Within 30 minutes of announcement in March that Sweet Briar College would close, student Anna ten Bensel started filming.
“It was my way of grieving,” she said.
She didn’t think she was beginning a documentary movie, but about seven months and well over 70 hours of footage later, that’s what’s taking shape. Ten Bensel has some past experience with short documentary video projects, but nothing quite like this.
Last semester, Sweet Briar alumnae, along with students, faculty and others, mounted a campaign to stop the closure of the 114-year-old Amherst County women’s college.
As a legal battle raged in a nearby Bedford County courthouse and at the Virginia Supreme Court in Richmond, tensions rose on campus between administrators attempting a swift, orderly shutdown in the face of financial challenges and Sweet Briar community members looking for ways to rebel against that plan.
Students left campus at the end of the semester with no resolution in sight, only to hear in late June the school had been saved via a mediated settlement that included an injection of cash by the alumnae and their allies. Old leaders stepped out and new leaders walked in.
What ten Bensel hopes to contribute is a campus-eye view of the fight to save the school.
She has footage of people climbing on top of buildings to hang protest banners, of late-night student meetings, of Saving Sweet Briar supporters welcoming students back to campus. That’s mixed with other bits as well, for example, an interview with the college’s Vice President for Finance and Administration Scott Shank, and moments captured outside the courtroom during the legal fight.
In situations where she might otherwise have been talking herself, the film pushed her toward listening to other students and alumnae.
“It made it so it was almost like an out of body experience,” she said. “I was feeling their hurt and feeling their triumph. It let me get more in touch with everyone else and the whole situation.”
About 35 Sweet Briar students helped with the documentary effort, ten Bensel said, and some are still at work, filming key moments from this first semester under new leaders. She’s not there with them.
Last spring, she said, when people asked where she’d be the next year, she’d answer, “Sweet Briar, Duh!” despite the fact the college was slated to close in August and administrators were urging students to find other places to study.
In the end though, she said, she chose to transfer to Arcadia University in Pennsylvania because Sweet Briar was no longer offering the classes she wanted for her Studio Art major, given the loss of many students and professors due to the attempted closure. She thinks it’s likely she’ll stay at Arcadia for that reason, but she’d love to come back if changes took place to support her academic goals.
In the meantime, she said, she’s also finding enthusiastic help at Arcadia for her project. The documentary needs financial backing, as well as invitations from theaters willing to hold screenings, she said.
The hardest piece of footage for ten Bensel to watch is also, in a sense, her favorite. Two days after the closure announcement, the Sweet Tones singing group gathered to begin rehearsals for a show that would pay tribute to the school’s 114-year history.
As students began singing, “Unchained Melody,” one of the women broke down in tears. Some students moved to comfort her, while others raised their voices to power through and keep the rehearsal afloat.
That moment, she said, epitomizes the spirit of Sweet Briar women, fighting back while caring for one another.
As for her own future, ten Bensel said her plan is to become a scientific illustrator, but now also she’s drawn to the thought of being a professional director.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s incredibly rewarding,” she said. “You are able to convey a story that words simply do not express.”