All posts by Heather Courtney

A SPOTLIGHT ON OUR SOLDIERS

By Sophie Sartain

In the 1800s, it was known as “Decoration Day,” when soldiers’ graves would be decorated with flowers. Today we know it as Memorial Day, a time to remember the fallen men and women of our armed forces. They made the ultimate sacrifice in fighting for this country, and each one had a story and a past, with unique struggles and triumphs. This Memorial Day, as we honor these men and women, consider these New Day films that depict the complexity and diversity, as well as the humanity and heroism, of our service members.

Almost Sunrise

In Almost Sunrise, two veterans embark on an epic 2,700-mile trek on foot across America seeking redemption and healing as a way to close the moral chasm opened by war. Their odyssey inspires an inner journey that culminates in a spiritual transformation. Filmmaker Michael Collins began the film after hearing that twenty veterans commit suicide every day. “I realized right then and there that there was a crisis in our country,” says Collins. He teamed with producer Marty Syjuco to present a story about “moral injury” lasting wounds to the soul caused by participation in events that go against one’s sense of right and wrong. Almost Sunrise and its 15-minute companion film Voices of Resilience shine a light on a condition that is as old as the dawn of battle. The goal is to help those who have seen war make meaning of their experience and reclaim their lives.

Filmmaker Heather Courtney followed a similar path in making her Emmy Award-winning film Where Soldiers Come From. She returned to her hometown in Michigan to film two teenagers in a National Guard unit as they embarked on service in Afghanistan. “I spent nearly two years filming them as regular 19- and 20-year-olds before they became active duty soldiers,” she says. “I spent a lot of time with their families, friends and girlfriends.” By the time their deployment ended, the soldiers were no longer the carefree friends they were before enlisting; repeated bombs blowing up around their convoys had led to TBI (traumatic brain injury) symptoms. As Courtney documented the challenges once they returned home, she says her film became a story about how war affects families and communities. “But,” she adds, “at its heart it is still a film about growing up.”

Patriot Guard Riders by Ellen Frick takes us on a solemn ride to funerals of soldiers killed in action.  Our guides are a 250,000-strong motorcycle group that formed to protect grieving families from harassment by a Westboro Baptist Church, a hate group. The riders escort fallen soldiers from airfield to grave, and form a protective shield of honor and respect. Soldiers are dying and families are suffering. The film reveals an unlikely but powerful bond between the riders, the grieving families and the military. Their stories chronicle a new kind of patriotism in America, where we honor the troops even if we don’t believe in  war.

In New American Soldier, directors Anna Belle Peevey and Emma Cott tackled two hot-button issues in US politics: immigration and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They captured the stories of three immigrant soldiers through training and deployment, as they took steps towards US citizenship. For each soldier, the Army provided an opportunity. Clarissa Calderón emigrated from Peru as a young girl and didn’t think of enlisting until a recruiter told her the Army would pay for medical school. Seth Donkor won the visa lottery in Ghana and was able to live out his Rambo fantasy as a private in the US Army. And for Victor Toledo Pulido, whose family walked across the US-Mexico border when he was seven, the Army offered a way out of the farmlands of California’s Central Valley.

Hunting in Wartime

Finally, in her film Hunting in Wartime, Samantha Farinella documented the longer lasting effects of war, profiling Tlingit Native Americans from the village of Hoonah, Alaska, who served in the Vietnam War. Their stories capture the complexity of serving a country that systematically oppressed them — a government that prohibited the Tlingit language, over-logged their forests, and established laws that robbed returning vets of their ancestral trade as fishermen. Many of the vets succumbed to the horrors of alcoholism, PTSD and suicide. Some were able to climb back out to lead the next generation back to their Tlingit heritage. “It was my privilege that the veterans on the island entrusted me with their experiences,” Farinella says. “Their unique stories offer a new perspective on the Vietnam War — and war in general — from a group that is rarely heard, much less seen.”

For more New Day films on veterans, click here.

