Bernadette Wegenstein – The Intersection of Filmmaking and Academia

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Bernadette Wegenstein

Bernadette Wegenstein, “a Research Professor in the department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures at the Johns Hopkins University, where she also directs the Center of Advanced Media Studies,”[1] is not only a prolific academic, but also a recent filmmaker. She considers herself a media theorist who became an artist, although she barely concedes to the artist part because she feels she is still learning the craft. Wegenstein has written many books about body criticism, such as Getting Under the Skin, about “contemporary body discourse in philosophy and cultural studies to its roots in twentieth-century thought.”[2] But, she decided to try her hand at filmmaking instead of solely writing books because, “filmmaking is more –it gets under your skin, in your pores, and in your body.”[3]

Wanting to tap into the visceral responses that film provides to the viewer, Wegenstein made her first film, the documentary entitled Made Over in America. It explores the ways in which American culture informs body image via media and how that leads, in some cases, to drastic makeovers involving plastic surgery. Wegenstein tells the story of Cindy Ingle and her experience on the cosmetic surgery makeover reality show, The Swan. Throughout the film, the viewer gains access to Cindy’s decision to undergo the surgery, her personal views on body images, and how all of this manifests in American culture through Cindy’s story, as well as those of surgeons, other theorists, and even a transvestite. The resolve of the documentary is that Cindy chose to undergo the complete body image change to become more secure in a society that places the emphasis on physical appearance. Wegenstein had only a day to film Cindy and was unable to delve into her character very deeply. “You have to give birth to a third dimension with making a character,”[4] Wegenstein asserts, and she sees her documentary’s weakness as not being cinematic enough without that multi-layered character.

Image  Wegenstein’s Made Over in America is wonderfully informative and effective in explaining the ways in which culture has affected body image in our country. In her second documentary, however, Wegenstein wished to become more cinematic by employing some elements of cinéma vérité in See You Soon Again. This documentary follows Leo Bretholz, a Holocaust survivor who has been sharing his story with classrooms in Baltimore and in his book, Leap into Darkness, since 1962. He jumped off a train headed to Auschwitz and lost his family to the Nazis. He recalls the last time he saw his family, on a rainy October day when his sister was quarantined with scarlet fever. She held up a small chalkboard onto which she wrote, “See you soon again,” yet the family never able to reunite. Leo relays this vivid and mournful memory to the camera as if it were a confidant, really providing the cinéma vérité element Wegenstein was aiming for, while also adding much poignancy to Leo’s story.

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Leo speaking in a Baltimore classroom

Leo is a very multi-dimensional character in the film. The viewer receives a somewhat subjective view of him in which he is cranky about the special attention he is met with in the schools and when he feels students inaccurately equate the Holocaust with slavery. The cinéma vérité is expressed when Leo speaks directly into the camera like it is a confidant and in the emotional transformation that stems from his cynicism.  The use of a transformative character is much more effective and realistic this time around for Wegenstein, coming from the one-dimensional Cindy in Made Over in America. Another way See You Soon Again transcends typical documentary making is that it is not purely about the content –a Holocaust survivor’s story –but also strongly about the character. It is a story about storytelling because Leo is as much imprisoned by his urgency to tell his story as by the horrific experience that fostered the story itself. A cornerstone of cinéma vérité is to try and understand a subject without interfering in the subject’s story too much. Wegenstein has successfully created a film in which a character is presented as both dynamic and compelling without intrusion.

Right now, Wegenstein is working on her next documentary about the history of breast cancer. She is immersing herself in GBMC to look at the effects of the disease vis-á vis the American pink ribbon culture. Through a cinéma vérité lens, she hopes to expose the truths and untruths. Wegenstein says there was perhaps “a filmmaker living in me and I didn’t even know it,”[5] and that she thinks filmmaking and academia are counterparts in the connection of history and truth.

Here is a clip from Made Over in America 

-Evelyn Feeney


[1] “Bernadette Wegenstein Research Professor and Filmmaker,” http://bernadettewegenstein.com/

[3] Artist Talk with Bernadette Wegenstein, Johns Hopkins University, 03/07/12

[4] Artist Talk with Bernadette Wegenstein, Johns Hopkins University, 03/07/12

[5] Artist Talk with Bernadette Wegenstein, Johns Hopkins University, 03/07/12

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