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Lights, Camera, Activism

Tufts film production students work on a Hollywood-caliber video about an unsung 19th-century civil rights activist

Not many people have heard of the name Ellen Garrison. But that’s about to change.

This past fall, Tufts film students transformed a small historic house in Concord, Massachusetts, into a bustling movie set. The short film that resulted, Ellen Garrison: Scenes from an Activist’s Life, chronicles Garrison’s experiences as an abolitionist, civil rights activist, and educator who after the Civil War taught formerly enslaved people in the South how to read and write.

Students worked side by side with some 80 actors and 30 crew—directors, cinematographers, and sound engineers—to bring Garrison’s story to life—complete with petticoats and a fife and drum band. The students joined community members, faculty, and industry professionals on the set.

Ellen Garrison: Scenes from an Activist’s Life is the latest story from The Half the History Project, an initiative founded by Tufts faculty members Jennifer Burton and Julie Dobrow, that seeks to highlight the stories of American women that have been overlooked throughout history. 

“Only 18% of the biographies on Wikipedia are biographies of women, which is really kind of stunning when you think that women make up about half the population,” says Dobrow, senior lecturer at Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development. “Not only are women’s lives underrepresented in the filmic record, in the biographical record, and the historigraphical record, but the stories of underrepresented women—Black women, Indigenous women, Latinas, Asian, Asian American Pacific Islander women—are even more underrepresented. There are huge gaps to try to fill.”

In addition to contributing to a more accurate historical record, Half the History is also an educational opportunity for Tufts students to be a part of a professional film crew. 

“Students were involved in all areas of production, from casting and going over the script, scouting locations, and figuring out the transportation—the kinds of things that are the nitty-gritty of being a producer,” says Burton, professor of the practice in Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies. “When you’re able to actually make something that you care about making all together, it brings it all to life.”

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