Meet New Day: Sofian Khan and Andrés Caballero

Sofian Khan and Andrés Caballero

We are both New York-based filmmakers. Sofian is the founder of Capital K Pictures, a production company focusing on nonfiction content. Andrés is also a radio producer and journalist. As filmmakers both impacted by immigration (Andrés is from Argentina, Sofian is the son of immigrants), the story of people leaving their home to find opportunity has always attracted us. Much is lost and left behind, but the journey often has great rewards.  

Our film Gaucho del Norte follows South American migrant workers who are recruited by U.S. ranchers to work in the western United States as sheepherders on three-year contracts. It’s a difficult lifestyle in an isolated and rugged environment far from home, but many make the journey every year to make a better life for their families back home. This story reflects a common immigrant experience in a very stark and beautiful way. We wanted to tackle the issue of immigration with an observational visual approach and an unconventional storytelling style, focusing on the personal journeys of immigrant sheepherders in an industry that is highly dependent on them.

Our approach does not include many sit-down interviews or talking heads who analyze the issue of immigration and labor, but is rather focused on the immigrant journey with the hope that it captures the essence of the immigrant spirit. Minimal dialogue is also part of the approach in order to get a better sense of the loneliness that is part of the environment and daily struggle of immigrant sheepherders.

Making the film was a real physical hardship, and in many ways our filmmaking struggle reflected the challenges the sheepherder himself was experiencing.  We hiked the same terrain and weathered the same subzero temperatures (which several times froze the liquid crystals in the camera’s LCD screen!). We chased after the herd to get the perfect shot, and were often left in the dust by the sheepherder and his dogs after rushing ahead to get in front of the herd. Finishing the film was like completing a rite of passage.

 

Learn more about the work of Andrés and Sofian.

Commemorative Months

 MENTAL HEALTH AWARENESS MONTH

Downpour Resurfacing

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and the theme for 2018 is “Whole Body Mental Health” with the goal of increasing understanding of how the body’s various systems impact mental health. Downpour Resurfacing, by Frances Nkara, conveys psychiatrist and Buddhist teacher Dr. Robert Hall’s rekindled sense of self and strength as he recounts his childhood sexual and physical abuse. Unstuck, by Kelly Anderson and Chris Baier, documents OCD through the eyes of children who are facing their worst fears and finding solutions. Saving Jackie, by Selena Burks-Rentschler, is a snapshot of a recovering addict’s attempt to strengthen her damaged relationship with her two estranged daughters. Find these and more films related to Mental Health here.

LESBIAN, GAY, BISEXUAL AND TRANSGENDER PRIDE MONTH

June is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month (LGBT Pride Month), commemorating the 1969 Stonewall riots in Manhattan. New Day has a diverse collection of films that highlight LGBT voices and stories. Thy Will Be Done highlights a trans woman named Sara Herwig as she moves toward ordination in the Presbyterian Church. The Family Journey: Raising Gender Nonconforming Children follows the journey of moms, dads and siblings of kids who are questioning whether they’re a boy, a girl, or something in between. 

Passionate Politics tells the story of Charlotte Bunch, a civil rights organizer, lesbian activist, and internationally-recognized leader of a campaign to put women’s rights on the global human rights agenda.

The Family Journey: Raising Gender Nonconforming Children

Meet New Day: Reid Davenport

Reid Davenport

I currently have three films in New Day’s collection. Wheelchair Diaries, a film about accessibility in Europe, came about after I was discouraged from studying abroad because of my disability. A Cerebral Game, a personal film about growing up, was an opportunity for me to revisit and try to heal painful adolescent memories. And RAMPED UP, a film about the Americans with Disabilities Act, was made because I was conflicted about serial litigators suing businesses over access.

These films, unsurprisingly, represent a clear trajectory of my work. Before I made Wheelchair Diaries, I wasn’t political about my disability or disability in general. Throughout its production though, I began to build a foundation of how to see disability as a social construct. By the time I made A Cerebral Game, I not only had a new lens for seeing disability, but wanted to experiment with a disability aesthetic, which in my case was the “shaky cam.” And then finally, with RAMPED UP, I wanted to present a major issue in the disability community and show both sides of it from the perspectives of people with disabilities. My goal was to buck the myth of homogeneousness among people with disabilities, a trope that is of course applied to other minority groups as well.

