February 17, 2020

‘Dear Miss Conrad:’ Review

Dear Miss Conrad is an impressive cinematic experience completely handcrafted by Capital students. On Jan. 20, Dear Miss Conrad premiered at the Drexel Theater to a sold-out audience. 

The production — comprised of only students —  was spearheaded by director, Mary Clare Kunkel, alongside producer, Blake Sheely. 

This is the crew behind the Dear Miss Conrad documentary. Photo taken by Robert Cumberlander.

The movie, which is a documentary of Capital’s campus during World War II, was created over the course of a semester as part of the immersion class, which last semester was supervised by Dr. Betsy Pike and Dr. Andrew Carlson. 

“I’ve never had a better experience working with a group of people,” Rocky Jorgensen, a lead writer on the documentary, said.

Much of the film crew is made up of people who previously worked on another immersion class documentary, Capital in the Sixties.

The documentary as a whole is an incredible display of the prowess that many students have to offer in the fields of filmmaking and history. 

Dear Miss Conrad centers around Dorothea Conrad, Capital’s head librarian during the U.S. entrance into World War II. During this time, soldiers would write letters to her detailing their hopes and sentiments. 

Fortunately, Conrad held onto many of these letters, and all these years later, a new generation of students rediscovered them. The movie also dives into the unique perspective of people with German heritage that didn’t associate themselves with the Nazis party at the time. This is something that’s neglected in a lot of documentaries.

All of this is brought together by the power of filmmaking and historical investigation. The movie sports a great collection of impressive filmmaking techniques. 

Whether that be the incredible cinematography by Caleb Long and Professor Daniel Stemen, or the lifelike animation work by Matthew Longfellow. 

“It’s just amazing getting to see something that I worked on up on the big screen,” said Matthew Longfellow, lead animator.

The movie also has some incredible B-roll shots and photographs that really reinforce what is being talked about on screen. All of the digitization work really paid off.

Of course, the finished movie is not without flaws, though. One issue in particular are the interview shots. 

Many of the interviewees are situated on the right side of the frame, while the left side is filled with negative space. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. The problem is that the majority of the interviews are shot in this exact same manner, which can leave them feeling stale. 

It’s important to change up the camera angle in between interviews to add some variety and flair. Also, it might’ve been a good idea to change up the backgrounds. No matter who is being interviewed, the audience is constantly seeing these stained glass windows in the background of the shots. It’s best when the background is representative of the interviewee’s personality and interests. 

Another noticeable problem was that there seemed to be no clear climax to the story. Honestly, there wasn’t a strong sense of a beginning, middle, or end. Documentaries are supposed to be no different than fictional narratives. They should take you on winding journeys. 

There were times where it felt as if information was just being thrown out instead of just having it flow naturally. The information felt rushed.

That’s actually where the movie would’ve benefited from being longer. A fascinating story was told, but it would’ve been interesting to dive deeper into people such as Miss Conrad and Otto Mees who played important roles during that time.

“There were captivating things about Dr. Otto Mees that didn’t make it into the 30 minute film, which is a shame,” Jorgensen said.

When documentaries are plotted and executed exceptionally, they can actually be way more entertaining and interesting than any fictional movie. 

Reality has the capacity to be far more fascinating than fantasy, the challenge is trying to capture that. 

Audience members attending the premiere of Dear Miss Conrad.

Great examples of how to do it correctly are movies such as Fyre and American Animals. To be fair and balanced though, those movies did have much larger crews, and handled stories that took place in present times, which makes it easier to retell those events because of the wealth of records. 

When you’re dealing with older subject matter such as World War II, it can be more challenging to find diverse documents and firsthand accounts, which is what happened with this project here. 

The further you go back in time, the more challenging it’s going to be to tell a strong, richly-detailed story because the people that can tell it best have already passed away. 

Every documentarian should keep that in mind. Pick your subject matter wisely. 

  • Robert Cumberlander is a staff reporter for The Chimes and a sophomore at Capital University, majoring in Film and Media Production with a minor in Entrepreneurship.

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