The 2015 theme for Women’s History Month this March is “Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives.” Visit New Day’s collection of films that present the individual and collective stories of women, and reflect on their importance in our society.
National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month
This commemorative month, in its 27th year this March, calls on us to recognize the mixed-ability world in which we live, and the unique contributions, needs, and desires of every person. What does it mean for us to live in a world where people of all different abilities are supported and recognized? Explore New Day’s collection of excellent films on disability-related topics.
National Criminal Justice Month
March is Criminal Justice Month, established to promote societal awareness regarding the causes and consequences of crime, as well as strategies for preventing and responding to crime. New Day films on Law and Criminal Justice are the perfect vehicle for education and discussion about policing, the criminal justice system, and efforts to achieve justice through international and domestic courts.
Based in Oakland, California, I’ve been working on social and economic justice issues for over twenty years through documentary film, union organizing, community forums, directing teen theater and grassroots activism.
Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement broadens the bioethical debates around emerging enhancement technologies from brain-machine interfaces to bionics to prenatal screening, and in doing so, stretches our understanding of disability. Who or what exactly needs to be “fixed,” people’s bodies and minds or our society which stigmatizes and prevents full inclusion of disabled people? Who is excluded by these new technologies which promise to give us super-abilities and perfect babies? Who benefits?
As a person with a hidden disability, I wanted to make a film that centers people with disabilities as the experts, as the active agents in this debate, to counter the common narrative of disabled people as passive, helpless and in need of fixing. Fixed strives to represent a range of opinions within and without the disability community. As a filmmaker, this project challenged me in representing tough social questions that don’t fit neatly into good/bad, black/white frameworks, but instead into many shades of gray. This is a film that is about raising better questions and sparking dialogue between communities that don’t often interact. How can we bring a social justice analysis into the fields of science and technology innovation?
Elise Vidal from Thomas Branigan Memorial Library in Las Cruces, New Mexico won the drawing of a free title from New Day at the National Media Market in Charleston in November. She selected Susan Stern‘s film, The Self-Made Man. The poignant documentary explores the “right-to-die” issue through the story of the filmmaker’s father. Congrats to Elise, and congrats to Susan!
I gravitate towards making films in different languages and cultures, which poses numerous challenges but ultimately is an incredibly fulfilling experience, which is probably why I keep making them.
My documentary Making Noise in Silence is about Korean and Deaf culture from the perspective of two teens. Growing up as a Korean American, I definitely struggled with my ethnic and cultural identity. When you’re young, it’s harder to see that being different can be a good thing and instead, you just focus on how different you are from your friends and wish to be more like everyone else. So I naturally became curious about these two teenagers and their experiences being Korean American, as well as being Deaf.
When I first started making this film, I didn’t realize the unique challenges I would face in communicating with my subjects. Over email, sometimes we’d write in Korean or English. Then in person, we communicated in American Sign Language through an interpreter or wrote words on a piece of paper. When I was filming, I didn’t have simultaneous interpreting, so if there was a conversation happening, the interpreter wouldn’t fill me in until I stopped rolling because I didn’t want her voice in the film. On a few occasions, I filmed without knowing exactly what was happening and had to rely on my instincts. Because of these circumstances, I tried to be even more aware of how my subjects were feeling and tried to check in often to make sure they were comfortable with the filming process.
This commemorative day was established by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States as a way to encourage people to “talk to and listen to people from faiths different than their own and to understand the basic tenants of other religions.” New Day has an extensive collection of films about Religion, Theology and Ethics to help in this endeavor.
February is Black History Month
Pay tribute to the generations of African Americans who struggled with adversity to achieve full citizenship in American society. Check out New Day’s collections of films about African Americans and the African diaspora before planning your events for 2015.
New Day is proud to announce that Granito, by Pamela Yates, Paco de Onis and Peter Kinoy, has received a 2014 BRITDOC Impact Award. Granito tells the extraordinary story of how the filmmakers’ 1982 film When The Mountains Tremble aided a new generation of human rights activists and helped tip the scales of justice in Guatemala. Ultimately, dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt was pronounced guilty of committing genocide and crimes against humanity against the Maya Ixil people, and sentenced to 80 years in prison.
“Granito serves as a vital reminder that courageous documentary filmmakers can profoundly impact the cause of justice in the world,” said Jury Member Amy Goodman, who is also the Host & Executive Producer of Democracy Now!. “This film helped the Maya people of Guatemala hold the perpetrators of their genocide accountable. It poignantly portrays their suffering, their resistance and their hope for the future.”
The BRITDOC Impact Award celebrates “the documentary films that have made the greatest impact on society.” Granito shares the award with American Promise, Blackfish, The House I Live In and No Fire Zone. Each film receives $15,000 to reward their commitment, passion and achievements in using storytelling to provoke change.
Since 2005, BRITDOC has been developing expertise around impact and evaluation in documentary film. The organization’s Impact Field Guide & Toolkit is a new free online curriculum designed to help those who are working with film improve their impact. For more information about BRITDOC’s impact reports and educational tools visit britdoc.org.