Most films about disability are made by non-disabled filmmakers. Often, stereotypes are reinforced and people with disabilities are seen as objects rather than subjects. When filmmakers enforce these stereotypes, enable voyeurism, or allow experts to dominate the conversation, these stories become corrosive and outweigh any exposure it may provide to people unfamiliar with disability. My films are not about medical diagnoses or overcoming or adapting. They’re about society’s reaction to disability, which is often problematic. These films, while not all personal, are about what I encounter daily.

Reid’s three films can be purchased individually or as a package entitled Concerning Barriers. Learn more about his work here.

Black History Month

On the Line: Where Sacrifice Begins

February is Black History Month, an annual celebration of achievements by Black Americans and a time for recognizing the central role of African Americans in U.S. history, as well as the struggles Black communities have faced as they move toward liberation. On the Line: Where Sacrifice Begins is a new film by Mike Mascol that highlights one of the longest-running voluntary school desegregation programs in the country, its historical impact on the city of Boston and those personally involved in the program. 70 Acres in Chicago: Cabrini Green was filmed by Ronit Bezalel over 20 years, as she chronicled the demolition of Chicago’s infamous public housing development, the displacement of the residents, and the subsequent area gentrification. Faubourg Treme documents the New Orleans neighborhood that gave birth to jazz, launched America’s first Black daily newspaper, and nurtured generations of African American activists. You can find these and other films on African American subjects here.

 

Ten Ways New Day Films Changed People’s Lives in 2017

Unstuck: An OCD kids movie

1) Kelly Anderson and Chris Baier made Unstuck: an OCD kids movie after experiencing the devastating impact of OCD on their kids and seeing the positive effects of having children with OCD talk with one another. The film screened at the 2017 International OCD Foundation Conference in San Francisco, where 800 people gave the kids in the film a standing ovation. “It can be very isolating,” said Kat Nicole, a young adult with OCD. “We think we’re alone. To see that there are other kids out there who are also having their childhood taken away by this disorder, and that there’s a treatment, it provides a lot of hope.”

 

Out Run: Opening Night in Myanmar

2) Out Run, a film following the efforts to elect the first transgender woman to the Philippine Congress, was the Opening Night Film of the & Proud Yangon LGBT Film Festival in Myanmar, where directors S. Leo Chiang and Johnny Symons led a workshop for emerging queer Burmese filmmakers. “Having Johnny and Leo share their experiences as veteran documentarians of LGBTQ life was extremely instructive for our group,” said festival director Billy Stewart. “It inspired our up-and-coming filmmakers to tell their own personal and community stories.” Amnesty International Hong Kong also screened the film during their 2017 Carnival in February, then at their Human Rights Documentary Film Festival, and in the fall at local university campuses in Hong Kong with a satellite screening in Mumbai, India.

 

Vida Diferida (Life, Deferred)

3) In response to the Trump administration’s threat to end DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), Brenda Avila-Hanna and Corey Ohama streamed their films Vida Diferida (Life, Deferred) and I Was Born In Mexico, But…. for free for the month of September. The films were viewed more than 600 times as part of the campaign DREAMerDocs.com. Both films reveal what it was like for young, undocumented immigrants before and after DACA became U.S. policy in 2012, and what these young people stand to lose with its dismantling.

 

Care

4) Deirdre Fishel and Tony Heriza’s documentary Care, an intimate look inside the world of in-home elder care, was central to the launch of the NY Caring Majority Campaign fighting for universal long-term care. “It’s been an incredible organizing tool,” reports Zahara Zahav, from Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. “The film gives the audience permission to talk about their own personal experiences. We have to have the conversations in public in order to move the movement forward.”

 

Hunting in Wartime

5) “Gunalchéesh to our Alaska Native Veterans for showing us grace and dignity,” wrote Daxkilatch Ka Zeetlieesh after viewing Samantha Farinella’s Hunting in Wartime on PBS. “As a result of this documentary, I find myself seeking out more opportunities to become more trauma-informed as well as best practices when supporting our people with PTSD.” The filmmaker also heard from Val Veeler, daughter of veteran Victor Bean, who appears in the film: “Hunting in Wartime let my father heal from mental wounds and helped him become part of the community again before his death.”

