Tag Archives: Jean-Michel Dissard

New Day Filmmakers Reach Beyond the Screen

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.

Film participants Trae Weekes and Niccole William answer questions at the national conference for American Association of Sexuality Counselors, Educators, and Therapists (AASECT).

“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.”

Jean-Michel Dissard

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.”

High schoolers engage in the Story Lab project following a screening of I Learn America

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.”

Jonathan Skurnik

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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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!

10 Ways New Day Films Changed People’s Lives in 2016

by Alicia Dwyer

  1. Kristy Guevara-Flanagan’s Wonder Women! screened in Mumbai,
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    New York youth watch Wonder Women! and workshop the superheroines in their own lives

    India, in partnership with PBS’s Women and Girls Lead Global to engage men and boys as champions for gender equality. Using a film-based gender sensitization curriculum, the ‘Hero Academy’ engaged young men in the mission to make communities and homes safer for women and girls across India.

  2. Shalini Kantayya’s Catching the Sun was named a 2016 New York Times Critics’ Pick and won Best Feature at the San Francisco Green Film Festival. It is the part of the American Film Showcase to be screened at U.S. embassies and diplomatic missions around the word. Actor Mark Ruffalo called it “a must-see film. An eye-opening look at workers and entrepreneurs on the forefront of the clean energy movement that will transform, and enliven the way you see the future. What is clear is the wonderful opportunity the transition to clean energy represents.”                                                                                                                                       
  3. This year, public school districts in Florida, New Jersey, Missouri, New York, Maryland, and Virginia, as well as France and Guatemala, connected the stories of the five young new Americans in I Learn America to their students and community. With director Jean-Michel Dissard, they worked to trigger “homegrown” in-school events to amplify the voices of immigrant youth in our schools and to increase empathy and welcoming for young immigrants through personal storytelling/exchange of shared experiences.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            
  4. Emily Abt’s Daddy Don’t Go is on a winning streak, recently
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    Emily Abt takes questions after a Daddy Don’t Go community screening

    nabbing Best Documentary Awards from UrbanWorld, ABFF and eight other film festivals. The film also has been connecting with audiences through outreach screenings. At the Osborne Association, one of the participants shared, “I see myself in all these men and it inspired me to really step up for my son. I think every father, and every parent, should see this film because it moved me to tears.”

  5. Filmmaker Alice Elliott was invited to the Orange County, North Carolina Human Rights celebration to show her film, The Collector of Bedford Street. Over two days she screened the film and then met with educators, designers and advocates to envision what it would take to make the Raleigh-Durham area the most accessible place in the United States to people with disabilities. The first step in the action plan was incorporating a curriculum on disability rights into the grade schools.                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  6. At the International Documentary Association’s recent Getting Real Conference, Ann Kaneko was approached by a visiting filmmaker from Perú, who described her admiration for Against the Grain: An Artist’s Survival Guide to Perú. She said that she often refers to the film and that it continues to impact the country–it is an important reference for Peruvians about their history.                                          
  7. California’s Glendale Unified School District bought more than
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    Skurnik’s Youth & Gender Media Project screens at California’s Glendale Unified School District

    25 DVDs of Jonathan Skurnik’s Youth & Gender Media Project series on trans youth inclusion to train their entire school district on how to create inclusive schools for trans and gender nonconforming students. They also brought in the filmmaker to screen the films for district personnel to launch the initiative.

  8. Following a standing-room only public screening at the University of Hawai‘i of Marlene Booth‘s Pidgin: The Voice of Hawai‘i, an audience member was moved to speak about his experience growing up speaking Pidgin English in Hawai‘i. Though he was taught to be ashamed of his mother tongue, he told the filmmakers, “Your film gave our language respect.”                                                                                                                                                                               
  9. After Nine to Ninety, a short film about producer Juli Vizza‘s
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    Over 100 people participated in an interactive screening of Nine To Ninety, posing questions to the family in the film

    grandmother Phyllis, premiered on PBS this year, AARP declared, “An 89-year-old starlet is born!” Juli and director Alicia Dwyer and worked with partners to host about 90 community and educational screenings around the country. While the story of fierce Phyllis and the tough decisions faced by a family struggling to care for older loved ones hit home for many viewers, 75% of respondents to post-screening surveys said they were more optimistic about discussing their wishes for end-of-life care. As one woman wrote, “It’s something that has to be talked about. I’ll be sharing this screening with my family tonight for sure!”

  10. Directly after the passage of North Carolina’s anti-transgender bathroom bill, Out Run had its World Premiere at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, NC. Filmmakers S. Leo Chiang and Johnny Symons used the screening to educate the crowd about the injustices of the new law and mobilize the audience to take action against it through social media. Out Run continues to screen at film festivals around the world, inspiring viewers to join the fight for LGBTQ rights and representation in international politics.

