The Black Caribs, on the island of St. Vincent in the Caribbean, is a little known indigenous group of people. YURUMEIN (Homeland) is a 50-minute documentary that recounts the painful past of these Carib people – their near extermination at the hands of the British, the decimation of their culture on the island, and the exile of survivors to Central America over 200 years ago.
After 25 years of making experimental documentaries, I learned something that turned my ideas about filmmaking upside down. I was working on Your Day is My Night, my most recent documentary film, and I came to see that every time I asked a person to talk in front of my camera, they were performing for me rather than revealing something completely honest about their lives. The very process of recording guaranteed that some aspect of the project would be artificial. With this documentarian’s conundrum on my mind, I decided to take a look at three films in New Day that tackle head-on the intricate, thought-provoking relationship between performance and documentary. Instead of pretending to witness the world from the vantage point of a fly on the wall or a bird in the sky, these films explore the notion that through the theater, and thus on stage, people can most candidly articulate the struggles and joys of their own lives.
Lynne Sachs: How did you get involved with this theater company? Nancy Kelly: I had been looking for a theater company that was working with immigrant teens and the working poor. Then I found the Albany Park Theater Project (APTP), and I knew that I had to make a film about their work. I started talking to people about the extraordinary successes that APTP was seeing when they used community arts engagement programs with teens. I wanted to know how and why that was happening. The moment I saw the performances those young people were putting on, I knew I had to make a movie about their endeavors. Marlin, our teen protagonist, has lived a very traumatic life. She opens up to the theater company members, to the camera and thus to audiences in the theater and in the film over the course of the whole production. After watching Trust, teens in workshops often announce, “I want to join a theater company! Where can I find one?”
LS: But you live in San Francisco and the theater is in Chicago! That must have made the filmmaking very challenging. How often did you fly back and forth?
NK: Over and over and over again. I started the film in 2004 but Marlin didn’t show up until 2008.
LS: That’s a long time, even for a documentary. What happened in between?
NK: Honestly, we filmed and edited the entire film four times. One of those times, we started filming too late in APTP’s playmaking process. Another time APTP stopped working on the play because its co-founder died. I always suspected we would succeed when we were able to film someone telling his/her story to the company in the sacred story telling circle. In 2008, Marlín joined APTP and started revealing her story in bits and pieces to some members of the ensemble. She not only told her story to the company, she agreed to our filming it!
LS: What made Marlin’s story so special and how did it help you shape your film?
NK: Marlin’s story stood out because it was so compelling and there were so many layers of trust – her trusting the young theater company members not to talk about it outside of the theater company, her trusting me to tell her story, her trusting herself to make her private story public, and finally her trusting the theater audience and the film audience to empathize with her real life experience.
LS: What is your approach to distribution?
NK: We had a series of grants to develop a teaching guide for Trust. We now have a group of facilitators all over the country who use the guide. They do an amazing workshop called “Exploring Power Through Body-Sculpting: A Theater Workshop.” I’ll give you an example so you can imagine it. A group of about 70 teenagers from the National Council of La Raza writes their definition of power, where they have power in their lives and where they don’t. Then they watch film clips from Trust and they talk about how their lives connect to the film. They say things like, “I would never reveal so much about myself the way Marlin did!” Then the facilitation leaders encourage them to do body “sculpting” exercises where they express their own definitions of power without using any words.
Directed by Patty Berne and Leroy Moore, Sins Invalid witnesses a Bay Area performance project that celebrates artists of color and queer and gender-variant artists, all of whom are people with disabilities. Both the original live theater piece and the film explore the body, sexuality, beauty, and disability justice. The film takes an astonishingly cinematic approach to the documentation of original performance pieces, offering audiences a deeply resonant interpretation of what it means to use theater as a mode of personal expression and collective healing.
Lynne Sachs: How did you decide to turn the performance into a film? Patty Berne: We love the way that the original performance relies upon an artistic alchemy that happens right there on the stage and the way that transformative potential becomes activated in the space during a live show. At the same time, a live performance doesn’t have the same reach as a film. We want our film audience to have the experience of being in a theater with us.
