‘Why Trenton?” It’s a tough question, and Purcell Carson knows it.
Carson is a documentary filmmaker who teaches urban studies and film at Princeton University. As a film editor in long-form documentary, she has worked on the Oscar-winning “Smile Pinki” and the 2011 film “Semper Fi: Always Faithful,” which earned her a best-editing award at the Tribeca Film Festival.
But for the past five years Carson has been producing “The Trenton Project” — a series of short films by Princeton University students on various subjects taking place in Trenton. Its fifth annual debut is scheduled for Tuesday, January 23, at 6 p.m. at Artworks in Trenton.
Carson is conducting the course with Alison Isenberg, a Princeton history professor specializing in the transformation of cities. Together they are looking into Trenton’s past and examining the tumultuous events of the 1960s.
“Trenton is unexamined,” Carson says, addressing the above question in a Princeton University conference room 13 miles from the capital city. “Newark and the New York area get a lot of attention, but not Trenton. Most media is focused on a very narrow slice of the world — places that are really popular in media culture or occupied by the elite. Trenton doesn’t get that kind of attention outside of the immediate area. The people we’re talking to have lived in Trenton for 50 years and know what it’s like to be a Trentonian for half a century.
“So we have the opportunity to make a genuine contribution to the study of New Jersey. At the same time, as filmmakers, we also try to think poetically about why we’re making these films. No matter where we’re from, we all have to figure out what our lives mean and what the place we’re from means to us.”
“Princeton is a place that’s often associated with elite stories,” she says, glancing around at the room’s long, well-polished wooden table and large chandelier hanging overhead. “But we can use the university to push back and shine a light on different kinds of stories. Taking a filmmaking class and focusing it on a local area can be really rewarding. It’s an amazing place to take urban studies students and be able to experience the complexity of a big city with the accessibility of a small town.”
The Trenton Project’s website — www.thetrentonproject.com — provides a history of the project and the opportunity for the general public to view the collection of short films.
In 2013 the students focused on home, housing, and urban development and created short documentaries on various issues. Here one can find and view “Has Everyone Abandoned Trenton?” a film addressing the issues of abandoned properties from the perspective of Trenton resident and retired fire chief Dennis Kennan. “Refugee, Refugee” follows a Rwandan refugee’s routine as she attempts to provide for her children. And “Transitions” follows a family’s journey using the Mercer County Board of Social Services to move from homelessness and mental health problems.
In 2014 the theme was “Work Makes A City” and looked at people attempting to support themselves in a post-industrial community. Films included “Z Line,” about the shuttle providing Trenton Amazon employees a reliable transportation source to work in the suburbs; “Kyla,” about a young woman working as a carpenter’s apprentice; and “Workers Unprotected,” an exploration of Latin American immigrants and wage theft.
The selected theme for 2015 was “Sanctuaries in the City,” where “individuals gather — away from the immediate economic and social pressures of inner-city living — and together re-imagine and reweave the fabric of their community.” The films include interviews with poets, street artists, and soup kitchen patrons who have centered their lives on music as a passion, ambition, and career.
And in 2016 it was “The 1960s: Looking Back, Moving Forward,” with films examining the impact of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on the people of Trenton, the ensuing riots hurting an already ailing downtown Trenton, and a Trenton still waiting for recovery.
The films included “The Light That Shines from Within” and “Mapping Trenton,” both dealing with the tragic death of Harlan Joseph, the only person to die in the Trenton riots; “Protest,” an examination of the Civil Rights movement in Trenton; “A Game of Inches,” focusing on three Trenton High School alumnae whose quest for higher education was impeded by prejudice against their gender, class, and race; “Heart of Trenton,” a profile of longtime Trenton merchants who remain hopeful for the city’s future; and “Keeping Jazz Alive,” a story of E.C. and Valarie Bradley and keeping Trenton jazz alive at their Candlelight Lounge.
Carson says as the projects have progressed, the topics have become more specific, focusing on individual residents of Trenton and how their lives are connected to larger issues affecting urban communities all over the country.
And after starting the project by getting to know Trenton from the outside in, she says after five years she is starting to tell the stories from the inside out.
While Trenton may be a relatively new topic, filmmaking is not. The daughter of two college professors, the Virginia-raised Carson studied film at Brown and Stanford universities. She divides her time between New York and Princeton and in 2009 married fellow Stanford student, Markus Prior, now a professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School.
Carson says she is now extending her reach into the culture of the city, both for her students and herself.
Students are creating films on the Mercer Street Friends and Trenton’s Quaker community and the history of Trenton’s Latinx community. And for the first time in the project, Carson is making her own Trenton film, on the 1968 shooting of 19-year-old Harlan Joseph.
“Alison Isenberg led me to that story,” says Carson. “For the first three years we were looking at policy and the personal experience of urban policy issues. During the course of helping students and interviewing Trentonians, I would have conversations with folks about urban decline and how Trenton got to be the way it is. The long-time Trenton residents said everything changed after the riots.
“Alison was teaching about the 1960s and was able to connect our experiences to a broader national story. She had this article about the 39 people killed in the week following the King assassination. The night Harlan Joseph was killed during the so-called Trenton riots, not only did the papers report that he died, but they had a picture of him because they had done a story on him a year earlier. Not only was he really active in his church and Mercer Street Friends, but he had also been a student at Princeton University one summer.
“We were eager to learn more about him. We wanted to tell the story and were lucky to find a Trentonian, Albert Stark, who could introduce us to his family. The film took off from there. In addition to being important local history, these discussions between Alison and me were happening in the year of Ferguson and all the police killings. It was incredibly resonant to the Black Lives Matter movement of today.”
While Carson’s film is being set to make its premiere in spring, the Princeton Project films are ready to reel.
The Trenton Project, Artworks Trenton, 9 Everett Alley, Trenton. Tuesday, January 23, 6 p.m. Free. www.thetrentonproject.com. Artworks Trenton: 609-394-9436 or www.artworkstrenton.org.