As the Justice Department prepares to resume federal executions after a 16-year moratorium, the death penalty debate intensifies. Despite popular opinion with approximately 50% of Americans against capital punishment and two more states (Washington and New Hampshire) abolishing it, five executions are scheduled for December and January.
New Day’s catalogue of criminal justice titles includes films that inspire viewers to reimagine justice, films that give historical context to the system in place, and many intimate stories of the lives impacted by a per-capita incarceration rate that far exceeds other developed nations. These can serve as powerful pedagogical tools for any organization trying to grapple with the issues of the criminal justice system.
In the Executioner’s Shadowintertwines three powerful stories depicting capital punishment’s destructive nature. Two narratives represent opposing positions on the death penalty. The third is the rarely revealed insights of a former executioner. The work of Maggie Stogner and Richard Stack is not a polemic. The storytelling takes viewers on personal journeys inspiring forgiveness and social healing.
Circle Upis the powerful story of Boston mothers seeking justice for their sons’ murders, searching for healing, accountability, and community peace. The film examines reconciliation between a murderer and the survivors of his victim. Inspired by Native-American peacemaking circles, director Julie Mallozzi reframes crime and punishment through restorative justice, accountability, forgiveness.
Concrete, Steel & Paintexplores interaction between offenders and victims, through partnership that broke barriers between them. Inmates and victims collaborate on a mural about healing, highlighting differences on punishment, remorse and forgiveness. Mistrust dissolves into personal connection. Collaboration challenges both sides to respect the other’s humanity. Cindy Burstein and Tony Heriza raise questions about reconciliation and illustrate art’s power to spark restorative justice.
A Hard Straight depicts doing time on the outside. The film follows three inmates’ reentry into society. Departing incarceration is ecstatic. Then what? The joys, frustrations and risks of recidivism come into focus. Annually, 500,000 inmates are released, and ask: What resources are required to survive? Goro Toshima spotlights challenges of serving a sentence and staying straight.
Girl Trouble is an intimate documentary in which Lexi Leban and Lidia Szajko, chronicle four years in the lives of three teenage girls struggling to break from San Francisco’s complex, flawed juvenile justice system, one that creates “throw-away children.”
Every Mother’s Son profiles three women from different backgrounds who unite to seek justice after their sons are killed by police. Three ordinary mothers become extraordinary activists. Their stories are tragic, their courage heroic. Their sons’ narratives humanize consequences of police brutality. Kelly Anderson and Tami Gold transform victims into real people making it difficult to be indifferent to authorities’ excessive use of force.
In Justice for My Sister, Kimberly Bautista examines violence against women in Guatemala, documenting one woman’s three-year struggle to hold her sister’s killer accountable. The film was the centerpiece of a transnational campaign promoting healthy relationships and denouncing gender-based violence.
400 copies of Bag It, Suzan Beraza’s film about the impact of plastic on our environment, were given away to schools throughout the U.S. and abroad. The effort was funded by Patagonia and the Johnson O’Hana Charitable Foundation.
Luis Argueta personally handed Pope Francis a copy of his film abUSed: The PostVille Raid, which highlights the devastating effects of US immigration enforcement policies on children, families and communities. Read the full story here.
Debra Chasnoff presented Straightlaced – How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up to a standing-room-only audience at Shantou University in southern China. Hundreds of students came to the first ever public lecture and screening on that campus to focus on gender and queer sexuality issues. Afterwards students shared their own concerns, fears, and questions: “I am the only girl to go to the gym to lift weights and everyone makes fun of me”; “Aren’t gay people the reason there is a population decline in the west?”; and, “I think I might be lesbian. How do you know if you are a lesbian?”
The University of North Carolina in Charlotte used Lisa Gossels’ film My So-Called Enemy to bring together students from Hillel, the Muslim Students Association and Students for Justice in Palestine. The night after the screening, the Multicultural Resource Center organized a “Civil Discourse” dinner where student leaders from these groups (and others!) bonded and made a commitment to work together.
At Parsons School of Design, a student told My Brooklyn director Kelly Anderson that seeing her film about gentrification and redevelopment in Downtown Brooklyn made him drop his career and go to graduate school in Urban Ecology.
44 years after it was made, Anything You Want To Be opened the first major conference on the early history of the Women’s Movement (Boston University’s “A Revolutionary Moment: Women’s Liberation in the Late 1960s and Early 1970s”). One participant who saw the film in the 1970s told director Liane Brandon, “That was the film that made me a feminist!”
Andrea Leland‘s film Yurumeinscreened for Garifuna audiences in Belize. The Garifuna (Black Caribs) are the indigenous people of St. Vincent in the Caribbean, who were nearly exterminated and most were exiled to Central America by the British 200 years ago. The screenings sparked a desire in Central American Garifuna to reach out to their brethren in St. Vincent, in an effort to re-establish their culture and history, lost to those living on St. Vincent.
Clips from Alice Elliott’s documentary Body & Soul: Diana & Kathy appear in a new training video, ACTIVATE HERE!, designed to help disabled people advocate for themselves (funded by The Fledgling Fund and the Arc of the United States and available free online with closed captioning and audio description).