LS: Where was your first screening?
PB: Osaka, Japan - the birthplace of my mother – for the Kansai International Queer Film Festival! They flew me all the way across the ocean to do a presentation about the intersections between disability justice and queer justice.
LS: What was the response to the film?
PB: There was quite a cross section of professors, queer community members and students in that audience. People demonstrated respect by being attentive which is really different from our Bay Area audiences which tend to hoot and holler. One of the first responses was from a gender non-conforming person who said that they had always had difficulty with their body and in fact hated their body, and that the film allowed them to find an appreciation for their body. Responses like those make it so gratifying to do this work.
LS: Tell us about the people who made this film?
PB: Sins Invalid is a disability justice based performance project. We have two programs – a cultural program and a movement-building program. This reflects the key interests that Leroy and I share: a deep appreciation for the arts, and the power of art to shape public discourse, and a commitment to justice for all communities. We knew that films that included disability were often considered “niche” films, and we wanted to have a space where artists with disabilities were spotlighted. You see, both Leroy and I come from organizing backgrounds. My life as a queer disabled woman of color led me to organizing in queer and immigrant communities as well as to doing anti-violence work. Leroy, who is an African American disabled man, led us toward racial justice, police brutality and homelessness.
LS: How do you use images to deal with both disability and sexuality?
PB: The film speaks to people’s hegemonic expectation of sexuality – meaning that we hope to disrupt the typical visual narrative told about bodies and sexuality by including the truth about disabled bodies. Disability is an embodied experience, and as such disability oppression is scribed in our skins. So we have to reclaim our skin and bones in order to liberate ourselves. Simply put, we are trying to say, “Disability looks like this.”
LS: What were some of your challenges in shooting the film?
PB: As novice filmmakers, we had no idea what kind of treasure hunt we were on. Making a film is such a completely different beast from putting on a performance. Leroy and I would lose objectivity, and the more experienced filmmakers on the project would pull us back. We had a difficult time in the beginning because we did not have clarity of direction. On top of it, our first editor and I did not see eye to eye; there was tension between our visions for the film. Then we started working with Robert Arnold (a New Day filmmaker), who is a brilliant editor! He brought his nuanced understanding of the human condition to the editing of our film.
LS: Why do you think New Day is going to work for you all?
PB: We always knew that we needed to learn enough about distribution to honor the love that it took to make the film. I really like that New Day is collectively run. Politically, we are committed to owner-members being in control of their distribution. We looked at other potential ways of distributing and realized that nowhere else could possibly be such a good fit.
In Meerkat Media Collective’s Stages, a group of older Puerto Rican women and inner-city youth come together in New York City’s oldest community center to create an original play out of the stories of their lives. Weaving together themes of immigration, identity, and aging, Stages offers an intimate portrait of an unlikely ensemble of multi-generational, non-professional actors who find enormous personal strength through the experience of making a play about their own lives.
Lynne Sachs: What is the Meerkat Media Collective? Jay Sterrenberg: We are an interdisciplinary group of filmmakers, artists and educators who worked as an ensemble to make Stages. Many of us have a background in theater and social justice, which informed our desire to explore the power of theater to change lives. In fact, our approach to working collaboratively parallels the making of a theater piece. We assemble a team of creators with a shared vision who want to accomplish a common artistic goal within a set amount of time.
LS: What made this theater group so special that you felt compelled to make a film about them?
JS: The Evolve Theater Project brought together teenagers and seniors in New York City to share and perform original stories from their own lives in a way that explodes stereotypes, reveals common ground and builds community. Many of the participants were immigrants and had never acted before or done anything like this in their lives. We were part of their rehearsals from day one, filming every minute of their process. Through this particularly intimate approach, we witnessed how the performers’ lives were impacted and how their worldviews shifted, all while the cameras were rolling.
LS: What was your process for editing the film after you had gathered all the material?
