Tip o’ the Month – Marketing and Social Media Tools

Steph Bleyer, founder of Six Foot Chipmunk, talks about her favorite tech tools that help clients reach and activate new audiences. Here’s a peek inside her toolbox:

Call2Action – Customizable, sharable widget. It’s like a mini-website. Trumps YouTube for embedding films trailers on Facebook (and every other platform). It’s a must-have for every film engagement campaign. Five stars.

Vokle – Want to do your next post-screening Q & A from your living room?  I’ve produced many panels using this call-in/text-in/tweet-in video platform, which works particularly awesome if you have multiple panelists in disparate locations. You can embed the video player on your site and your partners’ sites and folks can call in like they’re on a video-radio-web show.  Big love.

Mailchimp – To keep in touch with our audiences, I ditched lame Constant Contact years ago for Mailchimp. The e-newsletter templates are tighter and less non-profity looking, it’s easy to administer and there’s a cartoon monkey that will crack you up.

Textmarks – I’ve searched high and low for the best texting tool. I haven’t found it yet. If you want to text your audience an occasional call to action, Textmarks will do the trick (for free, w/ ads). We all want to collect email addresses at every screening without using a clipboard, right? Well the only service I can find that will let you do this with mobile requires that you have a minimum operating budget of $500k.

Eventbrite – When organizing a one-off national community screening event, I recommend centralizing RSVP’s using Eventbrite. This will guarantee that you will collect the e-mail addresses from most screening attendees without having to hassle your screening organizers to send you their lists (which they rarely do).

Ushahidi – Free, open-sourced crowd-mapping that will show people where your screenings are taking place around the world. Yes, Google Maps can do this but Ushahidi can do it better because your screening organizers/audience members do the work. They can text, email and tweet in screening info. BAVC created this sample.

Salsa – Their tagline “ingredients for organizing” is spot on. I used Salsa to register and collect info about people participating in a week-long film engagement project that The Huffington Post co-hosted. Salsa is one-stop shopping (from donation collection to Click2Call) but I can’t vouch for all of the features, just the easy peasy registration function.

Just Give – I’ve used this multiple times to collect on-line donations for film campaigns. They skim off 3%. You have to be a 501c3 or have fiscal sponsorship. Can’t remember why I got hooked on them, maybe they’re just cheap and easy.

Change.org – I’m no fan of petitions. In fact I hate them. They’re the least creative approach to engagement.  Don’t get me started.  If you really need one, I recommend using Change.org’s free petition tool.

By: Molly Murphy – http://workingfilms.org/blog/?p=1812

Kartemquin Films Offers Insight Into Critique Process

Kartemquin Films, one of the most reputable documentary production companies in the will be coming to the Doc Center this week to demonstrate the art of the peer review.  Known for their usually merciless stance on their review subjects, they can also be highly instrumental in making a film the best it can possibly be.

As a film is critically shaped in its final stages through reviews and critiques such as this, students from all majors and levels of experience are suggested to come to this event and learn how a proper critique is accomplished.  Students are also welcome to bring their work to be screened and critiqued, though there is no guarantee it will be shown (it's on a first-come, first-serve basis).

The Logistics:
When: Tuesday, November 16th @ 5pm
Where: the Doc Center (4th Floor of 1104 S. Wabash)

Kartemquin Films has producing quality social issue-driven documentaries for over 40 years.  This event will be a great opportunity to not only understand a crucial process in a film's life, but it will be a wonderful networking opportunity.  REMEMBER – Internship applications for Kartemquin are due December 1st!

See you on Tuesday,

Naomi Kothbauer – Viva Doc President

Fall 2010 to be full of screenings, networking events

Nobody is quite sure how old Viva Doc actually is.  The Michael Rabiger Center for Documentary has been in existence for over 20 years, so it's usually presumed Viva Doc, a student org for doc lovers, has been in existence, off and on, for at least 10 years.

…Whatever the exact number, Viva Doc has an impressive track record of events, collaborations, and networking opportunities.  Whether it be hosting Academy Award nominated filmmakers to discuss their film 'Trouble the Water,' producing an independent film about organic farming, or simply having a networking party, Viva Doc has been around to serve the documentarian community.

This year the expectations are even higher.  Viva Doc is reaching outside of the film building, outside of Columbia College, and even outside of the country.  Students from all majors are invited to attend meetings and plan events (more than just film majors love documentaries!).  Viva Doc will be hosting Doxita, a traveling film festival, as well as their own 'Viva Doc International,' an International Student Documentary Competition.  In between these exciting opportunities are, of course, the traditional bake sales and networking nights.

