When Philadelphia filmmaker Bianca Swift finished her very first documentary and began looking for her next subject, her stepfather — Germantown native Rich Alliger — suggested that it was right in front of her.
She agreed, and now her “Germantown Boys” will get its first public screening at the Countdown to Germantown Day celebration in Vernon Park on Saturday.
A family story
“Throughout my life with Rich, he always did talk about Germantown and how much he loved growing up there,” Swift explained.
In 1937, Alliger was born in Germantown where he came up with his older brother Jack and younger brother George.
Since George often jumps in to correct the stories he tells, Rich thought it would be fun to get all three brothers on camera to share and compare their stories about growing up alongside the Wissahickon.
From there, the idea for “Germantown Boys” was born.
Swift, a resident of Wynnewood, is new to filmmaking.
With an undergraduate degree in comparative literature from Columbia University and a Master of Science from the London School of Economics, she works in the executive-education department of the Wharton School of Economics, but has always had a special interest in documentaries.
“I love watching documentary films,” said Swift. “They’re by far my favorite form of entertainment, and I knew I wanted to make one.”
She took a few classes in filmmaking (including one at WHYY’s Hamilton Commons) to learn the skills she’d need. Swift’s first short film was “Ms. Pat in Chester,” about an acting teacher’s outreach program.
Germantown Boys timeline
Swift developed her latest movie’s concept with Rich Alliger about a year ago and filmed the interviews last summer.
Earlier this year, a finishing grant from the Philadelphia Independent Film & Video Association allowed her to complete her rough cut.
The resulting 25-minute documentary captures the Alligers’ first-hand stories of growing up in Germantown in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.
The steam trains passing by, hiking and camping along the chilly Wissahickon and other vignettes are included. The brothers recall the neighborhood trolleys and stores, and a time when Germantown’s streets were empty of cars, capturing Philadelphia’s post-World War II landscape in the wake of its industrial boom.
According to Swift, one of the film’s charms is that the brothers don’t always corroborate each other’s recollections.
“Rich is a romantic and George is a romantic,” Jack recalled. “I just didn’t like getting dirty.”
Since she wasn’t familiar with Germantown until she began listening to her stepfather’s stories, Swift did extensive research to match the Alligers’ anecdotes up with the archival images and maps that also appear in the film.
Screening the film for a few private audiences in Germantown, she was gratified to learn that her research had paid off. Local audiences love these reference points, she said.
“They’re places that they know inside out. … [I]n that sense, I was thrilled,” Swift said of early reactions to the film, including that of the Germantown Artist Roundtable, whose members viewed an excerpt of the film in February.
“Rich was really touched that there are other people who care about where he’s from,” Swift continued, calling the contemporary Germantown she discovered at the Roundtable a “very coherent and active community,” still reminiscent of the neighborly vibe remembered so warmly by the Alligers.
Swift said she hopes her film will resonate for those outside Germantown, as well.
“In making the film, I really saw a broader picture,” she said, noting that Rich, George and Jack demonstrate that where there’s love, a sense of loss is also inevitable.
“The older they get, the fewer people there are who remember what they remember,” she continued. “What comes with love sometimes is bittersweet loss, and that’s the story I feel is strongest in there.”
Where to get a sneak peek
Swift, who will be on hand along with Rich to greet Vernon Park visitors on Saturday, hopes to offer the “Germantown Boys” screening on a loop for all comers.
Countdown to Germantown Day will be held from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday at Vernon Park, with a Sunday rain date if necessary.
Organizers will host a press conference at 10 a.m. Tuesday to discuss this weekend’s event, complete with “50 pre-school children doing the Move Your Body line dance inspired by First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign,” according to YahNé Ndgo Baker of Friends of Vernon Park.
NewsWorks will be on hand Tuesday, Saturday and, of course, in October.
For more information about the October event to mark the neighborhood’s 330th birthday, visit the Friends of Vernon Park website.