A New Take on High School: Voices from the New Day collection

by Isabel Hill

High school years are a difficult period to navigate and if you’re a new immigrant, a person who is deaf, or a member of the LGBTQ community, your journey may be even more fraught….or maybe not! In the New Day Films collection, a variety of award-winning films highlight untraditional high school experiences and reframe the coming-of-age story in surprising ways.

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The Year We Thought About Love

“I’ve heard that people had no idea that there were out queer youth in Boston’s public schools,” relates filmmaker Ellen Brodsky. Her film, The Year We Thought About Love, makes clear that the
re are! Each year, the theater troupe, True Colors, creates an original play that performs for hundreds of youth in Boston-area schools. Students in the audience laugh, cry out, and even cover their faces when they see two boys kiss. Afterwards, students engage in a lively, honest, and impactful Q&A about sexuality. These performances are empowering and life-changing for the young members of the troupe. And for the audience, the plays offer a deep and meaningful look at the different incarnations of love. One of the main characters in the film, Trae, explains: “When we go to True Colors, labels are gone. They are just taken away. Your name, everything is just gone and you’re just you.” This is a potent antidote to the pressure to conform that underpins most high school journeys!

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I Learn America
Another angle on high school life is seen in I Learn America, a feature documentary about the International High School at Lafayette, a specialized high school in Brooklyn, New York, where all 300 students are immigrants from over 50 countries. Filmmakers Jean-Michel Dissard and Gitte Peng take us into the lives of 5 students over the course of a school year, documenting their struggles to learn a new language, adjust to a new culture, and develop friendships. Filmed at school and in the students’ homes, the film delves into the students’ backgrounds, families, friends, their interactions with each other, and the community that they themselves have created within the school.

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Top Spin

Top Spin, a new feature-length film by Mina T. Son and Sara Newens, follows three teenagers who embrace the challenges of competitive ping pong while balancing the pressures of high school. In their pursuit of Olympic gold, they must juggle homework, training sessions, and social obligations. Son explains, “Though all three athletes share the same goals of competing in the Olympics, they have very different high school experiences. Lily maintains the closest semblance to a traditional high school student, attending public school. Michael, on the other hand, decides to forego his senior year, only taking online classes so that he can train all over the U.S. and in China. Ariel goes to a private high school and is somewhere in between.” Waking up at dawn to practice serves before school, missing classes because of overseas tournaments, foregoing senior prom—these choices become the norm for these extraordinary athletes whose dedication and passion are off the charts.

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Making Noise in Silence

The short documentary Making Noise in Silence is another work by Mina T. Son that follows two Korean-American teenagers adapting to life at the California School of the Deaf, Fremont.  Small class size and an overall intimate feeling of the school are key components to their success. Son remarks, “I don’t want to over idealize the school, but I got the sense that students were really given the attention they deserved, which should be the standard of education for all students, not just for students who are deaf.” It’s an environment that embraces not only their language but their culture—atypical to the mainstream high school trajectory, where nonconformity can be a one-way street to social isolation.

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Deaf Jam

Judy Lieff’s Deaf Jam provides a different look at the experiences of deaf teenagers—this time at the Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens, New York. The film draws a vivid portrait of Aneta, a passionate young Israeli-born deaf student who ventures out of the familiar world of her deaf peers through her discovery of American Sign Language poetry. Aneta’s poetry becomes a vehicle for her meeting and eventual collaboration with Tahani, a Palestinian spoken word slam poet. Poetry, friendship, and respect transcend politics as the two young women create a form of poetry that communicates to both hearing and deaf in ways the audience might never have imagined. The power and reception of this medium of communication is a riveting testimony to the importance of listening in all modalities.

Adolescence is perhaps the hardest time to find and project our true selves. But for the teen protagonists of these five films, it is a challenge they are willing to tackle. Each, with their distinct personalities and particular set of circumstances, finds a path to self-awareness and self-actualization. They represent a new, bolder generation—one that is proud to share its differences instead of conforming to preordained social standards.

Caught Between Worlds: Migration from a Child’s Perspective

By Greta Schiller

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Sin Pais

At a time when Europe is reeling from record numbers of refugees, renewed attention has been cast on the issue of migration. The term “refugee” has come to encompass individuals fleeing environmental change, food insecurity, and generalized violence—such as Syrian civilians fleeing drought and the onslaught of ISIS. Those who fall outside the internationally recognized definition of a refugee but are nevertheless fleeing very serious socio-economic rights deprivations are termed  “survival migrants.” Many of the other Middle Eastern, African, and South Asian immigrants featured nightly on our television screens fall under this category. They are running for their lives, seeking to find a new home where they can become productive citizens and raise their children safely.