Viva Doc's first official event will be a networking party on Thursday, September 30th.  So, whether you haven't been on a documentary set before but are looking to gain experience, or you have a thoroughly developed project that you need an editor for, etc., you are welcome!  It will be from 5:30-7:30 in the Doc Center (the 4th floor of 1104 S. Wabash).

See you there!

-Naomi Kothbauer, Viva Doc President

Viva Doc is …

…a student organization at Columbia College Chicago for anybody who likes making documentaries, watching documentaries, and/or talking about documentaries!  You don’t have to be a film or TV major to join!

-We connect students to internship opportunities, networking opportunities, fun workshops, and free screenings.

We meet every Wednesdays at 5:30pm in the Doc Center (1104 S. Wabash, Rm. 407).  We will be kicking off the school year with a networking event on September 13th (there will be free food), and we would love if you could come and join us!

-Please e-mail us at vivadocumentary@gmail.com with any questions, or if you would like to be added to our e-newsletter list.  We will keep you updated about upcoming events and opportunities.

Decision Forces Filmmaker to Turn Over 600 Hours of Footage to Chevron

Judge Lewis A. Kaplan of the Federal District Court in New York granted Chevron’s request for a subpoena, which demands access to over 600 hours of footage from “Crude,” a documentary that chronicles a legal battle being supported by 30,000 Amazonian settlers hoping to hold Texaco (now owned by Chevron) responsible for environmental devastation in Ecuador.

Joseph Berlinger, the filmmaker behind “Crude,” claimed he was protected by “journalistic privilege,” but, according to the New York Times, he qualified for the privilege but “the conditions for overcoming that privilege had been met” by Chevron.

Berlinger plans to ask the judge to “stay the subpoena” so the decision can be appealed.

Many in the documentary filmmaking community have indicated that they will support Berlinger’s effort to appeal and resist this decision. Filmmakers understand what this decision could mean for the future of documentary filmmaking.

Gordon Quinn, artistic director and founder of Kartemquin Films in Chicago, said, “My experience is that the ‘outs’ of a film usually show the big and the powerful to be worse than they are portrayed in our films, but if we have to turn over footage and spend time in court and defend ourselves for expressing our First Amendment rights it can be an overwhelming burden for a small organization like ours.”

Quinn added, “It has the feel of intimidation and using the legal process to let us know don’t take on the big guys or they can drive you crazy and drain your resources by tying you up in court.”

Documentary instructor at Columbia College Chicago and director of “The Return of Navajo Boy,” a film that touched upon the impact of uranium mining on the Navajo, Jeff Spitz, had not heard about it. He noted from his experience making “Navajo Boy, “The extraction industries have absolutely no interest in the safety and/or benefits of their work for indigenous people. Indigenous people pay the hidden price of our energy.”

An Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago with forty years of documentary filmmaking experience, Russell Porter, reacted, “The reported federal judgment that filmmaker Joe Berlinger must turn over his outtakes to Chevron’s defense lawyers strikes me as an arbitrary and dangerous interpretation of the First Amendment.”

“The role of independent documentary filmmakers has almost totally replaced what was historically the function of investigative journalism,” said Porterin fact there is no difference between the methodology and social/political function of filmmakers like Berlinger and that of – say – Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward during the Watergate scandal.”

New York Times writer for the ArtsBeat Blog diligently followed this story conducting interviews with filmmakers Michael Moore and Ric Burns (the director of “Andy Warhol” and PBS’ “New York”) on Thursday.

Burns reacted, Chevron is “really saying ‘O.K., pal, drop your drawers, and with it, 600 hours of film.'” And added, “That’s insane. That’s a weapon so blunt that it’s impossible not to feel that Judge Kaplan doesn’t care about the impression that is conveyed.”

Burns added this “contributes to a general culture of contempt for investigative journalism” and next time someone goes to make a “Crude” the group that provides information on the subject will be a “much leerier group of informants.”

Michael Moore had “never heard of such a ruling.” Moore told the ArtsBeat Blog he never had to deal with any corporation suing him to find out how he gathered his information.

“Obviously the ramifications of this go far beyond documentary films, if corporations are allowed to pry into a reporter’s notebook or into a television station’s newsroom,” said Moore.

Moore hoped the decision would be overturned on appeal and, if not, Berlinger should “resist the subpoena.” He also said that “hundreds of filmmakers” would support Berlinger’s fight to not turn over his footage to Chevron.

Documentary as Journalism?

