I’m an Oakland-based filmmaker and film educator who is endlessly fascinated by how young people construct their identities – especially young people who are adopted or growing up in foster care and group homes. I’ve taught grad students at Stanford, undergrads at San Francisco State University and teenagers at The Bay Area Video Coalition. I currently teach students of all ages at Diablo Valley College.
Off and Running tells the story of Avery, a sixteen year-old African American track star, adopted and raised by two white Jewish lesbians. When Avery decides to contact her birth mother, it leads her to complicated and sometimes painful exploration of race, identity and the meaning of family. The film is about the lengths we all go to in order to become ourselves.
When I began this film in my mid-20s, I’d never met a family with queer parents before, and I glimpsed the possibilities of my own future. I wanted to document Avery’s quest in order to understand her perspective as a transracial adoptee with two moms, and to better prepare myself for adoption and parenthood. To this day she remains my most trusted guide.
Avery and I share a co-writing credit on this film. About halfway through filming, Avery disappeared and broke contact with most of the people in her life, including me. This lasted for two months and I lost a lot of sleep, but one day she showed up on my doorstep ready to continue with the film. I told her I was glad she wanted to get back to work, but first I needed her to watch the footage we had shot so she could offer her feedback. And that’s exactly what she did. Day after day, through her reactions to the footage and the voiceover narration she wrote herself, Avery took ownership of the film. Her troubles didn’t go away, but her commitment to the project and her confidence strengthened immeasurably as she discovered her own power as a storyteller. She was honored by the Writers Guild of America with the Best Documentary Screenplay award, and takes great pride in that.
Off and Running has impacted countless parents, social workers, adoption agencies, nurses, psychologists, and youth. It is on the “required viewing” list at many adoption agencies. We are excited to see the power of the film harnessed as a tool for understanding and change in the world of adoption.
February is Black History Month, celebrating the lives, innovations, and struggles of African American individuals and communities. New Day has an excellent collection of films for Black History Month, including Faubourg-Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans; Silent Choices, a history of African American women and abortion; and Beauty in the Bricks, about four African American teenage girls growing up in an urban housing project 20 years ago. To see the full collection, click here.
High school years are a difficult period to navigate and if you’re a new immigrant, a person who is deaf, or a member of the LGBTQ community, your journey may be even more fraught….or maybe not! In the New Day Films collection, a variety of award-winning films highlight untraditional high school experiences and reframe the coming-of-age story in surprising ways.
“I’ve heard that people had no idea that there were out queer youth in Boston’s public schools,” relates filmmaker Ellen Brodsky. Her film, The Year We Thought About Love, makes clear that the
re are! Each year, the theater troupe, True Colors, creates an original play that performs for hundreds of youth in Boston-area schools. Students in the audience laugh, cry out, and even cover their faces when they see two boys kiss. Afterwards, students engage in a lively, honest, and impactful Q&A about sexuality. These performances are empowering and life-changing for the young members of the troupe. And for the audience, the plays offer a deep and meaningful look at the different incarnations of love. One of the main characters in the film, Trae, explains: “When we go to True Colors, labels are gone. They are just taken away. Your name, everything is just gone and you’re just you.” This is a potent antidote to the pressure to conform that underpins most high school journeys!
Another angle on high school life is seen in I Learn America, a feature documentary about the International High School at Lafayette, a specialized high school in Brooklyn, New York, where all 300 students are immigrants from over 50 countries. Filmmakers Jean-Michel Dissard and Gitte Peng take us into the lives of 5 students over the course of a school year, documenting their struggles to learn a new language, adjust to a new culture, and develop friendships. Filmed at school and in the students’ homes, the film delves into the students’ backgrounds, families, friends, their interactions with each other, and the community that they themselves have created within the school.
Top Spin, a new feature-length film by Mina T. Son and Sara Newens, follows three teenagers who embrace the challenges of competitive ping pong while balancing the pressures of high school. In their pursuit of Olympic gold, they must juggle homework, training sessions, and social obligations. Son explains, “Though all three athletes share the same goals of competing in the Olympics, they have very different high school experiences. Lily maintains the closest semblance to a traditional high school student, attending public school. Michael, on the other hand, decides to forego his senior year, only taking online classes so that he can train all over the U.S. and in China. Ariel goes to a private high school and is somewhere in between.” Waking up at dawn to practice serves before school, missing classes because of overseas tournaments, foregoing senior prom—these choices become the norm for these extraordinary athletes whose dedication and passion are off the charts.
The short documentary Making Noise in Silence is another work by Mina T. Son that follows two Korean-American teenagers adapting to life at the California School of the Deaf, Fremont. Small class size and an overall intimate feeling of the school are key components to their success. Son remarks, “I don’t want to over idealize the school, but I got the sense that students were really given the attention they deserved, which should be the standard of education for all students, not just for students who are deaf.” It’s an environment that embraces not only their language but their culture—atypical to the mainstream high school trajectory, where nonconformity can be a one-way street to social isolation.
Judy Lieff’sDeaf Jam provides a different look at the experiences of deaf teenagers—this time at the Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens, New York. The film draws a vivid portrait of Aneta, a passionate young Israeli-born deaf student who ventures out of the familiar world of her deaf peers through her discovery of American Sign Language poetry. Aneta’s poetry becomes a vehicle for her meeting and eventual collaboration with Tahani, a Palestinian spoken word slam poet. Poetry, friendship, and respect transcend politics as the two young women create a form of poetry that communicates to both hearing and deaf in ways the audience might never have imagined. The power and reception of this medium of communication is a riveting testimony to the importance of listening in all modalities.
Adolescence is perhaps the hardest time to find and project our true selves. But for the teen protagonists of these five films, it is a challenge they are willing to tackle. Each, with their distinct personalities and particular set of circumstances, finds a path to self-awareness and self-actualization. They represent a new, bolder generation—one that is proud to share its differences instead of conforming to preordained social standards.