JS: We filmed 111 hours of footage that our team of 12 co-directors watched each week. Once we had a rough-cut, we asked for feedback from our participants because it was a film about their lives and stories, their agency and their re-telling. We took full responsibility for crafting the film but we wanted to be sure that it reflected their experiences. This openness did result in a few bumps in the road. Once, we filmed two of older women resolve a major fight they were having through a theatrical improvisation exercise. That scene unfolds in one single take, which to us was absolutely key to the integrity of the film. We wanted to reveal these awkward moments in a way that was both truthful and accurate. After our first work-in-progress screening, however, one woman let us know right away that she was upset – she said the other woman lied to us about the cause of the fight and thus the film wasn’t true to her experience. We ultimately tweaked the scene, but I still think it retains its power and authenticity.
LS: Tell us about the first screening of the film.
JS: We had our world premiere in New York City in a crowded 500-seat theater. This was the first time our subjects and our crew saw the film in a public venue. The energy in the crowd that night led to our winning the Audience Award for best documentary in the HBO NY International Latino Film Festival! For our participants, having the chance to witness an audience responding so passionately to their stories on screen was really transformative. To our surprise, many of our screenings have actually felt like an extension of the play itself, since the audience seems to get so involved in the process itself.
LS: Have you had any distribution surprises?
JS: In addition to continued demand from colleges and universities, Stages has been embraced by senior centers. We’ve been invited by Leading Age, a broad coalition of non-profit homes and services for the aging to screen at their events around the country. It’s been broadly embraced as a compelling model for how art can make a difference in the lives of older adults.
New Day has delivered dynamic, provocative films to educational institutions for nearly four decades. What is often unseen are the years of researching and fundraising that precede filming and editing, often a hard and discouraging slog. But for five New Day filmmakers, this hard work was rewarded recently when the MacArthur Foundation announced its 2014 slate of documentary production grants (a total of 18 major awards).
“MacArthur’s media grantmaking supports work that combines exceptional storytelling with high quality journalism about under-reported but important social issues,” said MacArthur President Robert Gallucci. “This year’s documentaries illuminate serious issues in approachable, creative, and engaging ways, including two multi-platform projects that will be interactive and encourage audiences to share their own stories.
National Criminal Justice Month
Today, the US has 5% of the world’s population but holds 25% of its prisoners. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, half of all federal inmates are incarcerated for non-violent drug-related offenses. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. Our films go behind the facts to explore the lives of people involved in, and impacted by, the criminal justice system.
Uranium Drive-In follows a proposed uranium mill in southwestern Colorado — the first to be built in the U.S. in 30 years — and the emotional debate pitting a population desperate for jobs and financial stability against an environmental group based in a nearby resort town.
From 8mm and 16mm to Bluray and HiDef, New Day filmmakers have seen film and video formats come and go. Those of us who started in film often worry about what will happen to our outtakes and final prints. Pat Ferrero, a founding member of New Day Films, has found a most enticing solution.
Sunshine and Shadow, 2012. By Sabrina Gschwandtner 16 mm film, polyamide thread
“I gave away at least a hundred 16mm prints in the early 1990’s when 16mm became obsolete almost overnight,” Ferrero says. “The rest I have moved from storage unit to storage unit for the last 20 years, until I connected with the artist Sabrina Gschwandtner.” As quilts are made from “recycled” fabric, Gschwandtner wove 16mm prints of Ferrero’s documentary Quilts in Women’s Lives into wall hangings. The quilts were recently exhibited at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington DC and at the American Folk Museum in New York City. In reviewing the New York show, the New York Times
observed that the quilts “make some fascinating connections between the filmmaking process, with its cutting and splicing, and the piecework involved in quilt making. And, implicitly, they question why one of these art forms has been dominated by men and the other by women.”
From keeping classic work in circulation albeit on new delivery formats, to the responsible disposal of antiquated formats, we at New Day strive for sustainable artistic and business practices. To have 16mm prints repurposed as art is a special treat in this journey towards responsible living.
A wonderful and terrible side effect of having made a film about the disconnect between science and some members of the public (Kansas vs. Darwin), is how attuned I’ve become to the need for better understanding of science and its impacts on the world. As Darwin’s birthday approaches, I’ve noticed articles, films, TV shows, books, public events and even video games involving science-centered issues, often with confused members of the public in the middle, trying to sort out what evidence is real, how to interpret it, and which experts to believe.