The New York Times put together an article that suggested this decision re-ignites a debate over whether a documentary filmmaker should have journalistic privileges or not.

In his interview with ArtsBeat Blog, Moore said, “Documentaries are a form of journalism.”

The lawyer for Chevron, Randy M. Mastro, according to the New York Times, firmly believes that “Crude” should not be considered journalism. And, Mastro claimed that this decision is not about “the First Amendment” or journalistic privilege.

Mastro said, “This is about a plaintiffs’ lawyer who decided he wanted to star in a movie and gave a sympathetic filmmaker extraordinary access to the plaintiffs’ case and strategy.”

Porter said of this statement, “The cynical dismissal of the film “Crude” as ‘…a case of a lawyer who decided he wanted to be a movie star’ would be laughable if it were not so obviously disingenuous, self-serving and untrue.”

A key problem is the fact that documentary filmmakers are expected to have subjects sign releases that they agree to appear in the film. With “Crude,” pact agreements were actually formed between the filmmaker and the settlers and those agreements would clearly be violated if Chevron was able to use the footage for their own agenda.

What are documentary filmmakers supposed to do in the future if this stands? What will filmmakers need to look out for and do to protect themselves? What additional amount of self-censorship will filmmakers have to engage in?

Will filmmakers have to begin to destroy all of their footage that they have left over once their film is complete? How are filmmakers going to handle a reality where corporations can force filmmakers to compromise their sources and turn over unused footage to them?

At a time where BP is responsible for the leaking of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, what should those documenting the destruction be weary of if a precedent is set that corporations like Chevron can subpoena unused footage to take down plaintiffs who are challenging business practices and suggesting corporations should be held responsible or accountable for their actions?

There are many more questions about the ramifications of this decision on filmmaking. The issue of journalistic privilege and documentary should be the subject of conversation for the next months especially if filmmakers unite and mount a visible effort in support of Berlinger’s right to not hand over the footage to Chevron.


The following is Associate Professor of Columbia College Chicago and documentary filmmaker Russell Porter’s full response to the decision.

I am an Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago with almost forty years experience as a documentary filmmaker, journalist and teacher on five continents. I have extensive experience of working with indigenous people and their struggles to maintain their traditional ways of life in the face of ever more destructive encroachment by extractive and environmentally damaging industries.

I first visited the upper Amazon region of Ecuador in 1969-70 when I lived and traveled through the then pristine Amazon regions bordering the Napo River, and was privileged to visit several indigenous communities (including the Huaorani/ Waorani and Achuar people).

I returned to the region on a research trip in 1999 to see for myself how this unique world had changed during my lifetime. I was appalled buy what my Huaorani hosts showed me as a result of the impact of oil exploration and extraction on their health and environment. I traveled with them to several sites that were at least as damaged by oil spills and dumps (in “piscinas”) like those shown in the film “Crude” – which, in my my view, if anything understates the impact on the culture, environment and the ecosystems that have sustained these communities for millennia.

The Huaorani community I visited (in the remote Shiripuni region) had been forced to relocate there since their traditional homeland had become unsustainable as a result of the massive intrusion of oil industry machinery and associated contamination and deforestation. I also visited the regions around Lago Agrio featured in the film, and witnessed the total transformation that the oil industry has cause to the environment integrity, health and well-being of traditional indigenous people there, with the associated often violent social destruction of their way of life.

The reported federal judgment that filmmaker Joe Berlinger must turn over his outtakes to Chevron’s defense lawyers strikes me as an arbitrary and dangerous interpretation of the First Amendment. The role of independent documentary filmmakers has almost totally replaced what was historically the function of investigative journalism – in fact there is no difference between the methodology and social/political function of filmmakers like Berlinger and that of – say – Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward during the Watergate scandal.

Without such scrutiny, It is my opinion that the ever-increasing corporate malfeasance would go unchecked, to the detriment of society as a whole. It is an intrinsic facet of our democratic system that such independent scrutiny is allowed the full protection of the law.

The cynical dismissal of the film “Crude” as “…a case of a lawyer who decided he wanted to be a movie star” would be laughable if it were not so obviously disingenuous, self-serving and untrue.

Documentary filmmakers of course have the right to include, structure and interpret their raw material in any way they chose – just as a journalist will draw on his or her research notes to compile a coherent narrative story. Film material is edited in just this way, and for whatever reason some footage may be left out, it remains the intellectual property of the filmmaker and he or she is under no obligation to hand it over to anyone. It is a right – just as that held by journalists – protected under the First Amendment. Whatever the legality of the case against Chevron, the principle is unchanged.

