Brad Grimm knew little about Turkey. Indeed, the opportunity to travel there inspired some trepidation among his fellow students in Robert Morris University's Center for Documentary Production and Study. Their hesitation was "because of the whole situation we're in globally," Grimm says diplomatically. When he decided to go, people told him, "I hope you make it back."
"It was just ignorance," says Grimm. "They really had no idea what kind of lives they live over there."
Dispelling myths and fears about the Islamic nation of 69 million was the point of "Smokey Misconception," the 23-minute documentary Grimm shot on his three-week stay in May 2005. Grimm's short video highlights the July 18 installment of the Film Kitchen screening series, which also features shorts by German students who visited Pittsburgh as part of RMU's exchange program, and by a Pittsburgher working in Central America.
Grimm, who grew up in Penn Hills, was a sophomore when he and two other RMU students visited Istanbul, a city as populous as New York. He'd done enough Internet research to know that Turkey ... a republic since 1923 ... was a fairly open society. But any remaining preconceptions were shattered on arrival at the airport, when he met the female student who was to be their guide. "Wow, this is maybe not like anything I was expecting," Grimm recalls thinking. "She was one of the most liberal people I ever met."
After its opening montage of college-age American women telling what they think Turkey is like, "Smokey Misconception" explores Istanbul by depicting 18 days in the life of Canan Balan, a 26-year-old university teaching assistant.
Balan, an aspiring filmmaker, is awaiting word on acceptance into a Ph.D. program in Scotland. While Grimm provides a thumbnail history of modern Turkey, the real revelation might be for viewers who think all Muslim countries have fundamentalist governments that require women to wear burkas. Balan, her head uncovered, wanders through town freely, typically dressed in blue jeans and a red leather jacket.
But Grimm says his big test as a filmmaker was showing "Smokey" to people who did know the terrain, when he screened it at the University of Pittsburgh for a Turkish social group. "That's the scariest thing in the world, showing Turkish film to Turkish people," he says. "It was nerve-wracking." But afterward, Grimm says, one Turkish-born man told him, "That's the greatest film I've ever seen."
RMU's documentary center, headed by James Seguin, has hosted exchange students too. In July 2004, for example, German-born filmmakers Daniel Erb and Stefanie Gartmann spent three weeks in Pittsburgh. The five shorts they made here ... totaling all of 12 minutes ... are bracing exercises in unnarrated mini-documentary. Pieces screening July 18 include: "Wholey's," Erb's homage to what he calles the "masses of meat" at the Strip District grocery; "Sunday Morning Walk," in which Erb attempts to photographically re-animate a deceased steel mill; and Erb's "Sports," an incisive riff on spectatorship and exclusion.
The German pair's local guide, meanwhile, was Erica Pfeiffer, then an RMU student in the documentary program. In 2005, after she graduated, Pfeiffer traveled to South America to serve as the one-woman video crew for Will Minton, a Pitt student studying non-governmental organizations focused on economic development in Central America.
Pfeiffer is a Freeport native who got into video with social activism in mind. Her 13-minute "NGO Centro" adumbrates a trip that included stops at a development summit in El Salvador, a fair-trade-coffee co-op in Nicaragua, and a protest village of former banana-plantation workers.
Pfeiffer, who's now a freelance consultant as well as a staffer at RMU's documentary center, hopes to spin her Central America footage ... which already supplied material for Minton's honors thesis ... into multiple documentaries.
Pfeiffer responded to questions about "NGO Centro" via e-mail from Chile, where she's working on another series of projects. Her reply gives some sense of a filmmaker's priorities under trying circumstances. In Central America, she writes, "I feared for my life three times during the trip." Pfeiffer adds, "I feared for the safety of the equipment every single day."