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Lives in Focus

When senior Emily Mervosh had to stop playing music, she made a film about a budding musician – and found a story she felt she just had to tell

Brighton resident Genesis (left) and her mother Nidia are the subjects of a documentary by Emily Mervosh ’14 (right). (Photo by Caitlin Cunningham)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: May 8, 2014

A musician from a young age, senior Emily Mervosh has long believed that music is a positive influence on the lives of children – and an increasingly precious commodity for many, she adds, given how school arts programs tend to be first in line for cutbacks.

Now, Mervosh has captured that belief on film, in a documentary she directed and produced about a Boston-area schoolgirl who, through a Boston College program, has been able to discover the joys of playing music. Mervosh’s “Genesis” – supported through BC’s Advanced Study Grant Program and Jacques Salmanowitz Program for Moral Courage in Film – had its official screening at last month’s BC Arts Festival.

The film’s titular subject, 11-year-old Genesis (pronounced “HEN-a-cease”), the daughter of El Salvadoran immigrants, had never played an instrument until she took up clarinet via BC’s Music Outreach Program, in which undergraduates give free music lessons to children in the Gardner Pilot Academy of Allston – where Genesis is a student – and Brighton High School.

In the course of the 12-minute film, the effervescent, loquacious Genesis is shown working with her BC music tutor, sophomore Josie Bearden, practicing clarinet at home, and making her performance debut at the Music Outreach recital. In other scenes, she talks about her enjoyment of music, and its place in her life: “I feel like I’m in my own little world,” she says at one point.

Those vignettes give the film a complex emotional quality, especially with the insights provided by Genesis’ mother, Nidia. Even as she expresses her happiness and hope for Genesis, Nidia talks of the challenges posed by their difficult socioeconomic status and family situation. In the end, even with Genesis’ triumphant moment at the recital, it’s hard not to wonder whether her zeal and infectious spirit can surmount the obstacles.  

A film can be as much about the filmmaker as the subject, and “Genesis” represents a special feat for Mervosh, who had to overcome her own setbacks. When a repetitive stress injury forced her to stop playing music early on at BC, she channeled her expression into the unfamiliar medium of film, only to see her first project fizzle. Now, preparing to leave BC, Mervosh – who’s quick to note the assistance and support of numerous people, from Genesis and Nidia to her cinematographer Maram Taibah and editor Jennifer Bagley to her family, among others – has a unique keepsake of four very eventful years at the Heights.

“I’m grateful to so many people,” says Mervosh, a communication major with a minor in philosophy from Westbury, NY. “The resources, the mentoring, the encouragement I’ve received have been incredible. One of the most important things I’ve found here is that BC wants you to go beyond the familiar – even if you don’t succeed at first – and seek different ways to use what you have.

“They’re both so upbeat, with such life-affirming energy, and have a wonderful relationship,” says Mervosh of Genesis and her mother Nidia. The two attended the premiere of Mervosh’s film at the BC Arts Festival." (Photo by Caitlin Cunningham)

“Music has always been a part of me, but when I lost the ability to play, I realized I had to find another outlet to share this part of myself. I was excited to delve into a new type of art.”

Mervosh had never taken a film class – much less tried making a film – before BC, but inspired by a documentary about an orchestra of both Israeli and Palestinian musicians, she decided to produce one herself about a similar initiative in Northern Ireland that seeks to build understanding between Catholic and Protestant youths. Supported by funding from BC and a Kickstarter campaign, Mervosh hired a film crew, traveled to Northern Ireland in August of 2012, and began doing interviews.

But Mervosh realized the project was simply not working out: She couldn’t quite get the story into focus as she had hoped, and didn’t have enough supplementary footage to go along with the interviews. Her anxiety grew; the low point, she recalls, was talking to her aunt – a film producer herself – by phone on a rainy Dublin street and asking whether she should continue or give up.

“She said she couldn’t make the decision for me,” says Mervosh, “and that was the best advice she could’ve given me.”
The experience, although disappointing, did not deter Mervosh from her goal. On the contrary, she learned some valuable lessons: For one, she had a better idea of how to create and plan out a project – “Look for something more local, and focus on one, smaller story.”  

Where things came apart in her Northern Ireland project, they now started falling into place for Mervosh. Working for BC’s Arts and Social Responsibility Project, she learned about Music Outreach, and after speaking with program director and Music faculty member Barbara Gawlick, felt she might have found the story she wanted to tell. During a visit to the Gardner School to interview potential subjects, she happened upon Bearden and Genesis at the tail end of their lesson.  
“Genesis came right up, shook my hand, asked about my project and whether she could be in it,” recalls Mervosh. “I just had a gut feeling, an intuition about her: ‘If this works out, she’s my person.’”

As the project unfolded, and Mervosh got to know Genesis and Nidia better, she saw there was a larger story emerging. “The film became more about Nidia’s journey to seek a better life, and trying to provide for her daughter. They’re both so upbeat, with such life-affirming energy, and have a wonderful relationship. Genesis has dreams to be a musician, and the talent is definitely there: She progressed very quickly in a short time, working with Josie.

“And Genesis was easy and open, as if the camera wasn’t even there. She was very thoughtful and articulate, and just came out with some amazing things – there’s one part where she talks about how the notes on the clarinet ‘sound like little bubbles.’”

For Mervosh, the project’s epiphany is the recital scene: With her parents in attendance, Genesis stands before the audience and plays “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”; when she finishes, the audience applauds, and Genesis raises her arms and smiles in palpable joy.

“I never saw anyone react that way in a concert – never,” says Mervosh. “She just exploded with happiness, and it touched me very deeply. Seeing her strengthened my belief in the power that music has to make a difference in our lives. You know it does for Genesis.”

Contemplating the simultaneous completion of the project and her BC years is bittersweet, says Mervosh, who will return to New York after graduation. Alongside the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment is the loss of closeness with Genesis and Nidia after so much time spent together. However, mother and daughter were both present for the film screening in Devlin 008, and Genesis joined Mervosh – with characteristic enthusiasm – for a brief Q&A afterwards.

“I was a little nervous about what they would think of the film, but they seemed to like it,” says Mervosh. “I really learned a lot from them over the past year, and I feel fortunate to share their experiences and insights. They’ve come to mean so much to me; I’ll keep in touch with them, but the goodbyes are always hard.”