I’m a filmmaker and educator born and raised in Mexico City. Vida Diferida (Life, Deferred) is a six-year journey into the life of a young, undocumented woman– before, during, and after the implementation of America’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration program.
The film began as an annual end-of-the-year video for a non-profit organization working with immigrant families. I was a Heritage-Spanish teacher and I noticed that with each passing year, undocumented youth had to learn how to slow themselves down, limit their aspirations and prepare for an adulthood spent in the shadows. As an immigrant with a far more privileged journey than my students, witnessing the contrasts between my immigration experience and theirs was a big eye-opener to the arbitrary mechanisms that operate within our immigration system. After working with these students, there was no doubt in my mind that they are American in every way but on paper. They are the realization of their parent’s dreams, hard work and sacrifice, and my life is so much richer and better for knowing them. I made the film in hopes that this story will be just as transformative to viewers’ lives and outlook on immigration as it was to mine.
In the past couple of years, DACA has made headlines and Americans have become more familiar with what it stands for. Vida Diferida is not just about this policy, but about the generation that came of age in the midst of it. The time span of the film provides a unique window into what life was like before DACA; the lowering of expectations, the lack of hope and the uncertainty that an undocumented status brings to young people as they make key choices for their adult lives. We also captured the moment when DACA was announced: the application process, the hesitancy to come out of the shadows, the conversations happening in households and the possibilities ahead. Finally, we follow up on the impact and limitations of this policy along with the current risk of having it all taken away.
When we began filming, we never imagined that DACA was going to happen in the near future. While documenting the first years with DACA, we never imagined that the policy would be under threat so soon. It has been an uncertain story to tell as it has been an uncertain life and future for young people like our protagonist Vanessa. Audiences have been overwhelmingly responsive to her story as they realize the devastating impact that uncertainty can make over the years. This has allowed the film to support educators as they get to understand their student’s journeys better, for peers to understand their undocumented/DACA friends and for undocumented/DACA children to open up to allies and people in their daily lives.
Learn more about Brenda and her work here.
By Nicole Opper
Celebrated artist Alex Grey said, “When artists give form to revelation, their art can advance, deepen and potentially transform the consciousness of their community.” This Youth Arts Month, we highlight New Day Films that feature people using art as a means of empowerment, both for themselves, as well as for others who have experienced discrimination, marginalization, or the pain of being rendered invisible.
For more New Day films about the transformative power of art, click here.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!