Jon-Sesrie Goff Hits the Ground Running in Duke’s MFAEDA
This past fall, Jon-Sesrie Goff moved from Philadelphia to Durham to enroll in Duke’s Master of Fine Arts In Experimental and Documentary Arts (MFAEDA) program. In the ten years since he graduated from The New School, his work ranged broadly through both marketing and media production. Most recently, he was a camera operator for two feature documentaries—“Evolution of a Criminal,” a double award winner at the 2014 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, and “Out in the Night.” Both will be shown on PBS this year. He also taught filmmaking classes at Villanova and Westchester University.
When he decided to return to school for graduate work, the focus on non-traditional storytelling in Duke’s MFAEDA caught his attention. The fact that computational media was built into the core curriculum—something he didn’t see in a lot of other programs—was a big draw. Another plus was something he did not find in the core curriculum at Duke but did find in other programs—courses like Introduction to Production, which, given his experience, didn’t seem like the best use of his time. The program at Duke allowed him to hit the ground running, so, as he says, “I’m making work now and not in my second year.”
One semester in, he has a major project underway, an exploration of the ways African American families in the North “have maintained relationships to communities and land in the Gullah-Geechee coastal region, from Hampstead, NC to St. Augustine, FL and the rituals and traditions that have been preserved there.” The ties date back to the twentieth century’s Great Migration northward of six million African Americans.
The idea emerged from the course Documenting Personal Narrative, taught by visiting professor Marco Williams. It’s rooted in Goff’s own history. His family owns land in South Carolina that has been passed down since Reconstruction.
“It’s just barren land, nothing’s on there,” he says, “so I’m using that to see what stake I personally have in South Carolina considering that I was raised in the Northeast.”
Initially, Goff has taken a traditional documentary approach. “I conducted a couple of interviews of family members and did a visual treatment of the land as it exists now. And I spent some time researching old deeds and things like that.”
Those are just the first steps towards a “more experimental or non-traditional way of telling the story.” One possibility he’s considering is to drive down the coast, documenting it at fixed increments. The idea was an outgrowth of Bill Noland’s course, The Ongoing Moment.
“That course and David Gatten’s Experiments in the Moving Image are helping me identify experimental treatments of this documentary work,” Goff says.
His subject is much larger than his family’s story. The U.S. is in the midst of a reverse migration. As “the concentrations of black communities shift from North to South for the first time in decades,” Goff writes, “I am interrogating what stake millennials have in this region’s preservation.”
Goff was also attracted to Duke’s MFAEDA because it’s based at a major research university instead of a specialized art school.
“Having a curriculum that’s open enough to allow you to take classes in any department or any school on campus is really enriching if you’re trying to tell a good solid story,” he says. “To be able to talk to anthropologists or scientists and get their perspective to inform your work is just as useful as talking to cinematographers and editors on how to technically complete it.”
Those resources, it turns out, extend beyond Duke’s campus. Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies coordinates the Lehman Brady Chair, a joint professorship hosted by Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill. Marco Williams, this year’s occupant, played a key role in setting Goff’s project in motion. And MFAEDA program director Tom Rankin has helped Goff connect with other documentarians and researchers familiar with the Gullah-Geechee region. One is an American Studies graduate student Rankin is advising at UNC, whose more theoretical perspective complements Goff’s aesthetic, narrative approach.
Goff has found that the program’s broad intellectual resources attract a fascinating collection of students, and they’re doing work that’s “amazing and out of the box.”
“Our interests are widespread and diverse,” he says, “but we’re able to connect through this medium that we all share in common.”