Q&A with the Park's High School Documentary Film-Makers

Interns Marie-Therese Ghunney (left) and Isaiah Lee (right) are working with documentary filmmaker Katherine Cheairs (center) to document stories from older New Yorkers. The interns are members of Studio in a School's Bloomberg Arts & Culture Internship Program. 

Interns Marie-Therese Ghunney (left) and Isaiah Lee (right) are working with documentary filmmaker Katherine Cheairs (center) to document stories from older New Yorkers. The interns are members of Studio in a School's Bloomberg Arts & Culture Internship Program. 

This summer, Four Freedoms Park Conservancy launched a new initiative that paired two high school interns from Studio in a School’s Bloomberg Arts & Culture Internship Program with a documentary filmmaker to capture and document stories from older New Yorkers who lived during the FDR era. The internship, which is offered to rising seniors at select CTE high schools in NYC, provides students with paid internships at museums and cultural organizations across the city.

By launching our Youth Documentarian Program, we are aiming to document the real, personal experiences of the people whose lives were changed by the administration of the 32nd president. Using an intergenerational approach that introduces young historians to FDR’s policies through interviews with the people directly affected by them, these stories will not only remind people of the tremendous impact Roosevelt had on this country, but connect a younger generation to a political legacy that continues to shape their lives today.

Over the course of six weeks, Isaiah Lee from Academy for Careers in Television and Film, and Marie-Therese Ghunney from Talent Unlimited High School, will work with documentary filmmaker, Katherine Cheairs, to meet, interview, and film local older New Yorkers about their experiences during the Great Depression and beyond. The Conservancy is partnering with the Roosevelt Island Senior Association, the Roosevelt Island Senior Center, the Martha Stewart Center for Living at Mount Sinai, SAGE, and other organizations to find older New Yorkers interested in sharing their stories and being a part of this project.

So far, Isaiah and Marie have conducted three pre-interviews, as well as a video-recorded interview with Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul when she visited the Park last month. These pre-interviews help them determine what questions to ask, the direction of the overall narrative, and which stories to highlight.  

At the end of their internship, Isaiah and Marie will produce a short documentary film, which the Conservancy will share both digitally and at a public screening. They will also learn about filmmaking and editing techniques, interview processes and public speaking, and working in an office environment. We can’t wait to share their final piece with you, and hope you will join us in celebrating their achievement! (Details to come.)  

In the meantime, last week, we sat down with Isaiah and Marie to ask them about their internship, their progress so far, and their favorite part of working at Four Freedoms Park.

FFP: Tell us about Studio in a School’s Bloomberg Arts & Culture Internship Program. What is the program?

I.L.: So far, being in the Bloomberg Arts internship program has been fantastic. Mainly because throughout the summer interns like myself get the opportunity to travel to many different arts museums around New York.

M.G.: The Bloomberg Arts and Culture Internship Program gives students from certain Career and Technical Education (CTE) schools jobs, but also advises us on our college application process, and we visit museums as well. The CTE schools they accept applicants from are schools that help prepare the students for college and their careers.

What was the application process like?

M.G.: The application process was a chance for the supervisors of the program to see our writing skills through questions such as, “What can you contribute to this program?” and “What event, place, etc. is special to you and why?”

I.L.: During the application process I had to write an essay about either a piece of art, a place that is special to me, or a talent that I have that could be valuable. I chose to write about my interest in arts and how it has affected my life. Growing up in Brooklyn, I would say I’m surrounded by art. Whether it is graffiti or how the guy by my local deli prepares my sandwich in the morning. Not to mention that I am also an artist myself, I like to draw so I see things from a different point of view. Afterwards I had to send in recommendation letters written by teachers from my school. I would say overall the process has been long but exciting.

Isaiah and Marie give a presentation on their work at the Conservancy to other students in the internship program.

Isaiah and Marie give a presentation on their work at the Conservancy to other students in the internship program.

Why were you interested in working with Four Freedoms Park?

I.L.: I found the park interesting because as a film student, I saw it as an opportunity to put my knowledge of visual storytelling into action. Also, as a person with an interest in history, I found it as opportunity to learn more about FDR.

M.G.: I had no prior knowledge or experience with operating cameras and setting up proper interviews for a documentary so this is a great start to learning more about it, especially because my supervisor has made a documentary before and my partner has skills that fit into what we are working on. Also, because the documentary is on a topic that I have learned in my history class, it’s really interesting to learn more about the people behind it and FDR’s personal life.

Tell us more about the Four Freedoms Documentary Project. What is the goal of the project?

I.L.: The documentary is an intergenerational project. Meaning that the purpose is to capture the lives of people who lived through the Great Depression in a way that connects to young people today.

M.G.: The goal of the Four Freedoms documentary project is to acknowledge the lasting impact FDR has had on the people who lived through the Great Depression and their place in society today.

Isaiah and Marie interview Lt. Governor Kathy Hochul at the Park. 