Daddy Don’t Go

6) In November Emily Abt screened her film Daddy Don’t Go for caseworkers and staff in partnership with New York City’s Human Resources Administration. The film features four disadvantaged fathers in New York City as they struggle to beat the odds and defy the deadbeat dad stereotype. Alan S. Farrell, the Assistant Deputy Commissioner of the Office of Child Support Enforcement, said, “The event took over two years to come together, but in the end, it was completely worthwhile. I believe HRA will use Daddy Don’t Go as a meaningful organizing tool and catalyst moving forward.”

 

Ramped Up

7) Three of Reid Davenport’s films on disability and the fight for access and inclusion screened on TED in 2017: A Cerebral Game, Wheelchair Diaries and the trailer for Ramped Up. Reid’s TED talk led to a “Brief But Spectacular” piece that aired on PBS NewsHour. “I have cerebral palsy,” said Davenport. “My diagnosis is not my biggest obstacle. My biggest obstacle is people’s responses to my diagnosis. There need to be more filmmakers with disabilities so they can experience the catharsis that I have been able to experience.”

 

DADDY AND PAPA

8) Reproductive sociologist Linda Layne reviewed seven documentaries about gay parenting and gave Johnny Symons’ Daddy & Papa two thumbs way up. In a British biomedical journal article, she described it as “beautifully crafted and brimming with love.” Layne and her colleagues at the University of Cambridge are using the film as part of their reproductive research group.

 

Kamau Bell

9) Comedian and political provocateur W. Kamau Bell, of CNN’s United Shades of Color, interviewed Debbie Lum about Seeking Asian Female, her humorous and provocative documentary about white American men pursuing Asian women. Bell declared the film “great…and disturbing.” In an episode exploring stereotypes and the significance of Chinese-American culture, Bell remarked, “Some people in the United States have an extremely narrow view of who is and who isn’t an American. Chinatown is as American as fireworks on the Fourth of July, Rice Krispies, The New York Times, and iPhones.

 

Finding Kukan

10) Robin Lung’s Finding Kukan, about the forgotten story of a pioneering female filmmaker, inspired viewers to document their own families’ untold stories, including a 63-year-old doctor who began interviewing her mother about her early life in Germany, and a film media major at UC Irvine who started documenting her grandparents’ war experiences in China. Young journalist Aya Bisbee wrote, “Lung’s film was a beautiful demonstration of the power in stories and the urgency for us to remember and tell the stories of our community. I am putting together some oral histories from family members, focusing on my Japanese-American grandmother whom I never had the chance to meet, but whose name I carry forward.”

Commemorative Months

NATIONAL NATIVE AMERICAN HERITAGE MONTH

November is National Native American Heritage Month, offering opportunities to celebrate and learn from indigenous histories, cultures, and struggles. Badger Creek is a new film by Jonathan Skurnik and Randy Vasquez about Native resilience as seen through a year in the life of three generations of a Blackfeet family in Montana. The Thick Dark Fog, made by the same filmmaking team, follows a Lakota man named Walter Littlemoon as he faces his boarding school history and heals himself and his community. You can visit New Day’s entire collection of films about Native American and Indigenous people here.

Badger Creek

 

TRANSGENDER AWARENESS WEEK

November also includes Transgender Awareness Week, a lead up to Transgender Day of Remembrance. New Day has a collection of films about trans people who are living, thriving, and charting new pathways for liberation. Thy Will be Done by Alice Dungan Bouvrie follows a trans woman named Sara Herwig in her journey to ordination in the Presbyterian Church. Mezzo by Nicole Opper celebrates the life and artistic endeavors of Breanna Sinclaire, an African-American opera singer and openly trans woman, while reflecting back on memories of her childhood and self-discovery. Out Run by Johnny Symons and Leo S. Chiang is about the dynamic leaders of the world’s only LGBT political party as they wage a historic quest to elect a trans woman to the Philippine Congress. Find these and more here.

