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Student Documentary: Capturing the Spirit of Oakland

This blog post below and the accompanying documentary on Historic Oakland Foundation’s Capturing the Spirit tours were created by former SCAD student Nicholas Jensen.

The Capturing the Spirit tours in October are a great way to get acquainted with Oakland Cemetery. Last year’s 2021’s festivities were a return to form coming out of COVID-19. I was an assistant tour guide playing the role of Sam Downs, a resident of Oakland and umpire of Atlanta’s first baseball game. The volunteers’ excitement had me eager to observe. Later that night, after helping with the tours, I quite literally switched hats into my filmmaking alter-ego and followed the last tours of the evening with my camera. The theatricality on display gave me a reason to capture their spirit and to create a short subject documentary engaging my audience by amplifying their voices.

My experience with this project began at the start of the fall quarter of my final year at SCAD. Taking a documentary course and choosing Oakland Cemetery as my subject, I was fortunate to connect with insightful staff members who have a real passion for making the cemetery unique. Becoming acquainted with volunteer Bill Terry as he closes the Visitor Center and observing the preservation techniques of Ashley Shares are aspects I gravitated to, but there is much more that should be experienced in person. Famous residents, Victorian stylings, and historical landmarks are attributed to the vast network of pathways easy to get lost in. The scale and beauty of Oakland is daunting, but the community works tirelessly to engage visitors and make geographical sense of its size. The cemetery is a peaceful, serene, and enlightening sanctum protected as Atlanta grows around it.

My film serves as a crash course on all these things and more. There is so much to tell, and I filled this documentary with as much broad information as I could. Providing an objective overview, former HOF education manager Marcy Breffle articulately narrates a brief history, referring to Oakland as a “microcosm of Atlanta.” I wouldn’t choose to understand the city in any other way. Researching this film has helped me understand why the story of Atlanta is especially relevant. Cemeteries are a symbol of the living past, and Oakland exists to remind us how far the city has come. It’s important to view cemeteries as places of life rather than death, especially here, where there is a lot to learn from Oakland’s story.

I hope you enjoy my film, Capturing the Spirit of Oakland Cemetery. It is a teaching tool for me, and I am grateful to be a part of the cemetery’s current narrative.

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