April is National Poetry month and it’s a fantastic time to watch one of New Day Film’s poetry-related documentaries! New Day features films about poets as well as films that use poetry as an intricate form of cultural and empathetic communication. The following titles represent diverse examples of poetry in cinema and its ability to alter perspectives.
InDeaf Jam, by Judy Lieff, we learn that poetry can be communicated in very different ways. The film tells the story of deaf teen Aneta Brodski’s bold journey into the spoken word slam scene. In a wondrous twist, Aneta, an Israeli immigrant living in the Queens section of New York City, eventually meets Tahani, a hearing Palestinian slam poet. The two women embark on a collaboration creating a new form of slam poetry that speaks to both the hearing and the Deaf.
Hope is the Thing with Feathers, by Andy Abrams Wilson, layers poetry, music, and images into a powerful elegy that simultaneously laments the passing of a life and celebrates the hope and transcendence that love can bear even in death. Through the beautiful paintings and poetry of San Francisco poet and artist, Beau Riley, the film is a portrait of grief and healing between Beau, a recovering alcoholic, and David, born a paraplegic.
At the height of the Cold War, American poet Lyn Hejinian traveled to the Soviet Union, where she met Russian poet Arkadii Dragomoshcenko. Several years later the two were asked to begin a correspondence—a kind of cultural experiment, where each was given a list of everyday words, such as “home,” “book,” “violence,” and asked to reflect and then write to each other about these subjects. The result became the basis of Jacki Ochs’ cinematic poem,Letters Not About Love. Ochs combines the spoken word with home movies, archival material, and new images from the United States and Russia – creating an insightful examination of the relationship between language and culture.
Filmmaker and theater artist Karina Epperlein goes into a federal women’s prison and through poetry and creative expression helps prisoners find their own voices and share their important stories.Voices from Inside is the culmination of four years of volunteering inside this prison combined with work on the outside with the children of these prisoners. It is a compelling illustration of the inherent value of creative rehabilitation.
Heidi Schmidt Emberling’sSpirit of the Dawn introduces us to sixth graders on a Crow Reservation in southeastern Montana, who write poems about their rich Native American culture and history. Juxtaposed with the present-day classroom where students are encouraged to retrieve and honor their strong and distinct heritage is the dark past of boarding schools, where Native American children were beaten for speaking their indigenous language.
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.
“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!
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.
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.
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.
Judy Lieff’sDeaf 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.
Through the American Film Showcase, New Day members are finding new audiences in countries as varied as the Dominican Republic, South Korea, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe. In the process, they are introducing filmmakers to the documentary genre and expanding understanding of the vital role independent media can have in social change.
Suzan Beraza, whose New Day film Uranium Drive-In was included in the AFS, just returned from a ten-day stay in the Dominican Republic. Beraza’s favorite part of the experience, aside from the screenings themselves, were the one-on-one workshops. “You could see the wheels turning,” she related. “Making films is a powerful way of telling and keeping stories alive, and it was so exciting to watch the students start to understand this and to look at filmmaking in a very different way.”
Alice Elliott was one of the first New Day members to join the Showcase under its predecessor program, the American Documentary Showcase. She traveled to Uzbekistan, where she spent ten days showing her film Body & Soul: Diana & Kathy and participating in workshops for people with disabilities. It was the first time that the U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan had hosted an audience of people in wheelchairs.
Modeling a critical concept that is central to the disability rights movement in the United States — “Nothing about us without us” – Elliott included Diana, a main character in her film, in the journey. Showing that people with disabilities can travel and be out in the world stands out in a country like Uzbekistan, where this is far from the usual practice. Alice took note of the many barriers to mobility for disabled individuals in Uzbekistan and came home with a fuller awareness of the rights we have fought to attain in this country.
Deaf Jam, a film by Judy Lieff, was shown in South Korea, Turkey, and Zimbabwe. The venues, approaches, and audiences were radically different in each country.
In South Korea, Judy met with deaf students to screen her film and talk about disability rights. South Korea is a country where disabled people are largely shunned (see Mina Son’s excellent documentary Making Noise in Silence for more on this topic), so it was particularly important to empower this group of students to talk openly about cultural practices and to encourage them to find their individual and collective voices through poetry. Leiff also helped educate independent filmmakers and activists in South Korea about disability rights in the United States, and about how to effectively organize communities of people with disabilities. She also met with broadcast producers to help them understand why it is paramount to include and embrace a diverse audience.
With a backdrop of protests taking place in Turkey, Judy’s participation in the Showcase there was poignant. The U.S. Embassy reached out to schools it had never worked with before because of Judy’s film and her involvement with deaf communities. In Turkey, there is no standardized sign language and, as in South Korea, people with disabilities are often an invisible part of society. In addition, educational distribution for documentaries has not been fully explored, so Leiff met with university students and independent filmmakers, festival organizers, and local producers to discuss New Day’s cooperative structure.
Zimbabwe presented unexpected challenges as well. There, there are no broadcast outlets for filmmakers and no distribution opportunities, so the time there was spent exclusively with independent filmmakers. Leiff offered advice and resources, feedback on rough cuts, information about New Day’s unique model, and encouragement to work together to enhance their power and visibility as agents for disseminating ideas and information, and effecting change.
Judy came away from her participation in the AFS with a clear and potent realization of the intrinsic value of our films as educational tools in a variety of global contexts. “New Day members are real teachers, whether they hold an academic post or not, and it is the educational value of both our films and us as filmmakers that makes this international connection so valuable,” she recounted.
The Showcase focuses on topics that include civil rights, disabilities, social justice, sports, freedom of the press, technology, and the environment—subjects that are the DNA of our cooperative. The organization recognizes the educational value of our films on an international level and the capacity of New Day filmmakers to serve as grassroots educators in areas where films and filmmakers are not part of the mainstream. It is a great fit for New Day Films, and increasingly our members are partnering with this organization to further our mission of reaching diverse audiences with our pressing messages, and collaborating with and teaching other filmmakers in different countries. It offers us, as filmmakers, an opportunity to be international emissaries for our respective causes and issues, and it shows our ability, as a collective, to be a far-reaching force for positive social change.