Toppling Structures of Inequity in Documentary Film

By Nicole Opper

Conversations about power, ownership and representation in the documentary field are as old as the documentary tradition itself. Ours is a history rooted in a patriarchal society defined by cultural, racial, and class-based colonialism. Recently, these conversations have left the confines of the classroom or the backroom of a festival cocktail party and are now taking place under a spotlight at festivals, conferences, and most importantly, they are beginning to have a real impact on who tells what stories and how. New Day Films, a distribution coop created by and for independent documentary filmmakers in 1971, has recently been grappling with what it means to be truly representative of the broad spectrum of filmmakers that exist including filmmakers of color, working class filmmakers, trans and gender non-binary filmmakers and those with disabilities – groups that have historically been underrepresented or poorly portrayed in the industry.

At our Annual Meeting in upstate New York this past June, a panel was convened to discuss the findings of an Equity and Representation task force, and to open up the conversation to all member-owners of the co-op.

New Day’s Panel on Equity and Representation (photo courtesy of Amalie Rothschild)

“Very often in the documentary space, I’m the only person of color,” remarked Michael Premo. Premo is the director of Water Warriors, the story of a community’s successful fight to protect their water from the oil and natural gas industry. “This is also sort of dually equated with poverty which is equally as racist as being the token black guy.”

Water Warriors

Cheryl Green, the director of Who Am I To Stop It – a documentary about individuals with traumatic brain injuries – shared her perspective as a filmmaker with acquired disabilities herself, saying, “There is no one disability community. What is a film about disability? What is a person with a disability? We’re not a monolith. There’s not one way to talk about it; there’s not one way to present it. The main way disability is represented is non-disabled people parachuting in and filming a medical story. Usually it’s one that starts off as ‘That’s gross or scary or painful! Phew! They got better.’”

This formulaic narrative is problematic. One solution Cheryl offers is that non-disabled filmmakers consider co-authorship, “Or, when you can, just put it in the hands of the disability community.”

Who Am I To Stop It

These tropes of tragedy and triumph are not exclusive to representations of those with disabilities – they are embedded in stories about every underrepresented community. Co-authorship is a concept that has been practiced by a number of filmmakers within New Day, though it’s not nearly as widespread as we would like it to be. Not only does it aim to address the inequity of ownership that has plagued our field for so long, but frequently it results in more nuanced filmmaking.

Vida Diferida

Brenda Avila, the director of Vida Diferida (Life deferred), a six-year journey into the life of a young, undocumented woman before and after DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) spoke about being born and raised in Mexico City and coming to the US as an adult. “I didn’t grow up used to being a minority per se.” She described the transition after moving to the U.S. “It was hard to just make myself heard: as a woman, as a woman of color, as someone whose second language is English. I was constantly second-guessed… sometimes it’s hard to navigate circles in [the film industry] where there are so many things taken for granted.”

Avila shared some of the organizations that have supported her journey as a filmmaker and as a woman of color. “I’m really happy about this equity task force,” she said. “I’ve been working a lot with Brown Girls Doc Mafia (BGDM), and with the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NAILP).” BGDM is working to ensure that directors and producers have access to collaborators that are also members of the communities being filmed. She added, “There’s no excuse [not to hire us]. Here’s a list of talented POC ready to work.”

Hunting in Wartime

Samantha Farinella, the director of Hunting in Wartime, which profiles Tlingit veterans from Hoonah, Alaska, made a light-hearted interjection, “I’m sure you’re all wondering why the white lesbian from the East Coast [is commenting on this topic]. I’m the first person in my family to get my Bachelor’s and I will be the first person in my family to get my Master’s. I remember in my late 20s, finding out that a lot of filmmakers are really rich and privileged.” Becoming increasingly emotional, Samantha added, “Being working class, I think I devalue my work. If we really want to make the New Day experience diverse economically or racially, that’s a big ask.”