Through the American Film Showcase, New Day members are finding new audiences in countries as varied as the Dominican Republic, South Korea, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe. In the process, they are introducing filmmakers to the documentary genre and expanding understanding of the vital role independent media can have in social change.
Suzan Beraza, whose New Day film Uranium Drive-In was included in the AFS, just returned from a ten-day stay in the Dominican Republic. Beraza’s favorite part of the experience, aside from the screenings themselves, were the one-on-one workshops. “You could see the wheels turning,” she related. “Making films is a powerful way of telling and keeping stories alive, and it was so exciting to watch the students start to understand this and to look at filmmaking in a very different way.”
Alice Elliott was one of the first New Day members to join the Showcase under its predecessor program, the American Documentary Showcase. She traveled to Uzbekistan, where she spent ten days showing her film Body & Soul: Diana & Kathy and participating in workshops for people with disabilities. It was the first time that the U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan had hosted an audience of people in wheelchairs.
Modeling a critical concept that is central to the disability rights movement in the United States — “Nothing about us without us” – Elliott included Diana, a main character in her film, in the journey. Showing that people with disabilities can travel and be out in the world stands out in a country like Uzbekistan, where this is far from the usual practice. Alice took note of the many barriers to mobility for disabled individuals in Uzbekistan and came home with a fuller awareness of the rights we have fought to attain in this country.
Deaf Jam, a film by Judy Lieff, was shown in South Korea, Turkey, and Zimbabwe. The venues, approaches, and audiences were radically different in each country.
In South Korea, Judy met with deaf students to screen her film and talk about disability rights. South Korea is a country where disabled people are largely shunned (see Mina Son’s excellent documentary Making Noise in Silence for more on this topic), so it was particularly important to empower this group of students to talk openly about cultural practices and to encourage them to find their individual and collective voices through poetry. Leiff also helped educate independent filmmakers and activists in South Korea about disability rights in the United States, and about how to effectively organize communities of people with disabilities. She also met with broadcast producers to help them understand why it is paramount to include and embrace a diverse audience.
With a backdrop of protests taking place in Turkey, Judy’s participation in the Showcase there was poignant. The U.S. Embassy reached out to schools it had never worked with before because of Judy’s film and her involvement with deaf communities. In Turkey, there is no standardized sign language and, as in South Korea, people with disabilities are often an invisible part of society. In addition, educational distribution for documentaries has not been fully explored, so Leiff met with university students and independent filmmakers, festival organizers, and local producers to discuss New Day’s cooperative structure.
Zimbabwe presented unexpected challenges as well. There, there are no broadcast outlets for filmmakers and no distribution opportunities, so the time there was spent exclusively with independent filmmakers. Leiff offered advice and resources, feedback on rough cuts, information about New Day’s unique model, and encouragement to work together to enhance their power and visibility as agents for disseminating ideas and information, and effecting change.
Judy came away from her participation in the AFS with a clear and potent realization of the intrinsic value of our films as educational tools in a variety of global contexts. “New Day members are real teachers, whether they hold an academic post or not, and it is the educational value of both our films and us as filmmakers that makes this international connection so valuable,” she recounted.
The Showcase focuses on topics that include civil rights, disabilities, social justice, sports, freedom of the press, technology, and the environment—subjects that are the DNA of our cooperative. The organization recognizes the educational value of our films on an international level and the capacity of New Day filmmakers to serve as grassroots educators in areas where films and filmmakers are not part of the mainstream. It is a great fit for New Day Films, and increasingly our members are partnering with this organization to further our mission of reaching diverse audiences with our pressing messages, and collaborating with and teaching other filmmakers in different countries. It offers us, as filmmakers, an opportunity to be international emissaries for our respective causes and issues, and it shows our ability, as a collective, to be a far-reaching force for positive social change.
I have spent most of my adult life working with survivors of traumatic circumstances including war, genocide, disease, and slavery, first as a relief worker and then as a documentary filmmaker. These experiences have taught me again and again the resilience of the human spirit and the healing power of compassion.
I am a child of divorce, and the mother of two young children. When my partner and I separated, I searched extensively for information, resources and support to help our children through this experience. In spite of discovering a wealth of literature and professional expertise for adults, I found few media tools to help me guide my children through the challenges they faced.
My film SPLIT is a candid, poignant, and often humorous film about kids and divorce made exclusively from the point of view of children. There are no adults and no experts – just kids speaking the powerful truth of what is on their minds and in their hearts as their families change. It is a tool to help children of divorce begin to talk, process, and heal … and to encourage parents to choose a less contentious path as they move through separation.
One of the films that touched me as a young woman is Amalie Rothschild’s Nana, Mom and Me. Today it is a classic film; in the seventies it broke new ground. Using photographs, old home movies and direct interviews with her mother and grandmother as well as herself, Rothschild explores the mother-daughter ties in three generations of her own family. In the process she explores the classic female problem faced by her artist mother: the conflict between work and children – the necessary compromises, the incumbent anxieties. The structure is intentionally loose and open-ended, like a good conversation, emphasizing the need to ask the right questions rather than give pat answers.