Also posted on OpEdNews.com and Alternet.org.

Fundraiser for ISDC at Viaduct Theater a Success

Collage of photos from the International Student Documentary Competition (ISDC)

Last Sunday, May 2nd, Viva Doc and a Documentary Post-Production Team class at Columbia College Chicago held a fundraiser at the Viaduct Theater for the International Student Documentary Competition (ISDC), which will be held in October of this year.

The fundraiser called “World Shorts” provided an opportunity for the competition to raise prize money for the competition. It began at 8 pm and went past midnight offering those in attendance an opportunity to hear four bands play music.

The bands that participated — Gentlemen’s Guild, The Midwestern, Pet Peeve, and Jon Drake & the Shakes — graciously volunteered to participate and support the fundraiser. Each played at least twenty to thirty minutes of music.

A drummer from The Midwestern said, to paraphrase, playing the fundraiser was the most fun I had playing a show in years.

Without the bands, the fundraiser would not have succeeded. The bands are why people came into the venue and paid a $10 cover to get into the event.

Documentary filmmaker Mitch Wenkus, a senior at Columbia who helped plan the event, explained that the bands brought many faces to the event and people who are outside the Viva Documentary circle.

Wenkus thought that following of the bands came to the event and became interested in documentary.

In addition to organizing bands, Viva Doc and the documentary class collected raffle items, which were donated by businesses like Music Box, Odd Obsession, Reckless Records, Strange Cargo, Uncle Fun, Women & Children First Bookstore, and more. And, a silent auction with items like a a Kartemquin DVD gift bag, prints signed by Cartoonist Ivan Brunetti, Facets Multi-Media DVDs, Jim Derogatis’ book “Milk It,” a Short Film Brigade goodie bag, which were all donated to the auction.

Some of the students involved in the fundraiser even chose to offer their talents in the auction. Attendees were able to bid on videography, editing, drawing, and lawn services.

Two M.C.’s, Uncle Art and Uncle Roger, volunteered to host the event. The comedic and musical duo, which perform at bar mitzvahs, weddings, graduations, divorces, and excommunications (as they said numerous times at the event) added an extra element of entertainment to the event that attendees had not expected.

For example, Uncle Art joked, “We’re at the Viaduct. Wanna vi-a-duct?”

Overall, the fundraiser was very successful and raised much of the money needed to fund prizes for the competition.

The Viva Doc ISDC is “a celebration of student filmmakers from around the world” and “students from recognized institutions of higher education with instruction in filmmaking at the undergraduate or graduate level are invited to submit documentaries, which have been completed as course work.”

The ISDC will be taking submissions until June 10th. The website for information on submitting films is VivaDocInternational.org. Organizers encourage you to submit your films to this international competition if you haven’t already.

Gordon Quinn, Jerry Temaner Talk Early Kartemquin Films at Columbia

Just over a week ago, Gordon Quinn and Jerry Temaner came to Columbia College to participate in the “Art, Access & Action” Summit at Columbia and talk with documentary students (and others) about documentary film making and how film making and society has changed since the era when great early Kartemquin films like What the Fuck are These Red Squares? and Hum 255 were made.

The discussion featured a screening of What the Fuck are These Red Squares?.

Here's a synopsis of the film:

Striking students meet at a “Revolutionary Seminar” at the Art Institute of Chicago in response to the invasion of Cambodia and the killing of protesting students at Kent and Jackson State Universities. They explore their role as artists in a capitalist society and issue questions like: What are the implications of the artist's elitist position in America? Is it possible not to be co-opted, as “radical” as one's art may be? What are the connections between money and art in America? between the “New York Scene” and the rest of the country?

The conversation was filmed and video of the conversation may be posted on the Viva Documentary website in the near future. For those of you who missed it, the discussion got into how discourse has changed since the 1960s, why students protested during Vietnam and why there aren't many students protesting the wars in the Middle East right now, whether spontaneous conversation like this could be filmed for a documentary in today's world, and whether young people are turned on to the most pressing social and cultural issues of the day.

The conversation was very free-form with Gordon Quinn and Jerry Temaner offering many anecdotes from their experiences as filmmakers throughout the past decades. Both shared memories of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 and the fascinating sight of young people at pay phones letting their parents know that they were alright and their parents shouldn't be worried about them (this as shots of police beating young protesters were being shown on television).

Following the early Kartemquin films discussion, Gordon Quinn participated in a talk about fair use, copyright and the commons with accomplished PBS filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein.