Filmmaker and panel moderator Kathy Huang echoed the sentiments of many New Day members in the room who were visibly moved. “That was really powerful,” she said. “It’s so important that you shared that, and it goes back to issue that Michael raised, that people often equate race with class. What we think we know about someone may not be true. If you don’t come into this world with a certain amount of social capital – it can be very hard to access the gates of power.”

She then posed the question, “Are there other ways that we can make the coop more welcoming?”

Michael Premo weighed in. “It’s complicated. There are ways to invite broader conversation related to meeting design. It’s such a delicate balance between equity and tokenism… I’m glad we’re having this conversation around freedom of movement and language access… We could have more group design where people are in smaller groups. We could think about reorganizing all the relationships.”

Tales of the Waria

Kathy Huang, whose film Tales of the Waria features four transgender women searching for love and intimacy in Indonesia, offered some information about the task force’s process, which all of the panelists were a part of. “When we met for the task force, one of the things I did was make cold calls to our members of color, and we asked for ways that the coop might become more welcoming to all types of members.”

She also pointed out the potentially exploitative practice of hiring interns to work for free. “Who does that automatically eliminate from our roster of people who can work for us?”

On the Line

Mike Mascoll, the director of On the Line, which highlights one of the longest running voluntary school desegregation programs in the country, stood up in the audience to share his thoughts: “I grew up in poverty, but through the years gained access to privilege… snippets of it. I think what we’re all looking for at the end of the day is access to the resources to be independently successful.” The room broke into applause.

As a co-op, we’ve unanimously voted to pursue the following goals this year:

  • Promote a culture of Equity and Representation within New Day where diverse stories, storytellers and storytelling practices are represented and uplifted.
  • Provide opportunities for conversations with members from underrepresented groups about their experiences in New Day and the industry in general.
  • Create and support sustainable financial, professional and New Day culture strategies for recruitment and retention of filmmakers from underrepresented groups.

We have a long way to go in this industry when it comes to access, equitable funding, implicit bias and ownership over the stories of underrepresented and marginalized people and communities. There is still much work to be done, but the meeting was a big step in the right direction for the member-owners of New Day Films – resulting in actionable steps that we hope will have real, positive impact.

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Meet New Day: Robin Lung

Filmmaker Robin Lung

Finding KUKAN chronicles my search for a long-lost 1941 Oscar-winning documentary called KUKAN – and Li Ling-Ai, the Chinese American woman from Hawaiʻi who was its un-credited producer. Itʻs a fascinating detective story that highlights how easily history can be lost or forgotten – especially the history of women and minorities.

I was a book and movie lover while growing up in Hawaiʻi, but in all the books and movies I devoured, I rarely came across Chinese American heroines I could identify with. When I became a filmmaker, I sought to fill that void and hit the jackpot when I discovered Li Ling-Ai. Even though she had died several years before I started the project, her larger-than-life personality came through in her letters and interviews and the remembrances of her friends and relatives, who referred to her as a “Chinese Aunty Mame.”  She was bold and brash, glamorous and egotistical, but she also had a generous heart and used her charm to break down negative stereotypes associated with China and Chinese people. I wanted to know everything I could about her. Although I did end up finding the “lost” film KUKAN, I still have many unanswered questions about Li Ling-Aiʻs life.

I made a difficult choice to put myself into my own film. And Iʻve been pleasantly surprised by audience reactions to my on-screen search. All across America and Canada viewers of all ethnicities have responded very emotionally to Finding KUKAN. Itʻs been a touchstone that prompts people to contemplate the lost or forgotten stories in their own lives. Several viewers have told me that after seeing the film, they sat down with their mother or grandfather or children to record stories or pass them on. Many young women have also shared that I am now a role model to them. I started looking for one womanʻs life, and it has led to so much more.

Learn more about the work of Robin Lung.

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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.

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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.

