November is National Native American Heritage Month, and New Day has a collection of films on Native American and Indigenous themes.
Badger Creek, by Jonathan Skurnik and Randy Vasquez, is a portrait of Native resilience as seen through a year in the life of three generations of a Blackfeet (Pikuni) family living on the lower Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. Spirit of the Dawn, by Heidi Schmidt Emberling, exposes a history of educational abuse, and introduces us to two sixth graders as they participate in a poetry class where they write poems celebrating their Crow culture and history. In Whose Honor? by Jay Rosenstein takes a critical look at “Indian” sports mascots, following Native American mother Charlene Teters as she struggles to protect her cultural symbols and identity. View our collection here.
This November for Transgender Awareness Month, check out New Day’s collection of titles relevant to trans and nonbinary people. Prodigal Sons, by transgender filmmaker Kimberly Reed, is a profound story about homecoming, identity, and the complexity of family dynamics. Trinidad: Transgender Frontier, by PJ Raval, introduces the audience to three trans women whose lives intersect in the small town of Trinidad, Colorado, the so-called “sex change capital of the world.” Mezzo, by Nicole Opper, celebrates the life and art of Breanna Sinclaire, an African American trans woman opera singer. You can find these films and more here.
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.
November is Native American Heritage Month, and New Day has many films that celebrate the cultures and histories of those who were here before the colonization of Turtle Island (aka North America), and those who survive and continue to build futures for themselves and their children. Tracing Roots follows master weaver and Haida elder Delores Churchill on a journey to understand the origins of a spruce root hat discovered alongside a 300-year-old traveler in a retreating glacier. Shellmound is the story of how one Bay Area location changed from a sacred burial ground to a toxic late-stage capitalist consumer zone. In Whose Honor? follows the story of Charlene Teters, a mother and activist who went up against the University of Illinois to ban the use of a racist mascot. Check out these films and more here.
Transgender Awareness Month
November is also Transgender Awareness Month, a time to celebrate, raise the visibility of, and expose the challenges faced by transgender and gender non-conforming people. New Day’s catalogue includes a number of films about trans people. Prodigal Sons reveals a surprisingly universal story about identity, gender, adoption, and mental illness. Trinidad acquaints viewers with three trans women whose paths cross in Trinidad, Colorado, the “sex-change capital of the world.” The Year We Thought About Love is a story about a queer youth theater project, and includes the coming out process of a young black trans woman. Check out these films and more here.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”