Award-winning Brooklyn College faculty filmmaker documents the tenuous relationship between human beings and their environment.

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Christman's Lens

Dec. 30, 2013

Assistant Professor Sarah J. Christman is the creator of six acclaimed documentaries that have been showcased around the globe.

Assistant Professor of Film Sarah J. Christman and her family turned her stepfather into a diamond.

The process by which this occurred was covered in Christman's award-winning documentary As Above, So Below, which was screened at the Museum of Modern Art during its "Documentary Fortnight" event in February.

Christman's stepfather, who had died of an aggressive form of cancer, was cremated. Looking for a way to honor him as well as keep his remains in something other than a traditional urn, Christman's family did some research and discovered that they could have a portion of his remains turned into a memorial diamond. The family mailed his ashes to a company that provides this service, and through a process involving enormous heat and pressure (very similar to how diamonds are formed in nature, only much quicker), the ashes were transformed. Christman's mother now wears the gem, in the form of a pendant, around her neck.

In addition to it being an act of love and remembrance, for Christman it was also a deeply personal approach to the subject of sustainability, a theme at the heart of all of her films. The memorial diamond frames a larger investigation into the recycling of matter. The film's subjects range from Belgium, where precious metals are extracted from discarded electronics, to Staten Island's Fresh Kills landfill, now being transformed into a public park.

"My films center on big issues, observed through a personal lens. I aim to raise questions about our relationship to our environment, but ask the viewer to contend with these questions in a way that is intimate and subjective."

Christman, a Philadelphia native who studied at both Oberlin College and Temple University, did not initially intend to be a filmmaker. Her foray into the arts began with painting, but she quickly realized that she was unable to convey a crucial element, the passage of time, through that art form.  Once introduced to video—video editing in particular—Christman immediately realized that she was able to use time to the degree she desired.

Christman has made herself at home in Brooklyn and utilizes it as inspiration for her work. Two of her films, Gowanus Canal and Broad Channel, examine environmentally impacted parts of the borough and surrounding areas, and encourages viewers to grapple with how human and industrial waste present a challenge in keeping those waterways sustainable. For Broad Channel, she tapped into Brooklyn College's history of involvement in the restoration of Jamaica Bay and sought insight from one of the college's resident experts on efforts to restore and protect the bay, Assistant Professor Brett Branco

"I was interested in the research he does with his students concerning threats to the ecosystem, the problems of erosion and algae blooms, how sewage overflow relates to the chemical composition of the water," Christman said. "While I take an expressive rather than informational approach, this context informs my own engagement with the subject."

Christman's As Above, So Below was the recipient of the Ann Arbor Film Festival Jury Prize.

Christman, who teaches film editing and documentary production, enjoys working at Brooklyn College because of the opportunities for collaboration. She has the privilege of helping to shape the curriculum for Brooklyn College's upcoming Barry R. Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema at Steiner Studios, which will be the first graduate film school in the country to be situated on a working film lot. Working at the college also permits her the time to work on and cultivate her own filmmaking, and the Professional Staff Congress-City University of New York (PSC-CUNY) Research Awards for faculty that she has received have been crucial in allowing her to finance her projects. She is also inspired by the students themselves.

"Brooklyn College serves such a diverse group of students, and these students have the conviction, and are willing to make the sacrifices necessary, to be exemplary filmmakers. The wonderful, refreshing thing about them is their distinct lack of entitlement. This is a really rewarding student body to teach."

It is not lost on her that being a woman makes her a minority in the field of film, and she is cognizant of the problems surrounding gender, race, and minority representation in front of the camera and behind it.

"There is no question that men, women, and minorities are equally suited to the individual crafts and professional fields within filmmaking. I've been really fortunate to have positive role models and mentors."

She is glad that she can serve as a role model and has some advice for Brooklyn College's future filmmakers.

"Learn your craft and your technique. Don't underestimate yourself. As a woman or a minority, access is always going to be more of a challenge. For inspiration, look toward the people ahead of you; not just people who are already successful, but people who are just ahead of you. Hold on to the collaborative relationships you form at Brooklyn College. Above all, don't compromise on telling your own stories."

To learn more about Christman and her work, please visit her website.

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