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LES Filmmaker Cathryn Davis Zommer “Awakens”

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Cathryn Davis Zommer. Her film, Fully Awake, screens this weekend.

It wasn’t until North Carolina native Cathryn Davis Zommer moved to New York City in 1998 that she discovered the intriguing story of Black Mountain College.  An experiment in education that began in 1933 and ended just 24 years later, the school is still praised for it’s profound influence on modern art and progressive education.

“I was an intern at the Charlie Rose show and some of the guests that came in kept talking about Black Mountain College,” Zommer told me recently.

The minute she heard the college was located a few miles outside of Asheville, where she grew up,  Zommer was hooked. By 2001 she had submerged herself in research about the school and decided to give up a full-time job to go back home to volunteer at the historical archive for the Black Mountain College Papers. “I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard a thing about it growing up.

The school was created out of a movement committed to democratic governance and the idea that the arts are central to the experience of learning. It balanced academics and art with manual labor and communal living in order to educate “the whole person – head, hand, and heart.” The experiment attracted “maverick spirits” from all over – along with American artists, European artists and intellectuals who had begun facing persecution by the Nazis came to study and work there. Black Mountain College is known for groundbreaking cultural events such as John Cage’s first ‘happening’. Merce Cunningham formed his dance company at the school. Buckminster Fuller created his original ‘geodisic dome’ there.

Josef Albers, a Bauhaus "refugee", teaching students at Black Mountain College. From the North Carolina State Archives

While there were biographies and some reference books written about the school, Zommer was surprised to find there weren’t any comprehensive films about it. She began contacting the surviving teachers and students from the college, and, with a volunteer camera crew, documented the school’s history through interviews. She was eventually allowed rare access to the archival photographs for one eight-hour period at the end of her stay. She locked herself in a room and scanned every photo she could get her hands on, without coming up for air until the eight hours were up. Zommer decided to edit the archival photos, along with the interviews, to create an historical “introduction” for people in the North Carolina community who didn’t know about Black Mountain College. Little did she know she had begun what would turn in to a seven year journey to complete the film.

As Zommer told me the story of making what became Fully Awake, over coffee at Roots & Vines on Grand Street, her passion for the film became obvious. “I made the film because I was absolutely obsessed and wanted to meet the people that would go to this school.  In a pretty conservative era, the students, and the faculty, took a huge risk to go to this school. I mean they were called communists, they were considered free-loving hippies, they were really seen as these weird wackos in the hills. But I was very inspired (in meeting them). I learned (about) a very different way of aging. Most of the people I met were still active in their art, or their community, or their civic commitment. None of them were living the kind of traditional lives that I had known in my traditional Southern Baptist upbringing. Some of these people were in their 90’s when I was interviewing them and they were the most active and lively people I’ve ever met.”

The project of documenting the school’s history became daunting as Zommer realized the school itself was in constant flux. It changed structurally and often philosophically, from year to year, depending on who was teaching and which artists were visiting at the time.  Working full time and trying to edit hundreds of hours of video footage on the side became disheartening. Luckily, in 2005, Zommer met Neeley House, a film student at Elon University who was working on a similar project, and the two decided to combine their efforts to create one film. They spent an intense summer in an editing room at Elon, completing Fully Awake.  The title comes from a quote from a student at Black Mountain, describing the energy that was required, just to participate in the program.

Zommer told me she fell in love with film making through the process of making Fulling Awake and she is now working on other film projects.

The film, which was made for under $10,000, premiered in Asheville at the Fine Arts Cinema, hosted by the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center in 2007.  It has since screened at MOMA and the National Gallery, as well the Gugenheim in Bilbao and many community centers and colleges around the country. It has been re-edited since the premier and the filmmakers were able to secure some music rights that they couldn’t afford originally.  The most recent, 60 minute version will be screening this weekend at the 92nd street Y, in Tribeca.

Zommer says, looking back at the project, there are things she would do differently. She often wishes her first feature hadn’t carried the burden of such historical significance.  Still, she says, “I’m so grateful I had that opportunity when I did and that I took the risks that I did – leaving my job twice?…but it just felt right. It really changed me.”

Fully Awake is screening this Friday at 92Y Tribeca at 7:30pm, as part of a special series curated by musician Shara Worden. Watch the trailer below:

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