search for the best cocao around the world. In her spare time, Hannah has even had the chance to teach a Pop Culture course at Ex’Pression College for Digital Arts.

Hannah is a powerful storyteller and she tells stories that matter – stories that demonstrate community; stories that foster robust debate and provoke critical thinking; and above all, stories that connect people to the world around them and the greater good within them. On behalf of the Alumni Council, it gives me great pleasure to introduce Hannah Guggenheim – the 7th Laverack Family Alumni Award recipient.

Remarks given by Hannah Guggenheim ‘86

“What an honor and compliment to receive this Laverack Family Alumni Award. I would like to say thank you to Applewild; you have been so crucial in my development as a young person. What an amazing place to learn and to be more of who you are!  Additionally, I feel so fortunate to have been raised by two parents who were able to see not only that education is paramount to a child’s development, but to encourage me to be who I am today:  a creative, engaged person who wants to make a difference.

I have been working for over ten years in the documentary film industry. With an MFA from San FranciscoStateUniversity’s film production program, my work ranges from indie to industrial filmmaking with a focus largely on making educational films. In short, this means storytelling through collaborative filmmaking.

My first project of this kind was a community photographic project documenting Brazilian children making their own photographic images in their rural barrio community at the mouth of the Amazon River. Years later, as the Director of The Mission High Drop-Out prevention program, I created a similar photographic project – this time working with at-risk youth documenting their own communities in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I like telling stories through collaboration because I have realized that although in many cases I have the privilege of having access to equipment (i.e. the camera, the microphone, and all the editing facilities), I am not always the most appropriate person to tell the story. There should be room in the canon of literature, film, art, etc. where there is equal representation in films: race, class, ethnicity, disability and gender. We all need representation in the stories being told. All of our stories are important.  For example with my recent documentary film, “Benji and Judah”, I trained my two subjects (Benji and Judah, age 15 at the time), how to film and how to be a part of the overall filmmaking process. Together, we were very engaged in the storytelling process. We discussed content and form; and this was an ongoing dialogue for five years. We shot over 150 hours of footage.

At the time, I knew very little about Benji and Judah, other than that they were just my neighbors living in inner-city Oakland, CA; but through time I began to learn the complexities of the Johnson family – a  family of nine who was struggling with poverty and homelessness.  For their mother, Jeanette Johnson, caring for her boys was a full-time job.  Ben and Judah spend on average, six months a year in the hospital. When she is not at the hospital, Jeanette is fighting for secure housing, navigating a web of social welfare programs that give infinite short-term solutions but never any hope for security.

Through working closely with Benji and Judah, and including them in the filmmaking process, I was able to create an intimate portrait of the family and allowed access in a way that most films cannot.  The film screened at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival and is on tour nationally.

As I filmmaker, I have found that filmmaking is a way of expanding the classroom.  Films enable you to have access to places, people and feelings you wouldn’t have if you didn’t have the camera. I make portraits of people in a moving image form.  But I am also interested in the process by which art is made.  Film is an incredibly powerful medium of expression with its complexities, its visual sense, for what it offers us all: an artistic expression.

Whether I have chosen film – or it has chosen me, I am drawn to film for its duende.  Federico Garcia Lorca explains duende as “a mysterious power, which everyone feels but which no philosopher can explain.”  So then, duende is a power and not a method, a passion and not a thought.   My hope in talking about my process is that it demystifies what I do and that it encourages all of you as students to live out your dreams, push the envelope. Take risks, make stuff, do what makes you happy and find your own duende.

For me I have found that what makes me happy is making films and finding the balance between the technical and, most importantly, artful way of making images. Creating this dialogue of artful creativity and making social documentaries is a reciprocal process – one that we can all learn from:  the filmmaker, the subject, and the viewer.

Much of filmmaking is embracing the mode of “not understanding”.  Of course this can be sometimes awkward and clunky in a system that oftentimes tests us for what we do not know as opposed to celebrating what we do know. I tell students that their greatest successes will be balanced by their mistakes and happy accidents in filmmaking. Even with making the film with Benji and Judah, so much of what we all learned was discovering and uncovering the story. This can be applied to film or to anything really.

These are the personal observations of a person with a great desire to make documentary films, and to tell people’s stories — for the sense of community, the rigor, the creative space and time and its structure.   My intentions as a filmmaker are to facilitate the process of creating good works with intent, integrity, consciousness and grace. My hope is to instill a feeling of collaboration, to act as a guide by addressing the return to what is familiar and inspirational.

These are the lessons that I have learned which I hope one day you can apply to your own duende, whatever it may be.”

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