What happens when a journalist/poet and a photographer with a keen eye for storytelling visit a small Ohio town to explore America’s Heartland? The result is a series of five videos and articles created for the NYT’s This Land. I want to share with you the first video, “Donna’s Diner,” as a focal point for exploring the connections that bind together the people of Elyira, Ohio.
For NYT photographer Nicole Bengiveno who saw the story potential in Donna’s diner, this was her first big plunge into video. She strapped on still and video cameras and spent weeks hanging out at the diner. As you’ll see, she artfully intermixes stills and live action to tell her story.
NYT journalist Dan Barry, her creative partner who writes This Land, certainly has a way with words. Here’s how he describes Donna’s Diner:
“ From the vantage point of these booths and Formica countertops, the past improves with distance, the present keeps piling on, and a promising future is practically willed by the resilient patrons.”
As the video tells Donna’s story, it also begins to paint a portrait of the town. Donna and her diner hover on the brink of their own fiscal cliff, which is why Dan titles the piece “At the Corner of Hope and Worry.” I believe it’s his voice you hear as the writer/narrator.
If the video doesn’t play, click here.
I like the way Nicole uses her stills in the video to show telling moments. Here’s how she describes her process:
I’m so used to being like a cat, you know, where you can just wander around. I like people to just go about their business, and I love being quiet and getting in and sort of capturing moments in between moments.
Her stills reveal those unguarded moments that bring the piece to life. They seem almost more “real” than the video sections, as those tend to be more mechanical, simply showing some activity and lacking the delicacy of the photographs. It’s the observant eye of the still photographer that captures those frozen moments that show so much. Her informal portraits are compelling and filled with emotion.
Her more abstract images, like the detail of the coffee cup, play well over Donna’s comments near the end of the video. I also like the way Nicole runs her audio track over her stills. As a photographer, she was very sensitive to sound and it’s key role in bringing the diner to life. Nicole talks about what she was trying to accomplish and her experience shooting the piece here.
Donna’s Diner puts a human face on abstract concepts like unemployment, the economy, small town life and middle-American values. Which is why Donna’s Diner is so powerful in its simplicity. It does what documentaries do best by inviting you into the moment. It lets you feel Donna’s struggle to keep her diner open and shows you what it means to her and the town.
Donna embodies America’s entrepreneurial spirit. And the challenges that confront her are familiar to others who try to forge their own path.
She cooks because food connects her with the people she serves. And that keeps her going, even when so many others have failed. In that way she serves the town, too. Places like Donna’s diner are really the heart and soul of a community. It’s that coming together to share food and conversation that creates a sense of place and helps connect us to our neighbors.
We used to have a place like that back when we had a house in Sedgwick, Maine. Fishermen would come in early for coffee and donuts, workmen would come by for lunch, we’d often wander over to pick up a treat, chat with the owner and friends who would happen by. News was shared, stories swapped, gossip whispered. When the Sedgwick Store closed, it really snatched the life out of the town. Without it, all you had left was just a bunch of houses along a road.
So I believe there’s an underlying optimism in the story of Donna and her diner. After the piece was featured on the front page of the NYT, everyone could understand that we were witnessing a story about the American character. And viewing something quite special that can be found at the intersection of worry and hope.