by Briar March
Have you ever reached the end of a riveting documentary and wished you could meet the filmmaker behind it? Just how did they manage to capture those spectacular locations and obtain such intimate access to their characters? Perhaps you’ve been so moved by the story that you are desperate to know what you can do in your own community to make a difference, or help spread awareness. This month I spoke with several New Day filmmakers who have traveled extensively with their films, interacting with diverse audiences and facilitating events to effect change beyond the screen.
Since the release of The Year We Thought About Love, New Day filmmaker Ellen Brodsky has presented her documentary about a LGBTQ youth theater troupe at a variety of conferences, high schools, and universities. The film has elicited a flood of emotional responses from audience members. One of the most memorable moments, Brodsky recalls, was when an African-American female student sitting with her girlfriend approached her and said, “Thank you. I have never seen two Black women kiss on screen, that means a lot to me.”
Whenever possible, Brodsky brings the youth featured in her documentary to answer questions and spark conversations with the audience. At a conference for therapists and counselors, Brodsky recalls an older woman asking Trae Weekes and Niccole Williams, two gay African American women featured in her film, for advice on how to talk to her son who had just come out. Another delegate confessed that she regretted acting poorly when her daughter came out many years before. The youth spent a considerable amount of time consoling the woman, and told her that she still had time to repair their relationship.
“There is the expected and the unexpected,” reflects Brodsky. “We hear from allies grateful for the perspectives shared in the film, but then we also hear the comments and questions nearly whispered out of great relief or fear. There's energy exchanged with live question and answers. We all receive and give energy and it is so very much appreciated.”
For New Day member Jean-Michel Dissard, his documentary I Learn America is the starting point for a much larger conversation around the issues in his film. Set in a public high school in Brooklyn, I Learn America follows the experience of five teenagers who have recently immigrated to the United States as they strive to master English and adapt to a profoundly different way of life. When browsing through the I Learn America website it’s truly impressive to see the range of places both the film and the filmmaker have been; screening events have been set up inside advocacy groups, cultural organizations, universities, throughout entire high school districts in Florida, Boston, and New York City, schools in Guatemala and France, and even at the US Department of Education. But perhaps what is most interesting about Dissard’s approach to these screenings is the way he has designed specific workshops and projects to help students engage with his documentary.
In particular is the work Dissard has been doing with the organization KIND (Kids in Need of Defense). Together they have created an initiative called Story Labs, a resource for educators which is designed to run alongside screenings of Dissard’s film. “The project creates a space and time in which teachers and their students explore the immigration narrative,” writes Dissard. “It is also a creative space for youth to produce (write, paint, photograph, film) their own personal narratives and to turn their experience into an advocacy tool for them to use.”
Work produced by students in the Story Lab project is showcased and archived on an interactive portal which can be accessed through the I Learn America website creating another rich and moving resource that audiences can engage with. Buoyed by the success of the project, Dissard hopes to develop it into something more long-term, encouraging schools to repeat the workshops on an annual basis and using the art and stories produced by students to engage the next round of incoming students. He adds, “Their voices once shared can turn their school into a community that recognizes them as assets, not issues.”
It seems that almost by default filmmakers who present their work have taken on the role of an advocate or activist, directly facilitating opportunities for social change. This is certainly the case for New Day member Jonathan Skurnik, whose Youth and Gender Media Project is comprised of four short films about transgender youth: Becoming Johanna, Creating Gender Inclusive Schools, I’m Just Anneke, and The Family Journey: Raising Gender Nonconforming Children. As a result of screening his documentaries, Skurnik was recently invited to present a TED style talk on the way storytelling can be used as a form of activism. He explains:
I struggled for a while comparing myself with professionals who just present on the topic of inclusion for trans youth, until I realized that I am offering something different from a 2 hour powerpoint; I show a powerful film that makes people cry and feel things in their hearts that no presentation can do, and then audiences love interacting with me as the storyteller.
After screening Becoming Johanna, a short film about a transgender Latina, at schools and universities, Skurnik invited professionals and agencies in the local community to speak on panels about their services and the ways they can assist trans youth. The panels provided an opportunity for many of the participants to meet each other in person for the first time, and led to fruitful conversations and the possibility of future collaborations. Skurnik explains, “After they have seen the film, they get to talk to all the other agencies about how they can do a better job, not just talking about what they can do alone, but how they can work inter-agency.”
The opportunities that can come out of screening films with filmmakers and their participants are endless, and can have a greater impact than screening the film alone. With the potential of the internet to broadcast filmmakers into classrooms from far distances, “talkback” screenings are becoming more feasible and popular. As audiences increasingly turn to places like Netflix to get their content, screenings like these provide a more authentic and direct experience, similar to watching your favorite band play live or going to a play. There is something about the exchange that happens between the audience and the presenters that allows the film to have a larger conversation inside a community or classroom, and create a more affecting experience. At New Day we encourage you to consider making use of the rich resources of filmmakers we have at hand, and to work with them to curate your own screening event.
Tips on setting up a screening:
- Get a head start
To create an interactive and engaging screening, start planning early. Explore the possibility of creating supplementary learning exercises, or seek out experts to sit on a post-screening panel. Filmmakers, if given advance notice, can also help to publicize the event and make arrangements for themselves or the documentary participants to attend.
- Include filmmakers in the planning
New Day filmmakers are more than happy to collaborate with instructors on designing film-related assignments or recommending activities for community engagement. Don’t forget to check for downloadable materials on each film’s New Day page, or on the film’s personal website.
- Screenings can work across departments throughout the community
Consider collaborating with other departments at your university to bring a filmmaker to your campus, or working with different organizations to hold a community screening. You’ll raise the profile of the event, draw larger crowds, and foster interdisciplinary conversations.
- Make use of Skype
Skype and other video calling applications can offer an effective and more affordable way of engaging with filmmakers and their film participants. Many filmmakers recommend scheduling a dialogue either right after a screening, or within a day or two.
- What to budget for?
You can contact individual filmmakers through their New Day pages to request speaking quotes. The cost will vary depending on their geographical location and the nature of the event. If budget is a concern, don’t be daunted. New Day filmmakers are passionate about reaching audiences and effecting change, and will work with you to find solutions to make the screening a reality!