Category Archives: Features

Why Make Personal Social Issue Films?

By Greta Schiller, New Day Member

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“Nana, Mom and Me

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.”

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By Invitation Only

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.”

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My Brooklyn

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.

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Eating Alaska

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.”

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When I Came Home

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.

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No Dinosaurs In Heaven

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.

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Seeking Asian Female

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.”

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Sunshine

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.


 

 

Tips for Using New Day Films in the Classroom

  • Choose films that tell a compelling story. Stories provide the conduit for conveying information. Most people don’t remember pure facts – but we are hard-wired to remember stories. Ask students to share their own stories as a counterpoint to the film’s stories.
Students take in a screening of "Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines"
Students screen New Day film “Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines
  • Check if the film has a companion study guide. Many New Day films include guides that offer detailed background information on the film’s subject, notes on running a successful discussion, a sample lesson plan, and additional resources.
  • Frame the film prior to viewing. Explain which elements relate to the course, e.g. anthropology students might identify moments of cultural significance and their relationship to the topic of study. Film is a rich medium, and students often need framing to notice and process the types of information most relevant to their learning.
  • Assign a feature film like you would assign a book. Use class time for discussion and collaboration. This allows students to time-shift their learning, review the film on their own, and take notes at their own pace. Most New Day titles are available via online streaming.
  • Don’t discount the power of the moving image. Students often learn in a deeper and more thorough way through visual media!
  • Pair two films together. Contrasting films on similar subjects from different regions, eras, or cultures can highlight commonalities and differences across a wide spectrum of issues.
  • Use a film to open up discussion on a difficult topic, such as race, gender, religion, adoption, or sexuality. Film is an emotional medium, and social justice documentaries can often elicit deeper and more thoughtful classroom discussions than texts.
  • Ask students to write down three quick “take-aways” from the film, before discussion starts. What did they find enlightening, compelling, or relevant? Collect the statements and share them aloud. The variety of observations may be surprising.
  • Organize a cross-disciplinary screening series. Including multiple departments helps save funds in tight budget times, and also inspires rich interdisciplinary discussions about issues that can be looked at from many points of view.
  • Use a film as a starting point for research or project assignments. Films are a powerful tool for getting students interested in a particular topic. Ask students to identify an element in the film – a character, a group, a location – and create an independent project around it.
  • Invite the filmmaker to your class, to enrich the students’ understanding of the material. Ask students to turn in questions for the filmmaker ahead of time, and prepare a few questions of your own. Many New Day filmmakers are available for Q&A, either via Skype or in person.
Filmmaker Kristy Guevara Flanagan fields some questions
“Wonder Women!” filmmaker Kristy Guevara-Flanagan participates in a student-led Q&A

New Day Films Inspire Social Justice Heroes from Edward Snowden to Amanda Blackhorse

by Lynne Sachs, New Day Member

For most New Day filmmakers, the reason we make documentary films has as much to do with social and political impact as it does with festival awards, box office returns or DVD sales. Though we all know our films contribute to education and change in broad ways, in this article we look at how change can be sparked when just one person sees the right film at the right time.

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NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was being interviewed via Skype by Daniel Ellsberg at the recent Hope X conference, and at the head of the interview, after thanking Ellsberg for his service, Snowden went on to say, “I watched a a documentary of your life as I was grappling with these [whistleblowing] issues myself.  It had a deep impact; it really shaped my thinking.”  The documentary Snowden was referring to was The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, by New Day filmmaker Rick Goldsmith and Judith Ehrlich. 

In search of an example of an older New Day film’s influence on the sway of history, we communicated with Amanda Blackhorse, the Navajo social worker who decided to sue the NFL in Blackhorse v. Pro-Football, Inc. Since she was an undergraduate at the University of Kansas, Blackhorse has been profoundly troubled by the use of the name “Washington Redskins” as a mascot. She took this concern to court and on June 18, 2014, the United States Patent and Trademark Office voted to cancel the six trademarks held by the team in a decision that held that the term “redskins” is disparaging to a “substantial composite of Native Americans.” Of course the case is already in appeal, but nevertheless we decided to ask Blackhorse if she had ever seen Jay Rosenstein’s In Whose Honor, a 1997 documentary that takes a critical look at the practice of using American Indian mascots and nicknames in sports, and is still widely used today.

Here’s what Blackhorse had to say:

The documentary influenced me as far as understanding the way in which Native mascots perpetuate the dehumanization of Native American people. Seeing how disrespectful and brutal people were toward Charlene Teters (in the film) was an eye opener. The waters are usually calm until a Native American stands up to injustice and the backlash has no mercy. I saw first hand how power, money, and white privilege hold more power with regard to Native mascots than do Native Americans themselves.”

Whether we’re looking at the astonishing array of recent Global Warming themed films, the surge of Gay and Lesbian voices in our culture, or our very earliest documentaries that speak to the women’s rights movement of the 1970s, films like these in our New Day Films collection continue to reveal the way that media can change the direction of American history, sometimes by inspiring one person.

