Earth Day, celebrated every year on April 22, urges us to solve climate change, end plastic pollution, protect endangered species, and grapple with the questions of survival on this distressed planet. New Day has a collection of films that address the nuances of these serious issues. Uranium Drive-in by Suzan Berazafollows a proposed uranium mill in Colorado, and the emotional debate between those desperate for jobs and those concerned about the environmental impacts. Water Warriorsby Michael Premo tells the story of a community’s successful fight to protect their water from the oil and natural gas industry.There Once Was an Island: Te Henua e Nnoho by Briar March shows the real effects of rising sea levels on an island called Takuu in Papua New Guinea where the people are being forced to either relocate, or face increasing floods and other impacts of climate change. See these and other films related to Earth Day 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.
August 6 and 9 mark the anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. New Day filmmaker Bob Richter shares his thoughts on the continuing legacy of these attacks.
This past May, I was deeply moved to see President Barack Obama embrace a 91-year-old survivor of the nuclear attack in Hiroshima. The scene of the survivor with the President brought back powerful memories about the city’s attack—the first time an atomic bomb was used to destroy people.
It was only a few years ago that my co-producer Kathleen Sullivan and I had joined survivors in Nagasaki, where the second and last atomic bomb was dropped. Thousands of residents, government officials, and religious leaders gathered collectively to remember what happened in that city at 11:02 a.m. on August 9, 1945. At an exhibit at the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, where a Japanese-language version of our documentary The Ultimate Wish: Ending the Nuclear Agehad premiered a few days earlier, we viewed mangled clocks frozen at that precise moment.
The temperature during the commemoration was so fiercely hot that we draped our necks with ice-cold cloths that had been passed around the large outdoor tent where we were sitting. Hardly worth complaining about, as the temperature from the detonated bomb was several thousand degrees, instantly incinerating an estimated 70,000 men, women, and children. A bell tolled at 11:02 a.m. at the Peace Park—Nagasaki’s Ground Zero—and we stood silently to pay tribute to the moment that forever changed history.
I met many atomic bomb survivors while Kathleen and I were producing The Ultimate Wish: Ending the Nuclear Age. Our film finally came to settle on the remarkable testimony and life of Sakue Shimohira, who at the age of ten was left to hide in a Nagasaki shelter when the bomb dropped. In one of the film’s most powerful moments, Sakue describes her sister’s suicide ten years after the end of World War II. While her sister found “the courage to die,” Shimohira-san found “the courage to live” and has since dedicated her life to abolishing nuclear weapons. We follow her in the company of two Japanese students as they talk with students in London, New York and Nagasaki. We also see her in a gripping encounter with a Holocaust survivor.
Our film strives to cast new light on events that are too easily relegated to a tragic segment of history. We show how there were US military leaders that challenged the belief that Nagasaki was essential for military victory—a prevailing belief that even I had bought into before the making of the film. Through a highly regarded Japanese journalist, we learn about the Press Code imposed by the U.S. occupation government, that for years prohibited him and other members of Japan’s media from reporting on the bomb or its health effects. And we also touch upon the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, a U.S. agency that gathered data from thousands of survivors and sent that data to the U.S.—not Japan—and did not attempt to ameliorate the health problems of the survivors.
Other films in the New Day collection also touch upon the costs of living in a nuclear age. In the Academy Award-winning documentary Deadly Deception, filmmaker Deborah Chasnoff juxtaposes GE’s rosy “We Bring Good Things To Life” commercials with true stories of workers and neighbors whose lives have been devastated by GE’s involvement in building nuclear bombs. It tells a powerful story of how consumer activists can challenge corporations causing harm.
In How To Prevent A Nuclear War, Liane Brandon takes a refreshingly upbeat and compelling look at the kinds of activities that Americans engage in to lessen the threat of nuclear war, whether it be visiting their local representative or starting a Concert for Peace. It is a film about grassroots democracy in action, featuring unforgettable vignettes of people working for peace in their communities.
In our film The Ultimate Wish, a nuclear expert explains that there is a strong, but rarely mentioned, link between nuclear weaponry and nuclear power, and we briefly document the burgeoning movements to end both. One of our characters Takako Shishido, who was living in Fukushima at the time of the March 2011 nuclear power plants’ triple meltdowns, tells us what happened and what she would like to see happen now. Filmmaker Suzan Berazasimilarly takes a look at the impact of using nuclear energy in America in her critically acclaimed documentary Uranium Drive-In. The film follows a proposed uranium mill in Colorado—the first to be built in the U.S. in 30 years—and the debate pitting a population desperate for jobs and financial stability against an environmental group based in a nearby resort town. Without judgment, both sides of the issue are brought to life in heart-wrenching detail as the film follows conflicting visions for the future. The film offers no easy answers but aims instead to capture personal stories and paint a portrait of the lives behind this nuanced and complex issue.
I have made several different films covering nuclear issues since the 1970s and the threats are still very much with us. Today, nine countries in the world possess at least a total of 15,375 nuclear weapons, each many times more destructive than the two used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The United States seeks to monitor and decrease nuclear arms in other countries, as it simultaneously works to modernize its own stockpile. While new vital concerns justifiably dominate our media headlines, learning and remembering nuclear history is fundamental to our existence. We cannot ignore the voices demanding the ultimate wish: ending the nuclear age.
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.