Thy Will Be Done

 

 

MEET NEW DAY: RONIT BEZALEL

Ronit Bezalel

My film 70 Acres in Chicago: Cabrini Green chronicles the fifteen-year demolition of Chicago’s Cabrini Green public housing complex, the subsequent building of mixed-income replacement homes, and the erasure of an African-American community. Cabrini Green was situated on some of the city’s most valuable real estate and was ultimately deemed by land developers to be too valuable for the low-income black community that lived there. The film grapples with questions of urban planning, gentrification, and who has a right to the city. When I arrived in Chicago in 1994 to study film at Columbia College, I was dismayed by the city’s racial divide. As a white woman, I was immediately told to avoid Cabrini Green, a low-income black community next to the city center. I wanted to understand why Chicago was so segregated, and why Cabrini Green was being torn down. People told me this was a land grab, and I sensed that there was a story that needed to be told. I contacted people at Cabrini Green and began learning about the community. I was introduced to Cabrini resident/activist Mark Pratt who was also a film student at Columbia College. We struck up a friendship that has endured over 20 years.

70 Acres in Chicago

I originally made a short film called  Voices of Cabrini  that looked at the initial demolitions. I continued to film for 15 additional years to follow the story through to completion and created 70 Acres in Chicago. While making both films, I tried to stay aware and humble. So many people want to fully “understand” Cabrini Green, and as outsiders we cannot. My role was to learn, listen, and help people share their stories. I cannot claim to “know” Cabrini, but I did my best to create a historical record of a community that no longer exists in the same way.

70 Acres in Chicago has proven a vital instructional tool for urban planners, city officials, and students who are trying to avoid the pitfalls of Chicago’s Plan for Housing Transformation. It has also served as an important catalyst for dialogue on issues of race and class. While the film focuses on Chicago, it has national resonance. Across the United States, communities of color are being disproportionately pushed outside of city centers because the land where they live has become too valuable in the real estate market.    

Learn more about Ronit and her work here.

New Day Filmmakers Reach Beyond the Screen

by Briar March 

Have you ever reached the end of a riveting documentary and wished you could meet the filmmaker behind it? Just how did they manage to capture those spectacular locations and obtain such intimate access to their characters? Perhaps you’ve been so moved by the story that you are desperate to know what you can do in your own community to make a difference, or help spread awareness. This month I spoke with several New Day filmmakers who have traveled extensively with their films, interacting with diverse audiences and facilitating events to effect change beyond the screen.

Since the release of The Year We Thought About Love, New Day filmmaker Ellen Brodsky has presented her documentary about a LGBTQ youth theater troupe at a variety of conferences, high schools, and universities. The film has elicited a flood of emotional responses from audience members. One of the most memorable moments, Brodsky recalls, was when an African-American female student sitting with her girlfriend approached her and said, “Thank you. I have never seen two Black women kiss on screen, that means a lot to me.”

Whenever possible, Brodsky brings the youth featured in her documentary to answer questions and spark conversations with the audience. At a conference for therapists and counselors, Brodsky recalls an older woman asking Trae Weekes and Niccole Williams, two gay African American women featured in her film, for advice on how to talk to her son who had just come out. Another delegate confessed that she regretted acting poorly when her daughter came out many years before. The youth spent a considerable amount of time consoling the woman, and told her that she still had time to repair their relationship.

Film participants Trae Weekes and Niccole William answer questions at the national conference for American Association of Sexuality Counselors, Educators, and Therapists (AASECT).

“There is the expected and the unexpected,” reflects Brodsky. “We hear from allies grateful for the perspectives shared in the film, but then we also hear the comments and questions nearly whispered out of great relief or fear. There’s energy exchanged with live question and answers. We all receive and give energy and it is so very much appreciated.”

Jean-Michel Dissard

For New Day member Jean-Michel Dissard, his documentary I Learn America is the starting point for a much larger conversation around the issues in his film. Set in a public high school in Brooklyn, I Learn America follows the experience of five teenagers who have recently immigrated to the United States as they strive to master English and adapt to a profoundly different way of life. When browsing through the  I Learn America  website  it’s truly impressive to see the range of places both the film and the filmmaker have been; screening events have been set up inside advocacy groups, cultural organizations, universities, throughout entire high school districts in Florida, Boston, and New York City, schools in Guatemala and France, and even at the US Department of Education. But perhaps what is most interesting about Dissard’s approach to these screenings is the way he has designed specific workshops and projects to help students engage with his documentary.