Since institution-based communication about science tends to focus on “breakthroughs,” and scientific “wonders,” I believe it frequently misses the opportunity to instill in the public a better understanding of the nature of science itself, how its communities interact, and how to separate real science from the often-politicized discourse that surrounds it.
Empowering the lay populace with “science consumerism” isn’t some wacky idea of mine, it’s also the stated intent of several influential, pro-science organizations, such as the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Teachers Association, who have seen the writing on the wall – writing that includes politicization of the very methodologies and public funding of science to a point that has thrown into question, for some, its worth to society.
Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement
Given these challenges, many institutions of science now realize they no longer can afford to remain quietly at work behind their laboratory doors. And many of us at New Day Films ask ourselves how we can help further substantive discourse that leads to better public involvement and sharper appreciation of the values underlying good scientific work. One tactic is to tell stories – real stories in which real people cope with life-affecting conflict involving themes such as ethics, public collaboration and personal journeys.
The Ultimate Wish: Ending the Nuclear Age
Ethics are a central part of deciding what science should be done and what is harmful, as well as an effective gateway for exploring the nature and benefits of science and technology. For example, in one of our newer films, Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement, filmmaker Regan Brashear explores the issues arising from the use of bionic limbs, neural implants and prenatal screening. How do they affect the definition of “human,” and what qualities will make us viable and desirable members of society? Ethics can also be used to explore our responsibilities as citizens when science and technology produce unwelcome consequences. Vietnam: The Secret Agent and The Ultimate Wish: Ending the Nuclear Age are two films, which address that topic in an unforgettable way.
There Once was an Island
Collaboration with the public, such as in There Once was an Island, presents a model for scientists not only to extract information from the public as part of their investigation, but to employ public input in a different way – as a means to bring them into the process of consciously setting the agenda for research and development. Nothing defeats disenfranchisement as well as owning the process.
Personal journey stories demonstrate how real science – with all its inherent complexity – is available, and even incumbent upon the average inquiring citizen. In Eating Alaska, filmmaker and vegetarian Ellen Frankenstein recounts how her move to Alaska provided unexpected dietary challenges that only investigation using scientific knowledge could help her confront.
Stories like the ones at New Day Films also demonstrate that good science can be a vital part of the quest for social justice, democracy and personal empowerment. I know you’ll find them as illuminating, challenging and inspiring as I have.
Attendance was up slightly this year. There were 101 registered buyers, and 43 of them were first-time attendees. As usual, technological change was in the air. From last year’s market, the New Day representatives reported that “streaming is the word on everybody’s lips.” This year, the big topic was APPS, or mobile applications. NMM held two workshops on the subject: “Mobile APPs 101” and “Exploring the APPs Jungle.” Apparently, there was an explosion of APP production and downloading between 2010 and 2012, dominated by Apple. Most of the APPs being produced for educational purposes are short (apparently “long-form” means anything longer than 90 seconds!). The main take-away was that media librarians are overwhelmed by all the APPs on the market and the constant introduction of new platforms. The presenter of one workshop, an APP producer herself, suggested that the main question media librarians need to be asking is “How are our users using media, and how do we meet that need?”
Another NMM workshop focused on ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance for locally hosted videos. We discovered that, in the near future, all streaming content purchased by colleges and universities will be required to have closed captioning. One librarian talked about using freely available shareware to caption licensed video content, but others felt that institutions will probably expect that all licensed streaming material will be captioned by the distributor.
A number of buyers asked about New Day’s streaming packages, and for longer licensing options. We didn’t notice any topic trends and buyers were mostly interested in our newest films. New Day Films is still a very popular brand and while we had a significant number of buyers in our suites talking about the films they wanted to order, many others popped their heads in to say hello and that they’d already decided on their New Day film selections. Of course our 20% market discount was very popular, as is our 25% off on the purchase of ten or more films. We’re looking forward to Charleston in 2014!
According to the 2012 US Census, African-Americans were the second largest minority group in the United States, at 43.9 million.To celebrate the diversity of the African American community, browse our films in our African and African American Studies Collection.