Hearst Castle Is Muse for Student Documentary Maker

Hearst Castle, former home of early 20th century newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, was completed in 1947. The castle's 165 rooms, two pools, three guesthouses and 127 acres of gardens spill over a picturesque hillside in San Simeon, Calif. And with a little luck, it has become both the setting for and subject of a documentary by Brian Wiora '17.

Wiora, an Abernethy grant recipient and philosophy major, decided to explore the complexities of how monuments represent history, using Hearst Castle as his muse.

Built not only as a residence, but also as a living museum to display Hearst's legendary collection of European and Mediterranean artwork, the castle currently is owned and operated as a park by the State of California–a monument dedicated to Hearst's empire and art collection.

"How do monuments visually represent the stories they tell?" Wiora asked. "I think the Hearst Castle well represents what Hearst valued in that it's full of art and he was an avid art collector, but because the castle has a relationship with the Hearst Corporation, there's the interesting question of monument versus promotion. At the same time, it's a state park but also a museum. I want to lend clarity to these ambiguities."

A film buff, Wiora's inspiration for his research came from the 1941 film Citizen Kane. Wiora admits that after first watching the film he didn't understand why it is so highly rated. "I started researching and discovered that the movie was an exposé on the life of William Randolph Hearst," he said. "I became fascinated with his life and the castle, and realized I could combine that with studying monuments from a philosophical perspective."

He decided to make a documentary, but not your typical documentary. He combined four documentary styles–expository, observational, interactive and reflexive–to create a documentary with narrative elements.

"The themes are truth, representation and reality," he said. "We make a lot of assumptions when we approach monuments, assuming that everything is true. People also make assumptions about what a documentary is, and so I'm playing with those assumptions."

When it came time to film Wiora contacted castle director Mary Levkoff, who was intrigued by the proposal. Only a few film crews had been allowed in the castle previously, including National Geographic, BBC and America's Castles. Wiora recruited Tai Bassin '15 as his cameraman, and they set off for San Simeon during winter break 2014.

"We filmed in places where no one has been allowed to film before," he said. "It benefited us that we were students trying to pursue knowledge there, so we really got unrestricted access."

Wiora's interest in film stems from a general interest in art, which originated with his study of philosophy and how art represents reality.

"The world is full of arbitrariness and uncertainty, but because art is humanly constructed I feel like we can make objective claims about it," he explained.

Wiora hopes audiences will find the film well-made and interesting, and that it prompts questions about both the topic and the atypical documentary style.

"I'm bringing this piece of history to Davidson for people to observe and look at through interdisciplinary lenses," he said. "I'm almost using the documentary as a monument itself–a monument of our time in 2015, and what a few students with cameras could do."


  • May 29, 2015