One of the films that touched me as a young woman is Amalie Rothschild’s Nana, Mom and Me. Today it is a classic film; in the seventies it broke new ground. Using photographs, old home movies and direct interviews with her mother and grandmother as well as herself, Rothschild explores the mother-daughter ties in three generations of her own family. In the process she explores the classic female problem faced by her artist mother: the conflict between work and children – the necessary compromises, the incumbent anxieties. The structure is intentionally loose and open-ended, like a good conversation, emphasizing the need to ask the right questions rather than give pat answers.
Recently I watched Rothschild’s film again, this time as a mother struggling with many of the same issues nearly four decades after the film was made. Returning to the film I thought about how the first-person approach has persisted and evolved over the decades. According to the American University Center for Social Media, “Personal essay films are particularly good at dramatizing the human implications and consequences of large social forces.”
I spoke with several New Day filmmakers who included themselves on-screen, and found many didn’t set out to include themselves in their films. Some found themselves taking a first-person approach for strategic reasons. In the film By Invitation Only, about the elite, white Carnival societies and debutante balls of Mardi Gras, director Rebecca Snedeker started working with cinema verite footage and interviews. Over time, though, she realized that,
“I had questions that I wanted the film to explore that we could not clearly address through my central character. The first-person narrative allowed us to tease out topics, to gently ask questions and offer reflections. These debutante and carnival traditions are such a foreign, mysterious world to most people, even here in New Orleans, and images of them conjure immediate assumptions and prejudices; just showing the observational footage I was able to capture probably wouldn’t have moved many viewers to a new place, or inspire them to consider the push and pull of other traditions and status quo situations in their own lives.”
Similarly, Kelly Anderson decided to put her own story, as a Brooklyn “gentrifier,” into My Brooklyn after she had been editing the film for several years. “I was worried it would be too self-indulgent – another filmmaker in her own movie? Please!” she says. But her perspective, as a white person who was concerned with issues of racial and economic equality, but who had also been part of demographic change in formerly Black or Latino neighborhoods, proved a good entry point for many viewers. “In the end, it was about making a policy-dense film feel more approachable and interesting, and also about the ethics of representing others in a situation you are a part of, and how to do that honestly,” Anderson says.
When she moved to Alaska, vegetarian Ellen Frankenstein was confronted with new eating challenges, and decided to make a film about it. “I wanted to make an environmental film focused on food, but I didn’t want to point fingers or do it in a simple style,” Frankenstein says. “I didn’t set out to be in Eating Alaska. I put myself in the film as the provocateur, on a journey to figure out what made sense to eat. It has been a great tool for allowing audiences to talk about the choices they make everyday.”
Some of the most compelling reasons filmmakers put themselves into their own films are ethical. In the case of Dan Lohaus, whose film When I Came Home is about homeless veterans on the hard streets of New York City, it was his own sense of humanity that drove him to “cross the line” and include himself. When his lead character Herold contemplates suicide as winter sets in, the filmmaker allows him to sleep on his couch. When Dan steps in front of the camera and has to invite a buddy in to film the turn of events, the objective relationship is altered, as is the film’s style and structure.
There are a million stories in New York, and the third one I will mention is my own film No Dinosaurs In Heaven. I was also hesitant to include my image and voice-over, but I felt it was dishonest not to let the audience know that I was in fact a student in the biology class of the creationist professor. I felt his behavior was dishonest, and that I needed to be very up front about my relationship to him and to the topic of creationism. No film had ever attempted to diagram the way an individual can manipulate liberal educational philosophy into a tolerance for creationism in the science classroom. It was my point of view that a creationist could not teach science, and in fact he was deliberately hiding his anti-science belief to promote religion.
Some filmmakers find the power relations inherent in documentary filmmaking reversed when their subjects draw them into the filmmaking process. Asian American filmmaker Debbie Lum began work on Seeking Asian Female intending to make an objective film about men who are obsessed with Asian women. “The original idea was to turn the tables on these men and make an objective film about their objectification of Asian women,” Lum says. But when the main character in her film found a woman in China who was half his age to come live with him in San Francisco, she found herself in an unexpected position. “As I filmed and sparks flew, they began to lean on me to translate and my role morphed from documentary observer to marriage counselor. The journey that all three of us went on was full of unexpected lessons, not the least of which was that we all had quite ingrained stereotypes that we had to confront as we got to know each other more personally.”
The family is the most obvious choice for personal stories in social issue films and New Day has several deeply personal and daringly intimate films. In Father’s Day, Mark Lipman uses evocative home movies and poetic imagery to immerse viewers in conversations about death, suicide, mental illness, memory and the choices we make in creating a family. In Sunshine,Karen Skloss explores the meaning of family through her own journey to understand the legacy of her own birth and the nontraditional family she created by co-parenting with her ex-boyfriend. “These kinds of films hold great risk of being self-indulgent,” Skloss says. “But I thought that if it were honest enough and went deeply enough that it would resonate for an audience and open up a lot of areas for conversation – which it has.”
Unlike Reality TV or programming strands that rely on formulaic story structure – usually two central characters on either side of an issue – New Day embraces many storytelling devices. This makes our collection both strong in its diversity and evergreen as we delve deeply and sometimes personally into the zeitgeist of our times.
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.”