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Shaking Up SURE: A Clifftop Documentary 

    By Ava Abramowicz

    Would you like to come to West Virginia as part of my documentary crew? 

    You can probably guess my obvious response: Of course I would! It’s not everyday that an undergraduate student–such as myself–is offered such an exciting opportunity. I first heard of “Clifftop” from Professor Adam Sekuler of the Journalism and Media Production department back in March 2023. We were seated on two stools against the wall of the James C. Renick University Center where I had been interviewing him for a research paper in another class. At the conclusion of our interview, Professor Sekuler proposed to me the option of joining him and a small crew for a documentary endeavor spanning the duration of the upcoming summer. As a double major in Journalism and Screen Studies and Professional Writing and Rhetoric with a double minor in Film Studies and English, I understood how invaluable this unique experience would be concerning the advancement of my career. Beyond the clear implications for my studies, I knew I couldn’t resist such an adventure! One of the best pieces of writing advice I have ever received was: “Live first, then write.” I knew my involvement in the documentary would result in an engaging story, and I was right. Here I am writing to you now about my adventures in this Zine! 

    The subject for the documentary was The Appalachian String Band Music Festival, also more commonly known as “Clifftop” by its devotees. Clifftop is a difficult experience to sum up in a single sentence; however, for the sake of brevity, I will pitch it as an annual gathering of international Old-Time musicians amidst the mountaintops of Camp Washington-Carver in West Virginia. It sounds otherworldly, right? Truly, Clifftop is a world unto itself that is entirely constructed and dismantled in the course of ten days. Our documentary crew arrived early on July 28th during the wee hours of the morning and joined the sea of RVs and vans already stationed outside the gates of the festival grounds. You might be surprised to learn none of the attendees were waiting for access to the festival itself; rather, they had all arrived five days early for pre-camp! Talk about dedication! The crew lived, laughed, and communed with the devotees of Clifftop over the course of those ten days, establishing firm relationships with our new neighbors as we broke bread and traded stories. As a documentary crew, it was (and continues to be) our obligation to both build a sense of trust between the Clifftop community and our cameras as well as provide a platform for the attendees to voice their distinct perspectives. We fully immersed ourselves into the beautiful chaos of Clifftop culture and quickly adapted to their norms. Using audio equipment such as a Zoom H3-VR 360° recorder, we captured the chorus of fiddles and acoustic guitars that wafted through the midnight air as musicians rocked until the break of dawn. Employing video equipment such as a drone and a gimbal, we chronicled the prevailing spirit of comradery discovered amongst arms entangled in a square dance and frequent hikes to the swimming hole. From an eagle-eye viewpoint, the crew filmed waves of morning fog rolling over the campsite by sending our drone soaring into the sky. The gimbal swayed steadily with the movements of our bodies as we strolled through the white-topped tents of various vendors. We pondered handmade installations at an art show in the woods, listened to a concert inside a renovated school bus, and gazed at towering treetops dotted with stars. It is safe to say that Sunday, August 6th, Clifftop’s final day, was shrouded by feelings of melancholy and gratefulness. 

    My participation as the Production Assistant for the currently-untitled Clifftop documentary was part of a larger research collective at the University of Michigan-Dearborn,the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) Program. SURE anchored me during the production process,providing professional support sessions and generous funding. I had the opportunity to discuss my Clifftop experience at the SURE Showcase event this past September, in which I am happy to have won the People’s Choice Award for my research. I am still involved in the post-production process of the documentary as an Assistant Editor. Every Wednesday Professor Sekuler and I meet in the CASL building to sculpt the artistic vision of the film via my enrollment in JASS 398: Independent Study. While the editing process is presently in a fledgling state, Professor Sekuler is already visualizing the future of his motion picture. Ideally, we hope to return to the 2024 edition of The Appalachian String Band Music Festival to screen a rough for community feedback prior to releasing the final cut. I excitedly await this goal of ours to mature into fruition…I have already promised my new friends from this year that I would be back.