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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
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April 22 is Earth Day

Water Warriors

This April 22, celebrate Earth Day by learning about the incredible work being done to resist the destruction of our planet and protect the web of life. Water Warriors by Michael Premo is an exciting documentary about a community of indigenous people and settlers who come together to build a successful resistance against the oil and gas industry in New Brunswick, Canada. Burned: Are Trees the New Coal?, by Lisa Merton and Alan Dater, tells the story of the accelerating destruction of our forests for fuel, and the activists, ecologists, and concerned citizens who fight to protect their forests and communities. Find these films and more in our Environment & Sustainability collection.

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Women’s History Month

Finding Kukan

March is Women’s History Month, and New Day has an extensive collection of films about the history and present of women’s struggles, accomplishments, and erasures. Take It From Me by Emily Abt is about four women struggling to raise themselves and their families out of poverty in New York City, and the impact of welfare reform on their options. Finding Kukan, by Robin Lung, investigates the forgotten story of Li Ling-Ai, the uncredited female producer of KUKAN, an Academy Award-winning color documentary about World War II China that has been lost for decades. Find these and other powerful films about women here.

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Meet New Day: Brenda Avila-Hanna

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.

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The Transformative Power of Art

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.

The Year We Thought About Love

The Year We Thought About Love goes behind the scenes of the oldest queer youth theater in America. In a twist on the common image of LGBTQ youth as victims, the film reveals the troupe members as artists and activists, celebrating the fullness of their lives in both thoughtful and hilarious ways. “When I started making a film about the world’s longest running LGBT youth theater (20 years and counting), I never knew Michelle Obama would give one of the main youth in the film a Youth Arts Award at the White House,” reflects filmmaker Ellen Brodsky. “I never knew the film would tour over 50 festivals and I never knew that middle schools, high schools, community groups, colleges and universities all over the US would listen and listen so deeply to what queer youth ages 14 – 22 have to say about love with friends, family, God, and sweethearts.”

Sins Invalid

Sins Invalid witnesses a performance project that incubates and celebrates artists with disabilities, centralizing artists of color and queer and gender-variant artists. Since 2006, its performances have explored themes of sexuality, beauty, and the disabled body, impacting thousands through live performance. Co-director Patty Berne explains, “The voices and experiences of our communities are rarely made visible in the media, and when they are, they’re rarely told by members of our communities. As a result, the power and downright juiciness of our bodies isn’t often depicted. In inserting our experiences into public dialogues, it’s critical that we include our bodies, the very things that are cited as the ‘problem.’ I love unruly bodies, I love seeing them in person, and I love seeing them on screen. Our lack of conformity is not a deficit, it’s a bonus!”

Triptych

It’s important to remember that age is no measure for a youthful spirit. Pam Walton’s film, Triptych, is about three women who are vital and productive well into their seventies, and who have devoted their entire adult lives to making art. Lana Wilson is a mother and grandmother who has used her seemingly boundless energy to become a well-known ceramic artist. Jeanne DuPrau, author of The City of Ember, is a New York Times bestselling children’s writer. And Nan Golub, a lesbian painter living in New York City, studied with Richard Diebenkorn and Deborah Remington and has drawn comparisons to the celebrated Mexican artist Rufino Tomayo. Pam writes, “I wanted to give attention to older women in art because our culture tends to ignore them. I wanted every artist, including writers, male or female, young or old, to be inspired by them.”

Who Am I to Stop It?

In Who Am I To Stop It, three everyday people with traumatic brain injury disabilities use arts to reconnect to a sense of identity, self-pride, and community and to assert their agency and self-advocacy. For filmmaker Cheryl Green who had herself acquired disabilities from traumatic brain injury (TBI), the film was a personally fulfilling journey. She shares, “The impairments were a big problem. Losing most of my friendships, feeling misunderstood, and experiencing ableism was worse. Becoming a filmmaker was an accidental turn in my life that built bridges between my inner world and the confusion people around me had about my inner world. I made Who Am I To Stop It to ask two questions: Do other people become isolated after TBI, and do they also feel like art saved them? The short answer is yes to both.”

For more New Day films about the transformative power of art, click here.

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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.

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