Earth Day, celebrated every year on April 22, urges us to solve climate change, end plastic pollution, protect endangered species, and grapple with the questions of survival on this distressed planet. New Day has a collection of films that address the nuances of these serious issues. Uranium Drive-in by Suzan Berazafollows a proposed uranium mill in Colorado, and the emotional debate between those desperate for jobs and those concerned about the environmental impacts. Water Warriorsby Michael Premo tells the story of a community’s successful fight to protect their water from the oil and natural gas industry.There Once Was an Island: Te Henua e Nnoho by Briar March shows the real effects of rising sea levels on an island called Takuu in Papua New Guinea where the people are being forced to either relocate, or face increasing floods and other impacts of climate change. See these and other films related to Earth Day here.
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 Brodskyhas 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 Americais 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 theI 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.”
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!
I’ve been making films for over 10 years, and while it can sometimes be a struggle I’m always brought back to the fundamental reason for why I do it. I believe that films have the power to inspire and spark social change and respond to important issues that are facing our society. Maybe that’s why I’ve often found myself documenting protests and grassroots movements. But more recently, I have become increasingly aware of what the impact of this type of filmmaking can mean.
One night I happened to be filming a protest when I noticed the police recording the license plate on my car. A few weeks later a police officer pulled me over while I was stopped at a traffic light. When I asked the officer what was wrong, he said that my vehicle was on file as being stolen. This was odd as I’ve been its sole owner. Maybe these two incidents were just coincidences, but it definitely got me thinking about the recent disturbing trend of arrests associated with filmmakers and journalist documenting activism.
On September 3 of this year, Amy Goodman, executive producer and host for Democracy Now!, was reporting on a protest at aDakota Access Pipeline construction site. This $3.7 billion project, which has received little attention by mainstream media until late, intends to transport crude oil between the Bakken oil field in Dakota to a refinery in Patoka, Illinois, spanning over 1,172 miles. It has also sparked the fierce opposition of members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, other indigenous nations, and non-natives. They say that the pipeline poses significant environmental threats to water supplies, sacred land sites, and fails to comply with federal laws and native treaties.
Goodman’svideo showed security guards working for the Dakota Access Pipeline using dogs and pepper spray on protesters. Viewed more than 14 million times on social media, the footage was rebroadcast by many major news outlets. Five days later, Goodman was charged with a complaint for “criminal trespass.” When this charge proved untenable, it was changed to “riot charges.” Thankfully a month later a North Dakota judge rejected Goodman’s arrest, saying it lacked probable cause. A similar arrest was issued to actress Shailene Woodley. In a livevideo Woodley recorded of herself while being arrested at a Standing Rock protest, she suggests that she has been singled out by the police because of her public profile. Her video proceeded to reach an audience of more than 40,000.
Then in October, filmmakers Deia Schlosberg and Lindsey Grayzel and cinematographer Carl Davis, were arrested for filming activists shutting down pipelines across the country. Grayzel and Davis were charged with up to 30 years in prison for 2 felony counts and a trespassing offense. Schlosberg was charged a maximum potential sentence of 45 years in prison for 3 felony charges related to conspiracy. The extreme nature of her punishment even compelled NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to tweet, “This reporter is being prosecuted for covering the North Dakota oil protests. For reference, I face a mere 30 years.”
In astatement Schlosberg released following her arrest she says, “When I was arrested, I was doing my job, I was reporting. I was documenting. Journalism needs to be passionately and ethically pursued and defended if we are to remain a free democratic country.”
What Schlosberg makes clear is the way in which she and many other filmmakers have been denied their rights under the First Amendment. As documentary filmmakers I feel this is something fundamental to our practice especially if we are to share stories with the world that are often untold or repressed. Perhaps the only good thing to have come out of these arrests is the attention it has cast on the issues being reported and the importance of free speech and a free press.
For civilians filming and sharing incidents of unjustified police aggression, a similar trend of arrests has emerged. In July, civilian Chris LeDay was jailed 24 hours after he uploaded a video of Alton Sterling, an African-American man, being shot and killed by a white police officer. At first police declined to say the reasons for LeDay’s arrest and eventually announced it was related to parking fines. Abdullah Muflahi, the owner of the store where Sterling was killed, was also detained after filming the event and has since filed a lawsuit against the Baton Rouge police department.
The very next day when Philando Castile was shot and killed by a white police officer in St. Paul, Minnesota, his partner Diamond Reynolds who had filmed and shared online a video documenting the incident, was also handcuffed and detained for several hours. Speaking at a gathering after the event in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, shereportedthat the police “treated me like a criminal… like it was my fault.”
In a direct response to these arrests, a group of more than 40 documentaryfilmmakerscalled on the Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate the targeting of filmmakers and civilians who record episodes of police violence. One of the organizers of the campaign, filmmaker David Felix Sutcliffe, wrote an openletter to the documentary community declaring that it was “vital we defend the rights of these individuals who use video as a means of criticizing unjust police activity.” Similarly Goodman’s arrest in North Dakota has galvanized several climate action groups to make public statements calling on the DOJ to investigate unjust arrests. Josh Fox, the director of a film that Schlosberg produced, has spoken publicly about his support for Schlosberg and has written an op-ed for theThe Nation titled, The Arrest of Filmmakers Covering the Dakota Pipeline is a Threat to Democracy and the Planet.
At times standing up for what we believe in can be daunting and for some of those filmmakers on the front line, it has come with great personal sacrifice. But seeing the way a film can move audiences and show a new perspective makes me think it is all worth it. I implore you to check out ourcollection today.
About the writer
Award-winning filmmaker Briar March has released three documentaries through New Day. Her most recent workSmoke Songsis about a Diné (Navajo) punk rock band. The film shares personal insights from band members on what it is like to be an activist fighting for environmental and indigenous issues.There Once Was an Islandexplores the impact of climate change on a small Pacific island community, andMichael and His Dragontells the story of a returned U.S. veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress after the war in Iraq.