 

New Day Makes the B-Corp A-List!

By Isabel Hill, New Day Member

Earlier this year, New Day completed an intensive process that resulted in a designation of “B Corporation” for our social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency as a company. We are proud to announce that New Day has now been placed on the 2014 B Corp “Best for Communities” List!

We were given this honor because we earned a community impact score in the top 10% of all Certified B Corporations on the B Impact Assessment, a comprehensive evaluation of a company’s impact on its workers, community, and the environment.

New Day is one of 86 businesses that earned this score, placing us in the midst of an exciting global movement. In fact, 34% of our fellow “Best for Communities” winners are from outside the United States. These are companies that have taken the lead in delivering beneficial products and services, building local living economies, creating Fair Trade supply chains, and innovating through diversity.

We celebrate being in the forefront of a global movement to redefine success in business and it is our hope that one day all companies will compete to be not just the best in the world but the best for the world.

For more information about B-Corps visit: http://www.bcorporation.net/b-the-change

Required Viewing: How Educators Are Using New Day’s $4.99 Stream to Enrich Their Classes

By Kelly Anderson, New Day member

Kelly Anderson
                Kelly Anderson

Last semester, I gave my students at Hunter College a list of documentary films they could write papers about for their midterm assignment. When students realized they would actually have to go to the library to view or check out the DVDs of the eligible films, a small mutiny broke out. Like everyone else, I had known for a while that media viewing habits are moving towards on-demand streaming. As a middle-aged person who still pops a DVD into my player quite often, however, I hadn’t quite realized that the shift had already happened.

I perused the usual sources – Netflix, iTunes and Amazon – looking for films to assign that could be streamed. And while I found some good titles, it dawned on me that with the move to streaming the range of films available to teachers (and viewers in general) is shrinking. Independent filmmakers have a hard time accessing the dominant platforms for streaming, and the availability of a film is more and more defined by its commercial — rather than its cultural or educational — value. The repercussions for education, and culture in general, are significant. Many of the films that most influenced me as a student would never have been available to me without the rich range of independent media my professors had access to.

Luckily, New Day Films now has an individual streaming option  ($4.99 per stream), and I was able to create a rich assortment of films that my students could choose from. The experience got me thinking about how streaming is impacting the ways educators are using media, and changing the nature of teaching with films. I reached out to some professors who are using New Day’s individual streams with their students, and asked them about their experiences.

In Whose Honor?
               In Whose Honor?

Many professors have students view films outside of class because it saves them valuable classroom time. Thomas Gannon, an English professor at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, uses Jay Rosenstein’s documentary In Whose Honor?, about Native American mascots in college sports, in his “Introduction to Native American Literature” class. “The film is a good vehicle for exemplifying Natives trying to take back the tools of their own representation,” Gannon says. “However, I stopped showing it in class after the first year or so because this is a literature class, and meeting time is always at a premium. I prefer to assign films outside of class, which is easier since this film is now available online.”

Straightlaced
                  Straightlaced

Eliot Graham, who teaches courses on individual and cultural diversity to graduate education students at Rutgers University and Harvard, assigns Debra Chasnoff’s film Straightlaced: How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up as required viewing outside of class. “I’m trying to make my students think about how teachers propagate messages that are racist or sexist or homophobic, often unwittingly,” Graham says. “If it’s just an intellectual exercise they will do it in my class and then forget about it when they enter their own classrooms. I use Straightlaced because it shows kids talking about experiences that they had in school, and it has more of an emotional impact.” Graham says that his class periods aren’t long enough to allow him to show the 67-minute film in class, so assigning it outside of class works well. “When I’ve used it in class I usually end up excerpting pieces that total up to about 30 or 35 minutes, which is always terrible because I’m like, “I can’t possibly omit this part!”

Streaming also allows films to be used as secondary sources, or for additional research. Gannon says, “One of my midterm essay prompts regards Native American mascots, with a required source essay by Phil Deloria. In Whose Honor? is highly recommended as another source. Most of the really good papers use it, and the student writers thereof usually seem to be highly moved, even outraged, by the film.”

How does assigning a film outside of class impact the quality of the in-class discussion about it? For my students, who are asked to do close readings of films, being able to stop and re-watch a particular section is invaluable. Graham requires the students to write about the assigned film, and says that it enriches the discussions and activities they do in class together. Whether students absorb the film better together in class, or alone at home, is unclear, and likely depends on the individual student and the viewing circumstances.

What’s clear, though, it that streaming is here to stay. And with New Day’s individual streaming option, educators can find more ways to take advantage of the power of films as they teach in their own disciplines. “If there’s a video my institution owns, but it isn’t available online, we have to watch in class or not at all,” says Graham. “This gives me more flexibility to be able to more things.”