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Review: We Rock Long Distance

October 2, 2015

Learning to Film a Music Performance with Justin Schell (We Rock Long Distance)

Workshop group
Justin Schell with Filming Music Performance workshop participants
outside Falstaff's

Roslyn Wertheimer, 16

If you wanted to know anything about being a documentarian, then Justin Schell's Filming a Music Performance was the residency for you. On campus September 22–24, Schell led a workshop, met with classes, and organized a hip-hop performance—a whirlwind three-day visit. If you wanted to learn something about hip hop, then this was the workshop for you. If you wanted to have insight into some cultures around the world, then you guessed it, this was the workshop for you. 

The September 23 MDOCS workshop focusing around the documentary We Rock Long Distance had all of these elements—which made students with very different majors come together in a two-part interdisciplinary experience. 

Schell, Isa and Lee

On Tuesday afternoon, the workshop started off with Justin Schell introducing his documentary film We Rock Long Distance (trailer) and practice to a small group of students, several from host Liz Macy's "Music of Southeast Asia" class (music), and describing some of the technical processes that went into making his film. The film focuses on three hip-hop artists: Maria Isa, Tou Saiko Lee and M.anifest. All three of them have roots in Minnesota (where Schell is also from), but equally deep ties (family, cultural and more) in countries around the world. Maria Isa has roots in Puerto Rico, Tou Saiko Lee in Thailand, and M.anifest in Ghana. But of course, Schell needed the funds to travel around the world to film in these beautiful places, which was a difficulty that he shared in the workshop. He also shared how some venues do not have the best sound system, and that proved to be challenging when he stands by the idea that “good audio makes your video look better.” So in light of this fact, Schell and the students in the workshop went over to Falstaffs, the venue where the concert would take place two days later. The students got to toy with the cameras and microphones, provided by MDOCS, and figure out where the best angle would be for the cameras and where the best spot would be for recording audio. 

Wednesday, September 24, the next day, was the screening of Schell’s film. The majority of the audience was expecting that the film would focus more on hip hop and the music that the artists would create. But in a nice turn of events, the film really showcased the families that supported these talented artists, and gradually the film was less about music and more about these families around the globe. You could not help but smile when Maria Isa was with her loving grandma, who only said the kindest things about her. Or when Tou Saik’s grandma did a duet with him on stage. For M.anifest, it was his mother in Ghana who was so happy to see her son as they celebrated her birthday for the first time together in 10 years. It was also his grandfather, in which M.anifest soon realized that he had much more in common with him than he thought. His grandfather wrote poetry in the 1940s, and M.anifest could not help but draw the connections between his grandfather’s poetry and his own lyrics he writes for his raps. But all of these families simply supported what they were doing, and that is where the love of hip hop came from.

J. Schell workshop in filming music performanye
Schell workshop on filming music
performance @ Falstaff's

The next night was the big night, the show where Maria Isa, Tou SaiK, and Reskape would all come together and perform on campus. RES KP was not highlighted in the documentary, but has been to Skidmore’s campus before to perform and also has Senegalese roots, so it only made sense to add him to the docket as well. They each took their turns performing their sets, and the crowd absolutely loved them. 

One student mentioned, “To be honest, I was not planning on staying for the whole show, but when I heard the talent that was coming out of these performers, and because the energy in the room was so high, I knew I would be mad at myself if I had left.”  Another student boasted about the diversity of the show saying, “For my four years at Skidmore, there has not been one time where there were three performers from different cultures all on one stage at Falstaffs.” 

To say the least, the show was a success and was loved by all. Schell declared that the next step would be to show We Rock Long Distance in Puerto Rico, Thailand and Ghana, in order to truly show how their families and their music have shaped their lives.

Missed the event? Get a taste of the performance with this time-lapse video accompanied by a Maria Isa track!

Time-lapse video. Roslyn Wertheimer.

The We Rock Long Distance residency was supported by Skidmore’s Department of Music, MDOCS, Speakers Bureau, the Department of World Languages and Literatures, Asian Studies program, International Affairs program, Hip Hop Alliance, Lively Lucy’s and Raices.