Tag Archives: Kathy Huang

Toppling Structures of Inequity in Documentary Film

By Nicole Opper

Conversations about power, ownership and representation in the documentary field are as old as the documentary tradition itself. Ours is a history rooted in a patriarchal society defined by cultural, racial, and class-based colonialism. Recently, these conversations have left the confines of the classroom or the backroom of a festival cocktail party and are now taking place under a spotlight at festivals, conferences, and most importantly, they are beginning to have a real impact on who tells what stories and how. New Day Films, a distribution coop created by and for independent documentary filmmakers in 1971, has recently been grappling with what it means to be truly representative of the broad spectrum of filmmakers that exist including filmmakers of color, working class filmmakers, trans and gender non-binary filmmakers and those with disabilities – groups that have historically been underrepresented or poorly portrayed in the industry.

At our Annual Meeting in upstate New York this past June, a panel was convened to discuss the findings of an Equity and Representation task force, and to open up the conversation to all member-owners of the co-op.

New Day’s Panel on Equity and Representation (photo courtesy of Amalie Rothschild)

“Very often in the documentary space, I’m the only person of color,” remarked Michael Premo. Premo is the director of Water Warriors, the story of a community’s successful fight to protect their water from the oil and natural gas industry. “This is also sort of dually equated with poverty which is equally as racist as being the token black guy.”

Water Warriors

Cheryl Green, the director of Who Am I To Stop It – a documentary about individuals with traumatic brain injuries – shared her perspective as a filmmaker with acquired disabilities herself, saying, “There is no one disability community. What is a film about disability? What is a person with a disability? We’re not a monolith. There’s not one way to talk about it; there’s not one way to present it. The main way disability is represented is non-disabled people parachuting in and filming a medical story. Usually it’s one that starts off as ‘That’s gross or scary or painful! Phew! They got better.’”

This formulaic narrative is problematic. One solution Cheryl offers is that non-disabled filmmakers consider co-authorship, “Or, when you can, just put it in the hands of the disability community.”

Who Am I To Stop It

These tropes of tragedy and triumph are not exclusive to representations of those with disabilities – they are embedded in stories about every underrepresented community. Co-authorship is a concept that has been practiced by a number of filmmakers within New Day, though it’s not nearly as widespread as we would like it to be. Not only does it aim to address the inequity of ownership that has plagued our field for so long, but frequently it results in more nuanced filmmaking.

Vida Diferida

Brenda Avila, the director of Vida Diferida (Life deferred), a six-year journey into the life of a young, undocumented woman before and after DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) spoke about being born and raised in Mexico City and coming to the US as an adult. “I didn’t grow up used to being a minority per se.” She described the transition after moving to the U.S. “It was hard to just make myself heard: as a woman, as a woman of color, as someone whose second language is English. I was constantly second-guessed… sometimes it’s hard to navigate circles in [the film industry] where there are so many things taken for granted.”

Avila shared some of the organizations that have supported her journey as a filmmaker and as a woman of color. “I’m really happy about this equity task force,” she said. “I’ve been working a lot with Brown Girls Doc Mafia (BGDM), and with the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NAILP).” BGDM is working to ensure that directors and producers have access to collaborators that are also members of the communities being filmed. She added, “There’s no excuse [not to hire us]. Here’s a list of talented POC ready to work.”

Hunting in Wartime

Samantha Farinella, the director of Hunting in Wartime, which profiles Tlingit veterans from Hoonah, Alaska, made a light-hearted interjection, “I’m sure you’re all wondering why the white lesbian from the East Coast [is commenting on this topic]. I’m the first person in my family to get my Bachelor’s and I will be the first person in my family to get my Master’s. I remember in my late 20s, finding out that a lot of filmmakers are really rich and privileged.” Becoming increasingly emotional, Samantha added, “Being working class, I think I devalue my work. If we really want to make the New Day experience diverse economically or racially, that’s a big ask.”

Filmmaker and panel moderator Kathy Huang echoed the sentiments of many New Day members in the room who were visibly moved. “That was really powerful,” she said. “It’s so important that you shared that, and it goes back to issue that Michael raised, that people often equate race with class. What we think we know about someone may not be true. If you don’t come into this world with a certain amount of social capital – it can be very hard to access the gates of power.”

She then posed the question, “Are there other ways that we can make the coop more welcoming?”

Michael Premo weighed in. “It’s complicated. There are ways to invite broader conversation related to meeting design. It’s such a delicate balance between equity and tokenism… I’m glad we’re having this conversation around freedom of movement and language access… We could have more group design where people are in smaller groups. We could think about reorganizing all the relationships.”

Tales of the Waria

Kathy Huang, whose film Tales of the Waria features four transgender women searching for love and intimacy in Indonesia, offered some information about the task force’s process, which all of the panelists were a part of. “When we met for the task force, one of the things I did was make cold calls to our members of color, and we asked for ways that the coop might become more welcoming to all types of members.”

