September 24, 2007

Behind the camera with Gwen Briesemeister

By Kelsey Linden
Staff Writer

It is always fun watching old family videos. However, there are some who prefer to remain behind the camera.

Having just entered a recent film into the Minnesota Historical Society challenge, Gwen Briesemeister is Delano’s camera woman. Video Production is more than just preserving memories for her. It’s an art.

Briesemeister grew up in Hoffman, where she graduated with her class of 27 students. She went off to college at Moorhead State University, where she spent her college years majoring in elementary education and Scandinavian studies with an emphasis on Norwegian.

After graduating from college, she taught in North Dakota, Howard Lake, and Rockford. Ten years ago, she came to Delano, and has been here ever since.

Unlike many teachers who teach only one subject, Briesemeister teaches to the gifted and talented in the elementary, middle and high schools at Delano. It was only two years ago that Briesemeister began teaching a class that is very dear to her heart: video production.

Principal Dr. Bruce Locklear approached Briesemeister about teaching the course. They gave it a try, and it has remained one of the most popular courses available to high school students in Delano.

Briesemeister has only been making films for about two years.

“Last year was the first year it was sponsored by the Historical Society. I’m not entirely sure how, but they got a grant. The grant was for people to capture the stories from the ‘greatest generation.’ In this case, it was people born between 1910 and 1929. They wanted to get these stories from people before they are gone,” she said.

“It’s grown from last year. There were 50 films submitted last year, and I know 100 registered this year. I’m going to guess maybe 70 will be submitted.”

The Minnesota Historical Society is located near the State Capitol building in St. Paul. The challenge is called ‘Greatest Generation.’ Briesemeister did a documentary-type film on the life of Dr. Sabina Zimering.

When asked how she learned of Zimering, Briesemeister said, “She had come to our school before to talk to the eighth graders because they always do a unit on the Holocaust. And I heard about it, so I popped into the auditorium to see what she was like, to see if she was a strong enough character to do a film about.

“Sometimes, people are good in a small group, but not necessarily on camera. But she was really interesting, very alert and articulate, so I thought she would be a very good subject. Plus, her story is very unusual. It’s not the typical concentration camp story. It’s a different kind survival.”

To prepare for this project, Briesemeister read Zimering’s book “Hiding in the Open.” She also went to listen to her lecture at various locations, so she could get a feel for her story.

“To me, the most interesting thing about her story is that she survived in such a different way. She really had to swallow who she was during the war in order to survive. A lot of people aren’t able to do that, but she was,” Briesemeister said.

“There were 50 people in her family. Only seven survived. Most of them were put in concentration camps and of course, did not survive. She and her sister survived because they got false papers. The lived in Germany posing as Polish Catholics,” Briesemeister finished.

Zimering was 18 years old at the time. After the war ended, she moved back to Poland for schooling to be a doctor. However, the country was in such disarray that there was not a place to study. She returned to Germany and got her degree there. She lived in Germany until the 1950s, before immigrating to the US.

When asked what she found interesting about Zimering’s story, Briesemeister said, “There were so many families where there was no one left to even remember that there was a family. You hear about the stories of the survivors, but you can’t hear the stories about people who don’t exist.”

Briesemeister also felt compelled to disclose Zimering’s true feelings about the war.

“She feels uncomfortable about how she survived in a much more comfortable way than the people that were in the concentration camps. She actually feels a little guilty about the way she survived,” she said.

“A lot of people helped her along the way without knowing,” said Briesemeister, “Some people did probably know that she was hiding out, but they didn’t reveal her. Without the help of those people, she would have been sent to a concentration camp.”

It was not always easy for Zimering. She was very close to being discovered one time.

Briesemeister said, “They pulled her in because someone had suspected that they were not who they said they were. An officer brought them and questioned them quite severely. He slapped her across the face and told her to stop lying. This was what he did. She said that he knew that they were lying, but just that second, someone had come in concerned that he had missed a meeting. They were let go and they never came back to find them.

“She’s very fortunate and she feels very lucky to be here and be able to live a life. One of the things she said that’s not in the film is how she gets very upset about waste and how much food is wasted here. She just remembers what it was like when they had no food. Waste is not acceptable. It’s really difficult for her to see any kind of waste.”

Briesemeister learned a lot from Zimering’s story, but more than anything, she felt, “It certainly gave me a new perspective of the Holocaust story. She had to do what she had to do to survive. She didn’t want to live her life like that. She was a devout Jewish girl. She did what she had to do like many Jewish people at the time.”

She was able to obtain false papers from her teacher. They were also close family friends who owned a coal factory. This family had two daughters about the same age as Zimering, and they also had a special needs child whom Zimering helped. When it came time that the ghetto was being cleaned out, Zimering and her family approached them to help them. They thought about it for a few days, but they agreed.

The family of 50 split up so they would have a better chance of surviving. She and her sister were the most fortunate.

“It was kind of amazing. One of the things that she talks about is that after the war, they thought that was the end. They never thought that anything like this could ever happen again. And yet, she says look at the world today. You think we would learn our lessons,” said Briesemeister.