In particular is the work Dissard has been doing with the organization KIND (Kids in Need of Defense). Together they have created an initiative called Story Labs, a resource for educators which is designed to run alongside screenings of Dissard’s film. “The project creates a space and time in which teachers and their students explore the immigration narrative,” writes Dissard. “It is also a creative space for youth to produce (write, paint, photograph, film) their own personal narratives and to turn their experience into an advocacy tool for them to use.”

High schoolers engage in the Story Lab project following a screening of I Learn America

Work produced by students in the Story Lab project is showcased and archived on an interactive portal which can be accessed through the  I Learn America website  creating another rich and moving resource that audiences can engage with. Buoyed by the success of the project, Dissard hopes to develop it into something more long-term, encouraging schools to repeat the workshops on an annual basis and using the art and stories produced by students to engage the next round of incoming students. He adds, “Their voices once shared can turn their school into a community that recognizes them as assets, not issues.”

Jonathan Skurnik

It seems that almost by default filmmakers who present their work have taken on the role of an advocate or activist, directly facilitating opportunities for social change. This is certainly the case for New Day member Jonathan Skurnik, whose Youth and Gender Media Project is comprised of four short films about transgender youth: Becoming Johanna, Creating Gender Inclusive Schools, I’m Just Anneke, and The Family Journey: Raising Gender Nonconforming Children. As a result of screening his documentaries, Skurnik was recently invited to present a TED style talk on the way storytelling can be used as a form of activism. He explains:

I struggled for a while comparing myself with professionals who just present on the topic of inclusion for trans youth, until I realized that I am offering something different from a 2 hour powerpoint; I show a powerful film that makes people cry and feel things in their hearts that no presentation can do, and then audiences love interacting with me as the storyteller.

After screening Becoming Johanna, a short film about a transgender Latina, at schools and universities, Skurnik invited professionals and agencies in the local community to speak on panels about their services and the ways they can assist trans youth. The panels provided an opportunity for many of the participants to meet each other in person for the first time, and led to fruitful conversations and the possibility of future collaborations. Skurnik explains, “After they have seen the film, they get to talk to all the other agencies about how they can do a better job,  not just talking about what they can do alone, but how they can work inter-agency.”

The opportunities that can come out of screening films with filmmakers and their participants are endless, and can have a greater impact than screening the film alone. With the potential of the internet to broadcast filmmakers into classrooms from far distances, “talkback” screenings are becoming more feasible and popular. As audiences increasingly turn to places like Netflix to get their content, screenings like these provide a more authentic and direct experience, similar to watching your favorite band play live or going to a play. There is something about the exchange that happens between the audience and the presenters that allows the film to have a larger conversation inside a community or classroom, and create a more affecting experience. At New Day we encourage you to consider making use of the rich resources of filmmakers we have at hand, and to work with them to curate your own screening event.

Tips on setting up a screening:

  1. Get a head start

To create an interactive and engaging screening, start planning early. Explore the possibility of creating supplementary learning exercises, or seek out experts to sit on a post-screening panel. Filmmakers, if given advance notice, can also help to publicize the event and make arrangements for themselves or the documentary participants to attend.

  1. Include filmmakers in the planning

New Day filmmakers are more than happy to collaborate with instructors on designing film-related assignments or recommending activities for community engagement. Don’t forget to check for downloadable materials on each film’s New Day page, or on the film’s personal website.

  1. Screenings can work across departments throughout the community

Consider collaborating with other departments at your university to bring a filmmaker to your campus, or working with different organizations to hold a community screening. You’ll raise the profile of the event, draw larger crowds, and foster interdisciplinary conversations.

  1. Make use of Skype

Skype and other video calling applications can offer an effective and more affordable way of engaging with filmmakers and their film participants. Many filmmakers recommend scheduling a dialogue either right after a screening, or within a day or two.

  1. What to budget for?

You can contact individual filmmakers through their New Day pages to request speaking quotes. The cost will vary depending on their geographical location and the nature of the event. If budget is a concern, don’t be daunted. New Day filmmakers are passionate about reaching audiences and effecting change, and will work with you to find solutions to make the screening a reality!