Recently I watched Rothschild’s film again, this time as a mother struggling with many of the same issues nearly four decades after the film was made. Returning to the film I thought about how the first-person approach has persisted and evolved over the decades. According to the American University Center for Social Media, “Personal essay films are particularly good at dramatizing the human implications and consequences of large social forces.”
I spoke with several New Day filmmakers who included themselves on-screen, and found many didn’t set out to include themselves in their films. Some found themselves taking a first-person approach for strategic reasons. In the film By Invitation Only, about the elite, white Carnival societies and debutante balls of Mardi Gras, director Rebecca Snedeker started working with cinema verite footage and interviews. Over time, though, she realized that,
“I had questions that I wanted the film to explore that we could not clearly address through my central character. The first-person narrative allowed us to tease out topics, to gently ask questions and offer reflections. These debutante and carnival traditions are such a foreign, mysterious world to most people, even here in New Orleans, and images of them conjure immediate assumptions and prejudices; just showing the observational footage I was able to capture probably wouldn’t have moved many viewers to a new place, or inspire them to consider the push and pull of other traditions and status quo situations in their own lives.”
Similarly, Kelly Anderson decided to put her own story, as a Brooklyn “gentrifier,” into My Brooklyn after she had been editing the film for several years. “I was worried it would be too self-indulgent – another filmmaker in her own movie? Please!” she says. But her perspective, as a white person who was concerned with issues of racial and economic equality, but who had also been part of demographic change in formerly Black or Latino neighborhoods, proved a good entry point for many viewers. “In the end, it was about making a policy-dense film feel more approachable and interesting, and also about the ethics of representing others in a situation you are a part of, and how to do that honestly,” Anderson says.
When she moved to Alaska, vegetarian Ellen Frankenstein was confronted with new eating challenges, and decided to make a film about it. “I wanted to make an environmental film focused on food, but I didn’t want to point fingers or do it in a simple style,” Frankenstein says. “I didn’t set out to be in Eating Alaska. I put myself in the film as the provocateur, on a journey to figure out what made sense to eat. It has been a great tool for allowing audiences to talk about the choices they make everyday.”
Some of the most compelling reasons filmmakers put themselves into their own films are ethical. In the case of Dan Lohaus, whose film When I Came Home is about homeless veterans on the hard streets of New York City, it was his own sense of humanity that drove him to “cross the line” and include himself. When his lead character Herold contemplates suicide as winter sets in, the filmmaker allows him to sleep on his couch. When Dan steps in front of the camera and has to invite a buddy in to film the turn of events, the objective relationship is altered, as is the film’s style and structure.
There are a million stories in New York, and the third one I will mention is my own film No Dinosaurs In Heaven. I was also hesitant to include my image and voice-over, but I felt it was dishonest not to let the audience know that I was in fact a student in the biology class of the creationist professor. I felt his behavior was dishonest, and that I needed to be very up front about my relationship to him and to the topic of creationism. No film had ever attempted to diagram the way an individual can manipulate liberal educational philosophy into a tolerance for creationism in the science classroom. It was my point of view that a creationist could not teach science, and in fact he was deliberately hiding his anti-science belief to promote religion.
Some filmmakers find the power relations inherent in documentary filmmaking reversed when their subjects draw them into the filmmaking process. Asian American filmmaker Debbie Lum began work on Seeking Asian Female intending to make an objective film about men who are obsessed with Asian women. “The original idea was to turn the tables on these men and make an objective film about their objectification of Asian women,” Lum says. But when the main character in her film found a woman in China who was half his age to come live with him in San Francisco, she found herself in an unexpected position. “As I filmed and sparks flew, they began to lean on me to translate and my role morphed from documentary observer to marriage counselor. The journey that all three of us went on was full of unexpected lessons, not the least of which was that we all had quite ingrained stereotypes that we had to confront as we got to know each other more personally.”
The family is the most obvious choice for personal stories in social issue films and New Day has several deeply personal and daringly intimate films. In Father’s Day, Mark Lipman uses evocative home movies and poetic imagery to immerse viewers in conversations about death, suicide, mental illness, memory and the choices we make in creating a family. In Sunshine,Karen Skloss explores the meaning of family through her own journey to understand the legacy of her own birth and the nontraditional family she created by co-parenting with her ex-boyfriend. “These kinds of films hold great risk of being self-indulgent,” Skloss says. “But I thought that if it were honest enough and went deeply enough that it would resonate for an audience and open up a lot of areas for conversation – which it has.”
Unlike Reality TV or programming strands that rely on formulaic story structure – usually two central characters on either side of an issue – New Day embraces many storytelling devices. This makes our collection both strong in its diversity and evergreen as we delve deeply and sometimes personally into the zeitgeist of our times.