As we approach Veteran’s Day, we highlight a handful of films in the New Day collection exploring the psychic wounds of war while also honoring the individuals who serve.
Winner of an Emmy and the Independent Spirit Award, Where Soldiers Come From is an intimate look at the young men who fight our wars and the families and town they come from. Returning to her hometown, director Heather Courtney gains extraordinary access following these young men as they grow and change from teenagers stuck in their town, to National Guard soldiers looking for roadside bombs in Afghanistan, to 23-year-old veterans dealing with the silent war wounds of Traumatic Brain Injury and PTSD.
The award-winning film Almost Sunrise, directed by Michael Collins and produced by Marty Syjuco, follows two friends, who in an attempt to put their haunting combat experiences behind them, embark on an epic 2,700-mile trek by foot across America seeking redemption and healing. A popular companion piece for the classroom is Voices of Resilience, which is a deeper conversation about “moral injury” and society’s role in war.
Award winner at the Tribeca Film Festival, When I Came Home, directed by Dan Lohaus, follows the struggles of Herold Noel, an Iraq war veteran who becomes homeless in New York City after returning from combat with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
A refreshing and poetic insight into the experience of post-traumatic stress disorder, Michael and His Dragon, directed by Briar March, is told from the perspective of a young Iraq war veteran.
Hunting in Wartime, directed bySamantha Farinella, profiles Tlingit veterans from Hoonah, Alaska, who saw combat during the Vietnam War. The veterans talk about surviving trauma, relating to Vietnamese civilians, readjusting to civilian life, and serving a government that systematically oppresses native people. Their stories give an important human face to the combat soldier and show the lasting effects of war on individuals, families and communities.
For more information on these films and others dealing with Peace and Conflict, please visit: https://www.newday.com.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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?”
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.
I am a New York City-based filmmaker from a blue-collar background interested in illuminating stories and histories that are seldom taught. My film Hunting in Wartime profiles Tlingit veterans from Hoonah, Alaska, who saw combat during the Vietnam War. They talk about surviving trauma, relating to Vietnamese people, readjusting to civilian life, and serving a government that systematically oppresses native people. Their stories give an important human face to the combat soldier and show the lasting effects of war on individuals, families and communities.
The main impetus behind this project was to support, document and preserve Tlingit history. There isn’t a great deal of documentation regarding Tlingit history because the Tlingit community uses verbal storytelling. The film is only a piece in what we hope is a lasting historical media presence for Hoonah’s Vietnam veterans and a broader transmedia project that explores racism, history and war from a uniquely Native American perspective.
I was also drawn to the story partly because the Vietnam War has always intrigued me—as a student, activist, and filmmaker. I was born while the war was still taking place and my family watched the carnage nightly on television. Those images must have left an indelible effect on me.
The process of making the film was an emotional one. The most significant moment in the production process was when fellow producer Christie George and I interviewed Tlingit Veteran Kenny Austin in Hilo, Hawaii. He gave us a very long and intense interview. We took him out to dinner afterwards and when we gave him a ride home, we realized he had walked over two miles to meet us for the interview. At the time Ken was close to 80 years of age and not in the best of health. The experience confirmed how important it is for the veterans to have their stories heard. We knew we had to tell this story as best as we could.