The Summer Help (2016)

Director: Melody Gilbert

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Award-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist Melody Gilbert is, like most documentarians, a carefully observant opportunist who finds her stories in her surroundings. Among her films are Fritz: The Walter Mondale Story (2008), about the career politician from her home state of Minnesota who served as vice president to President Jimmy Carter, and a short film for Twin Cities Public Television, Toxic Testing, about a 1950s program by the U.S. government to spray Minneapolis residents with toxic chemicals that prompted a federal investigation. Currently on a leave of absence from her job as an assistant professor and chair of the Journalism and Mass Communication Department at the American University in Bulgaria (AUBG) in part to workshop The Summer Help through Chicago’s Kartemquin Films lab program, this latest effort has emerged directly from her experiences at the Blagoevgrad campus.

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Specifically, Gilbert focuses primarily on two AUBG business students as they head to the United States for the summer to earn money for college. The two young women, Nikoleta and Elena, are friends who have secured work as housekeepers at a resort in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. They have paid around $1,000 to a placement agency to help them obtain their J-1 exchange visitor visas to work in the United States, and bear on their own the expense of their travel and housing. As Gilbert relates in an informational title card, they are only two of up to 100,000 students who travel abroad for summer work in countries that can pay them far more than they would earn at home. To put a point on it, Gilbert adds captions to images of Nikoleta and her mother at work informing us that the young woman makes $8 an hour, whereas her mother, a factory seamstress, makes $8 a day.

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The girls are excited about their first trip outside Bulgaria and record with their cellphones the various legs of their journey. In Myrtle Beach, they pound the pavement looking for second jobs, as their primary job will only cover their costs, contributing nothing to their college fund. As though to set us up for a film about worker exploitation, Gilbert follows Nikoleta home from her housekeeping job one day to her home away from home: the place is a cockroach-infested mess, but one with a refrigerator stuffed with food left behind by resort guests, including a whole watermelon. Pity the poor exchange worker and shame on wasteful Americans, the film seems to say at this point.

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Of course, reality isn’t quite that simple, as we learn when Gilbert travels to visit with some exchange workers who ended up in Provincetown and Martha’s Vineyard, both in Massachusetts. The young men and women work two to four jobs catering to the upscale tourist trade in both locations. In a Martha’s Vineyard restaurant where one student works, an older couple commends her initiative in not accepting handouts and working hard instead to get what she wants out of life: “That’s what America’s all about,” the man says, like an embodied talking point for the Republican credo. Colorful, diverse Provincetown absorbs the newcomers from Eastern Europe easily, and the sprightly nightlife, welcoming atmosphere, and generous tips create a favorable impression among the workers and a desire to return the next year. One student says that the American University in Bulgaria has taught them to be tolerant of the eccentricities of Provincetown dwellers.

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Perhaps some of the residents of Myrtle Beach should attend AUBG, because Nikoleta expresses her disgust and disappointment with Americans after she and Elena are ridiculed by some locals for the uniforms they wear. As housekeepers, they garner far fewer tips and pull in far less money than their counterparts in Massachusetts. Further, without access to a car or public transportation, Elena is subjected to a nasty fright when a man in a car follows her and tries to get her to ride with him. “He was drunk,” she says, adding incredulously that nothing like that ever happened to her in Bulgaria. Indeed, cultural exchange only goes so far. The painful class conflicts and behavioral disparities from one part of the United States to another are difficult for native Americans to negotiate, let alone young exchange workers.

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Gilbert spends considerable time in Bulgaria shooting family gatherings and home interiors, as well as Skype chats spanning the distance between the girls and their families. She offers a somewhat sentimental view of family ties, scoring most such interludes monotonously with Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1. Because this film was funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign, public domain music was the most reasonable financial choice, but there are other public domain pieces of music that could have worked and enhanced other moods within the film. It seems a shame Gilbert didn’t explore more options.

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The Summer Help has a brevity in keeping with Gilbert’s background in television journalism. The film provides a discernable contrast between the prospects in rich countries like the United States and poor ones like Bulgaria, but is content to comment on the more superficial aspects of these contrasts. Nonetheless, Gilbert found engaging students to foreground and hold our attention and sympathies. Nikoleta and Elena came of age in different ways through this experience—one embracing the American experience in a big way, the other rejecting it and finding better opportunities and lifestyles in other countries.

A one-time-only screening of The Summer Help takes place this Saturday, May 14, 7:45 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Director Gilbert will be on hand for a Q&A session after the film.

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