Isaiah and Marie interview Lt. Governor Kathy Hochul at the Park. 

At this point you’ve conducted three pre-interviews, including one video-recorded interview with Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul. How did these go?

I.L.: The pre-interviews with the elders really helped us gain a sense of comfort between the elders and the crew. That way when we do the video recorded interview there is a lot less tension, and certain questions can be expanded upon. Plus, I could also relate to some of the interviewees when they talk about not having what they wanted financially. As someone desires to be financially independent, I can relate.

M.G.: The elders we have met have a deep adoration for those who help others, like Eleanor Roosevelt, and who have survived horrible times, veterans, and that is what I can connect with. Appreciating the time others take to help, especially when they are being torn down for their actions. Another thing I related to was their fear of war. The fear of being attacked in a similar way comes from public shootings and just like a huge attack, it can happen at any time.

What kind of questions are you asking them?

I.L.: As a far questions we start with general questions such as the subject’s name and date of birth. Then we slowly move into the more in depth questions like “do you think as a society we’ve achieved the four freedoms?”

M.G.: We are asking about their childhood life, what they remember about FDR, their viewpoint on the Four Freedoms speech, and their experience or opinion on Four Freedoms Park.

How do you prepare for the interviews?

I.L.: Kat, Marie, and myself come together and discuss questions we should ask. As well as how these questions will move the narrative of the documentary forward.

M.G.: Kat, Isaiah, and I worked on coming up with these questions in the office and based them off of the Four Freedoms speech and other key information, like the Great Depression.

Why are these stories important to document?

I.L.: I believe these stories are important because they show life from a different perspective. It is one thing to read about the Great Depression from a textbook, but to listen to how someone describe what was going on during that time period makes the story much more interesting.

M.G.: These stories are important because they are more personal experiences that many people do not take into consideration when they are thinking about this time period.

Before beginning this project, how much did you know about FDR?

I.L.: I knew about the New Deal policies but I didn’t know much of FDR’s background or even his life during his presidency.

M.G.: I knew about his New Deal policy and that one of them is Social Security Act.

Has your perception of his presidency changed since beginning this project?

I.L.: Now having researched and interviewed people about FDR, I have a lot of respect for he and his wife Eleanor, as well as, what his wife has done to preserve FDR’s legacy.

M.G.: Yes, because after hearing the positive responses from the elders, I see that he was very caring to the public, regardless of his wealthy upbringing and, agreeing with them, he did not deserve the “hate” he received during the time of the war.

As part of their internship, Isaiah and Marie visit cultural institutions around the city, including the Tenement Museum. Here, they talk about what that experience was like. 

As part of their internship, Isaiah and Marie visit cultural institutions around the city, including the Tenement Museum. Here, they talk about what that experience was like. 

What has been your favorite part of working on this project?

I.L.: My favorite part about this project has been interviewing the elders and listening to their stories. You always hear your grandparents about how hard it was for them growing up, but you never really believe them until you actually listen to their story.

M.G.: My favorite part of working on this project was traveling to the homes of the subjects and asking them the pre-interview questions. I felt that their responses were heartfelt and honest, which I really liked about them.

What has been your favorite part of the internship?

I.L.: My favorite part of the internship here has been visiting the Park. I find the monument to be very fascinating. Also within participating in the internship, I’ve learned various skills such as being organized, how to be efficient, how to create thought-provoking interview questions. Not to mention the importance of paying attention to details in relation to how they connect to the bigger picture. For example, when myself, Marie, and Kat are interviewing someone, the subject may mention a specific person or topic from history like Eleanor Roosevelt or the attack on Pearl Harbor. Having prior knowledge on the subject helps because it can help to create a picture of what the time period may have been like, as well as give an idea of what challenges FDR may have been facing in that moment. Also as a film student this internship has helped me strengthen my technical skills, like how to set up lighting equipment.

M.G.: My favorite part about this internship was the tour of Four Freedoms Park, given by our other supervisor Emily. One of the surprising things we were told was the connection of the history behind the Park to the name change from Blackwell Island to Welfare Island to Roosevelt Island, which I'm still thinking about. However, we have also travelled to other places in and outside of Manhattan. Mainly to the homes of the elders in the Upper West Side and Queens, but also to the Senior Center on Roosevelt Island and museums. One of the field trips we went on that helped inspire our questions was the Tenement Museum where we went through the apartments of immigrants from different generations and learned about their history. Our most recent trip was to the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn.

From the beginning of this internship, I have absorbed so much information. Information like how to get the interviewees to open up to us, folding a tripod, using Google Spreadsheets, and more. Also, I've been able to gain some public speaking skills and a little experience on working with the documentary equipment. The big improvement for me was becoming more comfortable around everyone in the office, especially with Kat and Isaiah, because I'm very shy and this is something that I am trying to overcome as I am meeting many new people through this internship.