Julia Coletti ’21 Explores the Contentious Philadelphia Bicentennial with DocuLab

A July 4th Coalition newsletter found at in the John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives at the William Way LGBT Community Center

This summer, I am working as one of Haverford’s DocuLab Fellows on a documentary project about the United States Philadelphia Bicentennial which occurred in Philadelphia in 1976. 

What’s so interesting about the Bicentennial you ask? 

On the surface, the event seems to have been somewhat of a failure of a 200th birthday party for the United States—a trivial and meaningless event, absent from the memories of most Americans. However, upon a closer look, one can see that in 1976, the city of Philadelphia (as well as the nation at large) was experiencing no shortage of turmoil, including but not limited to: the resignation of Nixon, the sociopolitical fallout of the Vietnam War, rising unemployment and declining trust in public institutions, strained racial and ethnic tensions exacerbated by an economic recession and poor working conditions, and a public health crisis. As the nation’s birthplace, Philly was the city in which the big party was to be held, but for a majority of people it didn’t seem like there was much to celebrate. 

A newspaper clipping found in a Bicentennial scrapbook housed at the Free Library of Philadelphia

Our task as a team: to turn this complicated moment in history into a documentary work. For the past 5 weeks, we have been conducting interviews, delving into archives, and exploring the city for evidence of the mark that the Bicentennial moment left on the city of Philadelphia.

While this is no easy undertaking, we have been well-equipped in both personnel and video gear; the tools in our artistic arsenal ranging from our very own poet/Philadelphia connoisseur to a remote-controlled stabilizing rig with the power to turn any cinematographer into a super-powered video robot. 

Even so, representing a people’s history of the Bicentennial and surrounding events has proven both daunting and exciting. It seems as though every time we think we understand what went on, we uncover a new piece of information, whether that be a newsletter about counter-movements to the Bicentennial celebrations, or unexpected opinions or anecdotes in an interview. One of the biggest challenges for me personally is navigating the space between wanting to include all of the stories and facts that we find, and being limited to a relatively short production window and film time. This means that we have to be both strategic and precarious in the way that we present information—representing a public history while being  aware of our limitations.

As a political science major, visual studies minor, and peace, justice and human rights concentrator, I find this project—both as a documentary work and something of a public history project—to be an interesting opportunity to combine and apply my different areas of study. Researching the Bicentennial has turned out to be a fascinating study of patriotism, populism and social movements, relaying political and social dynamics not unlike some of our current moment. What is unique about Doculab (and one of the most exciting parts for me) is the amount of production and editing experience that we have as students, which extends far beyond the role of production assistant (what most film internships would entail), and thus gives us a lot of creative control over the project. Additionally, being able to work with a team of students and faculty coming from all different academic fields, but with a shared passion for documentary and story-telling, is a very fun and very Haverfordian experience. 

 

Written by Julia Coletti ’21, political science major; visual studies minor; peace, justice and human rights concentrator

Edited by Emily Dombrovskaya ’19