Overall, Briesemeister will treasure the time she had with Zimering, but she continues to look forward for more film ideas. It’s hard for her to believe that years ago, in high school, she did not have they ability to produce films.

“In high school, there was no such thing as video production, back in the old days,” recalled Briesemeister.

“I guess I started becoming interested in film during my first few years of teaching when I helped students with television production,” she said, “I was looking for other venues for children to use that medium, instead of a pencil and paper. It was another way to express information that they had learned.”

“In the last few years, I just decided that I really want to start working on my own films. I decided I wanted to take some classes around people who were actually in the field. I joined the IFP (Independent Film Producers), where I took a lot of classes. It’s been very useful with gaining the connections and resources,” she said.

Briesemeister did a film last year for the Minnesota Historical Society. That was her first film for the ‘Greatest Generation.’

Personally, Briesemeister enjoys doing films about unique people who do interesting things. Currently, Briesemeister is working on a film about the swans in Monticello, and she is also working on another documentary film about a dental hygienist who dresses a bear statue outside the shop in different clothing.

“One thing I’ve found when filming for Greatest Generations is that there are so many people with stories. You just never know what stories someone has hidden in their back yard. There are so many interesting people out there,” said Briesemeister.

When it comes to putting the film together, Briesemeister confessed, “I love to do the editing. That’s probably my favorite thing once I get the filming done. But one thing that I’ve liked about when I just started out was that it really got me out of my comfort zone.

“Just randomly calling someone, that’s really hard for me to do. It’s hard for me to go to some stranger’s house and make it comfortable enough for them to open up. That’s been the most challenging aspect for me. I work alone, so I have to set up the camera and do the interview. It’s kind of a one-girl show. It’s a lot of work.”

Briesemeister understands the work load so it’s not hard for her to sympathize with her students.

“In terms of teaching a film class, you understand a lot more when you expect students to do something like this, where their problems are going to be and what kind of preparation they need, because you’ve done it yourself.

“You haven’t just assigned it. It’s really in the forefront of my thinking of what they need to get what they want accomplished,” she said.

Briesemeister especially likes the film festival at the end of the year, when all the student’s films are shown at the Muller Family Theatre.

Briesemeister commented, “I just think that’s been a really neat way to highlight the student’s work. It’s one thing to show it at school. It’s a different medium to be out there showing it to the public. It feels more like a real event.”

When asked what she felt students gained from this class, Briesemeister said, “Well, if they get everything done, I think there’s a lot of sense of pride in completing it because it’s just as much work as any of the advanced courses. I think if you keep up and get things done, you really get a sense of how organized you can be and get things done. I don’t know too many products that students can produce for a day where they feel really proud to show other people. Many times, students will come down here in between classes just to show friends their films. How many times do you do that with a paper or a poster? They want to be able to show off their work when they get done. They’re proud of it and they want people to see it.”

When it comes to making a film, Briesemeister knows quite well that there’s more than what meets the eye. She reiterated, “You don’t realize how much time it actually takes. I think most of the time, kids figure out that it takes a ton of time, a lot of footage, organizing it, and finding the actors. Actors are a huge piece of it. Organizing the schedule of it can be a huge barrier for the kids.”

It truly is a joy for Briesemeister to teach video production. She smiled as she said, “I thoroughly enjoy it. I look forward to the opportunity of the class when they all come in. Almost every student has been able to produce something, even when they came in thinking that they can’t do it. Maybe not every single one of their films has been a gem, but at least one of their films has been very interesting and something they can be proud of. I look forward to having kids come back and take independent studies. They come back here and come up with some really interesting ideas.”

Continuing, she said, “There have been enough kids in the class that are actually thinking of this as more than just a hobby, like more along the lines of a career. That’s fun for me to know, that something that you did just ignited a little piece of them that they didn’t know was there.”

As a film maker, Briesemeister believes that her journey has just begun. Thinking of the future, she said, “Right now, I feel like I’ve just scratched the tip of the iceberg. I’ve done mostly short films, but I would maybe like to do something a little bit longer.”

Briesemeister has a semi-professional Panasonic camcorder. Unlike the typical household camcorder, hers comes with many buttons and gadgets that Briesemeister is still getting used to. When working alone, it’s crucial to know the manual of the camcorder backwards and forwards.

In commenting about her equipment, she also said, “Having the proper equipment is everything. There are so many pieces to remember. The equipment means that there are more bells and whistles and more things to forget. You can make more mistakes, but in the end, it’s just worth it because if you’re going to show it anywhere, you need to have good raw footage to begin with. Sound and lighting are very important. It needs to be quality.”

Briesemeister has considered directing written films, but she tends to stray more towards documentaries because she loves being able to tell a person’s story. Most definitely, Briesemeister is a behind-the-camera kind of person. She sees no acting in her future.

Briesemeister also wants to bestow a bit of gratitude to her husband, Ed, for always being so supportive of her hobby, and also to her students.

She is always looking for actors to participate in her films. If you want to ask her a question, feel free to give her a call at (763) 972-6987.

Also, if you are a student at Delano High School, feel free to come to her classroom in the middle school. She would be more than pleased to talk with you.

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