Meet Exonians: Caroline del Real '16 and Annie Ning '16
Two Exonians choreograph an inventive film premiere
By Janet Reynolds
This story begins on Instagram.
Seniors Caroline del Real and Annie Ning were in final college application deadline mode.
Del Real took an Instagram break and saw something that turned a moment of procrastination into a moment of action. Internationally renowned photographer JR, whom she’d been following, had made a short film about Ellis Island. ”Creative” screenings of the film, called Ellis and featuring Robert De Niro, were being offered by the Tribeca Film Festival to groups around the country with this caveat: The screening needed to be part of an inventive multimedia event inspired by JR’s work.
Applications were due Nov. 1. Del Real was reading this on Oct. 30. Oh, and if their still-unformed project was accepted, the creative screenings had to be shown between Nov. 9 and Nov. 22.
Some might have been deterred by this timeline. Not these young ladies. Del Real tackled the homage to JR, and Ning, who is involved in various Exeter dramatic and music groups, took on other presentation possibilities. They sent in their application the next day. On Nov. 1 they learned that their project had been chosen, making Phillips Exeter Academy one of only 800 communities around America selected to participate in this unusual screening opportunity.
”It was really surprising,” del Real says, before admitting it was also a little scary. ”We only had two weeks to pull the whole thing together.”
Adjunct Music Instructor Jung Mi Lee and Caroline del Real ’16 prepare the ELLIS art installation.
Del Real and Ning both credit the backing they got from Exeter faculty, particularly Art Department Chair Tara Misenheimer and adjunct Music Instructor Jon Sakata, with enabling them to make the screening deadline and premiere the film on Nov. 20. ”It was very hectic,” Ning says. ”But as soon as our teachers heard about it, there was immediately so much support from so many directions.”
Del Real had already done a tribute to JR as part of a lower-year photography class. He’s a bit of an iconoclast — JR is not his real name and he uses the streets and public spaces as the galleries for many of his large photographs. Inspired by his series of aging rock ’n’ roll artists who’ve faded, for the most part, into musical history, del Real photographed for her class project the people behind the scenes at Exeter — those who make the school run who aren’t always appreciated as much as they should be. She hung the large 5-by-10-foot photos off the side of the library.
The film Ellis is a short documentary that uses JR’s initial on-site photographic installation of portraits of those who came to Ellis Island. Instead of examining the people who arrived at Ellis Island Hospital, however, the film, with De Niro acting as the ghost narrator, imagines what it was like for these immigrants to leave the hospital to begin a new life.
Del Real used her original project as a jumping-off point for the Ellis event. Her grandfather emigrated from Cuba in the 1950s, and she wanted to depict Exeter’s multicultural life photographically, to echo the concept JR raised in Ellis.
”My photo staff, Rachel Luo ’17 and Steven Kim ’17, and I took 500 portraits of people from families who immigrated,” she says. ”We walked around [the] dining [hall] and asked random students if anyone in their family has immigrated in the last 100 years.”
Then she took these large-format images and made a ”JR-type wallpaper out of them.” The wallpaper of people’s faces on the large marble columns greeted attendees as they entered the Academy Building, a setting whose place of passage and transition within the school’s heritage echoed the theme of the event and film.
Ning was in charge of the evening’s performance art. The film itself obviously needed to be front and center. Rather than one simple screening, however, Ning, who as head of the student club Democracy of Sound regularly uses overlooked spaces in the school for music and sonic installations, wanted to create a different experience.
The audience could watch the 14-minute film in the auditorium. But Ning also created a more ethereal experience by projecting the film onto light scrim material held by students in the building’s lobby. This way the images zigzagged through the material.
”The film became very transparent and mobile because students were holding up the screen. The effect was an almost-transparent layered image,” Ning says. ”In the film there are layered faces on the ground. Some transparent images are wallpapered on the walls that De Niro walks through. I was trying to get that effect but in the space we were working in.”
The film is projected onto light scrim material held by students.
Ning also asked some of the Democracy of Sounds members to create music in and around the marble staircases.
”I wanted an expression of student voices, too. We have so many examples of immigration just on our campus,” says Ning, who is Asian-American.
As head of the W.O.R.D. (We Only Recite Dramatically) Club, Ning asked members if they would tell their own family stories of immigration or produce a piece about living in a foreign environment and assimilating into American culture. Ning also found oral histories from Ellis Island immigrants talking about their experience. She asked members of the senior acting club DRAMAT to stage dramatic readings of those transcripts. ”We were able to voice and elaborate on the experiences of Ellis Island even more so than the film,” she says.
The project was both spontaneous and carefully choreographed. Certain events happened in and around the Academy Building’s marble staircase at the same time, while others, such as the dramatic readings, occurred when nothing else was going on.
As children of immigrant families, del Real and Ning understand what it can be like assimilating into a foreign culture. ”My parents were the first of my family to travel outside China,” Ning says. ”I have seen firsthand what the first-generation [life] is like. I heard their stories — my dad and mom being separated for three years while Mom was in China and Dad was trying to create [a] life here. Mom working in a Chinese restaurant making food and delivering it. My aunts and uncles in China telling us how lucky we are and seeing the U.S. as a beacon of wealth and success.”
Bringing that story to life was one reason she and del Real were drawn to the film and project. But they also saw potential for raising awareness at the school and in the town of Exeter. ”When you think of Exeter you think academic,” del Real says. ”They’re trying to prioritize that we’re a community of smart people but that we come from different backgrounds and have different reasons to be there. You never really think about a family history about why you’re at this school. I wanted to make that more apparent.”
”I think that’s one of the key ideas of this project — Exeter is really a hub of people coming from everywhere,” Ning adds. ”Bringing this film and discussion of immigration was really important. We have that experience in a very direct way. Students are here from all kinds of backgrounds. That’s a huge parallel to what’s talked about in the film.”
Ning is in her second year at Exeter, and during that time she says she hasn’t seen a lot of interaction between the school and the town. She and del Real, with school administration approval, saw this film screening as an opportunity to reach out.
”It’s such a big deal to screen this film,” Ning says. ”It’s a high-profile piece of art because of JR and De Niro. I thought, ’We have to spread it and involve as many people as possible.’ Something like this would bring this community together.”
Meet more Exonians:
Devin Schroeder, a day student, is an athlete and scholar who loves to read, draw and wrap his head around complex problems, He recently traveled to Cuba through Exeter’s Global Initiatives program.
Kyra Dawkins spent a semester in Tema, Ghana, living and learning at the SOS-Hermann Gmeiner International College. After graduation, she hopes to study neuroscience in college.