Professor Captures French Liberation via Unique Documentaries
Seventy-years after Allied forces liberated the people of Paimpol, France, during World War II, Richard Berrong, Ph.D, professor of French in the Department of Modern and Classical Language Studies at Kent State University, decided to document part of the story that he felt has not been told.
The professor traveled to France to do something he had never done – create a documentary film. In the end, he made two: “C’était la joie!” and “On avait plutôt peur.”
His first film covers the two to three weeks it took for American soldiers to liberate Paimpol, while the second film examines what it was like to live in France during German occupation.
Soon after completing the first film, rumors of a documentary involving the history of Paimpol began to circulate in the small French town community, population 7,199. Soon enough, the press got word of the project, and Dr. Berrong’s face was shown across the French media.
“I remember once I was walking down the street on the way to dinner, and a woman came up to me and said, ‘Are you the person making the movies about World War II?’ I said ‘Yes,’ and she said, ‘My grandmother would like to speak with you, she has stories she wants to tell you,” Dr. Berrong said.
“It’s strange. I’ve never had that before.”
From the outside, it’s an odd calling. Dr. Berrong did not live through the war and does not consider himself an historian. Maybe most surprising, he has never taken a video-editing course.
So how did a kid who grew up in Wisconsin with no film experience become a well-known filmmaker in France?
Making The Connection
Proficient in French and teaching in the Modern and Classical Language Department in the College of Arts and Sciences since 1985, Dr. Berrong boasts an expertise that also includes 19th century French literature, Pierre Loti Literature and Impressionism and the occupation and liberation of France.
Dr. Berrong realized through teaching online courses that students often became bored with continuously using an online classroom, so he wanted to adjust his teaching style to make the course more interesting. This is when he decided to create video lectures.
Using a $200 camcorder and basic editing software, Dr. Berrong discovered that he could do some rather interesting things. As a result, he became inspired to embark on a new project – this time, a project unlike any other.
Because passing down the stories of WWII to future generations is important to the French, Dr. Berrong felt a sense of responsibility to capture the stories from the sources themselves. He set out to conduct personal interviews, recording deep conversations with more than 80 people.
“While I’m interviewing them, some of them have said to me, ‘I see him as I see you now,’ and I realize that as they’re telling me their memories, it’s like it’s happening on a screen in front of them,” he said.
“C’était la joie!” is not a typical documentary. The film is about the hardships of living in France during WWII, especially for the youth. Dr. Berrong aimed to capture the attention of his audience through the emotion of reliving these personal memories.
“I really want the audience to be seized by the emotion of these people as they tell what it was like to live through the war,” he said.
After Dr. Berrong completed the first version of the first film, “C’était la joie!,” he headed to the local movie theater, Cinébreiz, in Paimpol. This particular theater often rents out the auditorium for lectures, which gave Dr. Berrong an idea.
He asked the owners of Cinébreiz the cost to rent out the theater to show his movie to the people he had interviewed. The owners of Cinébreiz asked to watch the movie, and after viewing it, they had something else in mind – something Dr. Berrong did not see coming.
The owners were so impressed with his documentary, they chose to show it as a regular movie.
“I did not imagine having a movie that was going to be shown to a general public,” he said.
Expecting just 30 to 40 people in the audience, Dr. Berrong had, once again, another surprise coming.
At about a half an hour prior to the movie playing, the theater had to turn away eager movie-goers left and right. Every seat was taken.
“It felt like the highest high you could possibly imagine,” he said. “I was floating on air.”
Dr. Berrong said that seeing something he had worked so hard to create being shown to a packed house with a standing ovation in a commercial movie theater was extraordinary.
The most enjoyable part of the process for Dr. Berrong was conducting the interviews and building connections with the community members in Paimpol. He loved to hear their stories and learn more about living in France during WWII.
Dr. Berrong plans to continue to make documentaries on French history and is already working on a third film. Back in France, he is establishing a prize for someone under the age of 18 to interview people and produce a similar project.
“I’ve learned this is the best way to deal with life is just to accept that things you can’t see are going to come and you try and make the best of them. And sometimes they’re really great.”