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Abrazos

New Day Films hosts a collection of films that address the issue of survival migration into the United States, especially from the viewpoint of those most impacted: the children. The feature-length documentary Abrazos follows the transformational journey of 14 children of undocumented immigrants as they travel to Guatemala for the first time to meet their grandparents and other family members.  Their journey highlights the plight of 4.5 million children living in mixed legal status families. Director Luis Argueta was moved to capture this epic experience, noting:

In the process of filming several of my most recent documentaries, I have witnessed the negative consequences of family separation which is caused by a broken immigration system. The ones most affected by the separation are the children.

Sin Pais is an award-winning documentary short that attempts to break through mainstream media’s “talking points” approach to immigration by focusing on the intimate experiences of one family. In the early 90s, Sam and Elida Mejia fled a violent civil war in Guatemala. 17 years later, they have built a new life for themselves and their three children in the San Francisco Bay Area. When immigration agents storm their home in search of another person, however, their lives are torn apart. Sam, Elida, and their oldest son Gilbert are all undocumented and become deeply entangled in the U.S. immigration system. Commenting on the experiences of the Mejia family, filmmaker Theo Rigby writes:

Every parent has the responsibility to clothe, house, and educate his or her children.  Most immigrants want to provide a better life for their families than the one that they were dealt in their home country.  This translates to immigrants being incredibly hard workers and very innovative. More than half of small businesses in the U.S. were started by immigrants, as well as some of the largest businesses.

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Life on the Line

Documentary short Life On The Line tells the story of teenager Kimberly Torrez who lives on the Arizona-Mexico border in a mixed legal status family. Co-directing team Sally Rubin and Jen Giloman set about making a film that would bolster the fight for comprehensive immigration reform and highlight the plight of children and their families who are divided by state and national policies. Filmmaker Sally Rubin explains:

Told entirely from Kimberly’s perspective, our film attempts to draw out themes of socioeconomic adversity, the universal challenges of adolescence, the pursuit of opportunity in our education system, and the real-life effects of immigration policies on the ability of students to succeed.

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Children in No Man’s Land

One of New Day’s earliest films featuring children caught up in the immigration debate is Children in No Man’s Land, a short documentary about two young children, Maria de Jesus and her cousin Rene, who attempt to cross the US/Mexico border by themselves to reunite with their mothers in the Midwest. Filmmaker Anayansi Prado was deeply impacted by the stories she heard of unaccompanied children making the dangerous crossing over the border and wanted to put a human face to the crisis. She writes:

I wanted to understand and convey the struggles of a family separated by necessity and the children’s urges for embarking on such a risk journey. What I found out is that at their core they are not that much different than any of us. They are just families who want to be together and will risk it all to survive and have a chance at a better life.

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I Learn America
I Learn America is a feature-length documentary set in International High School at Lafayette, a Brooklyn public high school dedicated to teaching newly arrived immigrant teenagers from more than 50 countries. Co-directors Jean-Michel Dissard and Gitte Peng follow five diverse students over the course of a tumultuous senior year to illuminate the broader issues of how the education system and community groups can work together to embrace students in the USA who are first-generation immigrants. Ultimately, the unique learning environment fostered at International High School at Lafayette provides a blueprint for how other schools and society at large can help to support America’s newest arrivals and provide them a path to realizing their dreams. Filmmaker Jean-Michel Dissard writes:

Today, a quarter of our nation’s children are immigrants or the children of immigrants and nearly one third of our population under the age of 34 fits this demographic. How we fare in welcoming these children will determine the nature of America’s continually emerging identity.

To learn more about New Day’s films on immigration, please click here.

I Am New Day: Jean-Michel Dissard

Jean-Michel Dissard (Director I LEARN AMERICA)
Jean-Michel Dissard

I migrated from France to the US when I was 15. In the process I traded a village of 2,000 for a high school of 2,000, and green fields for dust and concrete.

It made me uncomfortable being the new kid, attracting attention because I was foreign – and a “desirable foreigner” at that. It took me some time, but eventually I made a choice: to make this place home.

I often joke that making I Learn America was just an excuse to relive the trauma of my high school years!

My film follow five teenagers at the International High School at Lafayette, a Brooklyn public high school dedicated to newly arrived immigrants from all over the world. The students struggle to master English, adapt to families they haven’t seen in years, and create a future of their own while coming of age in a new land. Through these five vibrant young people, their stories and struggles, we “learn America.”

For the past year, I’ve been bringing the film to schools and communities around the country. From Chicago to LA by way of Cleveland, Alabama and Maryland, kids connect to Sandra, Brandon, Sing, Jennifer and Itrat (the students in the film). The film has become a platform for immigrant students to voice their own experiences. Last December, the US Department of Education hosted a screening in Washington. Secretary Arne Duncan introduced the film to 500 students and stakeholders in attendance. In his speech, he stated what I’ve been saying all along: “The newcomers are huge assets to all of our children and to all of our schools… What we can learn from them is often greater than anything they might learn from us.”

Learn more about Jean-Michel’s work here.