She also pointed out the potentially exploitative practice of hiring interns to work for free. “Who does that automatically eliminate from our roster of people who can work for us?”

On the Line

Mike Mascoll, the director of On the Line, which highlights one of the longest running voluntary school desegregation programs in the country, stood up in the audience to share his thoughts: “I grew up in poverty, but through the years gained access to privilege… snippets of it. I think what we’re all looking for at the end of the day is access to the resources to be independently successful.” The room broke into applause.

As a co-op, we’ve unanimously voted to pursue the following goals this year:

  • Promote a culture of Equity and Representation within New Day where diverse stories, storytellers and storytelling practices are represented and uplifted.
  • Provide opportunities for conversations with members from underrepresented groups about their experiences in New Day and the industry in general.
  • Create and support sustainable financial, professional and New Day culture strategies for recruitment and retention of filmmakers from underrepresented groups.

We have a long way to go in this industry when it comes to access, equitable funding, implicit bias and ownership over the stories of underrepresented and marginalized people and communities. There is still much work to be done, but the meeting was a big step in the right direction for the member-owners of New Day Films – resulting in actionable steps that we hope will have real, positive impact.

Putting the “T” in LGBT

By Greta Schiller

PRODIGAL_SONS_PHOTO
Prodigal Sons

“It’s not unusual for me to be the first transgender person someone has known. I’m happy to be in that position, because the best way to dispel misunderstanding and increase empathy for The Other is to simply get to know someone,” says Kimberly Reed, the director of New Day’s Prodigal Sons. “That’s how we’ve made progress in the LGB communities, and now it’s time for the T.”

New Day Films has been at the forefront of distribution of films on Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual topics as they play out at home, in the workplace and in academia. As society expands its look at transgender identities, we at New Day have also been expanding our collection of films with transgender stories from around the world. LGBT Pride month seems a perfect time to profile four films that explore transgender identities.

In Prodigal Sons, filmmaker Kimberly Reed takes us on a personal journey back to her Montana hometown where family histories are revealed in many surprising ways. Kim is an articulate and ardent spokeswoman for trans people. She has appeared in a wide variety of media outlets, from Oprah to The Moth, and recently released this “Day in the Life” video as part of the New York Times web series “Transgender Today.”

TRINIDAD_FILM_IMAGE
Trinidad

PJ Raval’s Trinidad follows the journeys of three transwomen whose paths cross in the unassuming town of Trinidad, Colorado– “sex change capital of the world.” With a compassionate eye, the film shows us the passion, commitment, and bravery it takes to align one’s external body with one’s internal gender identity. Thanks to Caitlyn Jenner’s recent media debut alongside the popularity of the Emmy award-winning showTransparent as well many notable outspoken figures such as Laverne Cox entering the media, Trinidad has garnered new attention and is currently broadcasting on SHOWTIME.

Fm9DFkKYO
Tales of the Waria

In the world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, we find a different take on gender identity. Kathy Huang uses an observational, ethnographic approach to profile the lives of warias, or transgender women, in her award-winning PBS film Tales of The Waria. Unlike the characters in Raval’s Trinidad, the warias in Huang’s film are not interested in sex reassignment surgeries because of religious reasons. As one waria explains, “We were born as men and must return to God as men.” Perhaps the most striking difference about transgender women in Indonesia is their visibility in daily life. While many Indonesians are still unfamiliar with the term “gay,” they commonly recognize “waria.” One of Indonesia’s biggest celebrities—on a scale comparable to Oprah—is a waria who started off as a young boy in show business and transitioned into her waria identity as a teenager in front of millions of Indonesians.

FxzkAqkP7
No Dumb Questions

Three siblings aged 6, 9 and 11 are the stars of No Dumb Questions – an early entry into the burgeoning field of transgender studies. While the first three feature documentaries are rather serious, director Melissa Regan uses humor to tackle some big questions about identity and gender.  This makes an excellent introduction to the subject for high school students in particular as the family setting is non- threatening and inclusive for younger audiences.

FZskYJ6lS
I’m Just Anneke

Finally, Jonathan Skurnik’s short films revolve around kids who don’t conform to conventional gender roles. I’m Just Anneke tells the story of a gender fluid twelve-year-old girl who’s taking hormone blockers that delay puberty so she can decide if she wants to be male, female, or somewhere in-between, when she grows up. In The Family Journey: Raising Gender Nonconforming Children, parents and siblings of children in transition relate their experiences. Maria Jose and Pam, for instance, talk about boys who longed to wear dresses, and Jeannine relates the hostile reactions to her son’s going to school in girls’ attire. All of the adults find acceptance of their children’s differences difficult but necessary, with one saying “You have to get over yourself, and get over your own fear.” The Youth & Gender Media Project has recently received grants from The Arcus Foundation and The Fledgling Fund to complete the third and fourth films in the series, Becoming Johanna & Creating Safe Schools and to create curriculum for teachers and administrators to use in the classroom.

You can explore New Day’s full collection of films on LGBTQ issues here.