The two used the document, “Best Practices in Fair Use“, to go through examples from their experiences as documentary filmmakers. Each example touched on an element of the “Fair Use” document, which is a document for filmmakers which empowers them against those who might suggest they don't have the right to use certain material in their work. “Fair use” allows a filmmaker to “quote copyrighted material without asking permission or paying for it” (in some circumstances). It's what keeps copyright law from being total censorship.

That conversation was filmed, too. And it will be made available to the public some time in the not-so-distant future as well.

If you enjoyed these documentary events, please comment on this. And if you would like to see more documentary events at Columbia, stay tuned.

Along with the upcoming International Student Documentary Competition Fundraiser, World Shorts, there are plans in the works.

Michael Moore Attends Premiere Screening in Chicago

How fitting is it that during a week of premieres for Michael Moore’s new film, Capitalism: A Love Story, the “group of twenty” nations (G20), which together account for about 85 percent of the world’s economy, were in Pittsburgh to revitalize global free market policies and even renew the people of the world’s faith in capitalism?

Just as Michael Moore was about to begin his premiere in Chicago, in Pittsburgh thousands of students (effectively or ineffectively) were acting upon what they think and feel about capitalism and were being criminalized and suppressed by a security presence that was effectively imposing martial law on the city of Pittsburgh so that the G20 summit could happen without a din going on in the background.

At the premiere in Chicago, about 50-100 people from the general public were allowed in to the premiere. Another couple hundred seats were for press, local politicians, union workers, and workers from the Republic Windows factory, which had staged a sit-in in December 2008 when the workers found out the factory they worked in would be shut down and they would not be getting owed vacation and severance pay.

The screening was an event. Moore came before the audience to introduce the film saying he was honored to be here. He would be going on Bill Maher’s show, and afterward, a Q&A would take place.

In two hours, Moore along with his great crew and archival team weaved a tableau that connected a series of events and personal stories which had occurred in the past few years.

A montage of bank robberies with Iggy Pop singing a rendition of “Louie, Louie” opens the movie. A masterfully edited sequence comparing America and the history of Rome before its empire fell takes place followed. Then, Americans are seen being “robbed” by banks or having their homes foreclosed on.

Moore's new favorite fact to tell news pundits is heard: A foreclosure happens once every 7.5 seconds. Rep. Marcy Kaptur is featured in the film advocating for open rebellion as she says from the House floor to Americans, “don’t leave your home” unless the bank foreclosing on you can physically produce your mortgage.

A harrowing portion of the film provides Americans a glimpse into the dark side of capitalism through “dead peasant policies,” a practice that involves businesses or corporations taking out life insurance policies on people who they think will die and make them money. The practice symbolizes all that it is evil about capitalism.

Moore said of “dead peasant policies” during the Q&A that this is “how corporations see you.” They think it is in their best interest to not give you health insurance and rig the system through unsafe conditions in the workplace. Then, you will die sooner and will make them money.

A horrific story involving young people is included in the film. Moore details how two Pennsylvania judges were charged with taking millions of dollars in kickbacks to send teenagers to two privately run youth detention centers. He chooses to go beyond calling this corruption and calls it a symptom of capitalism, a result of a system that legitimizes greed.

In the latter part of the movie, Congress is shown doing the bidding of Sec. of Treasury Henry Paulson. The majority of Congress members are afraid of voting “no”, of being responsible for an economic meltdown that could cost them their re-election. Like in October 2002 when they were afraid to vote against the Iraq war for fear of being labeled a supporter of Saddam, they allow what Rep. Marcy Kaptur agrees is a “financial coup d’état.”

Archival footage of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that Moore explained was “conveniently lost and buried” appears toward the end of the film. As he was dying, FDR asked that someone film him speaking about a Second Bill of Rights.

For Moore and crew working on the film, it was intensely emotional every time they watched the footage because it made one wonder what the last 65 years would have been like if Americans had seen this. And, the archival team uncovered the footage by refusing to believe the Roosevelt Library when the library told them the footage didn’t exist.

The film is an intensely personal one for Moore. Going back to the production of Roger & Me (1989), Moore goes into the trials and horrors that his hometown Flint, Michigan experienced and how Flint has been for the past twenty years. Moore tries to get a meeting with the men in charge of running GM so he can offer some advice that could significantly turn business around. He is not allowed to go near the building entrance.

The faith Moore had as a child in Judeo-Christian teachings and interviews with priests add an extra element of intensity. News clips show how Americans have been duped into having faith in capitalism, faith that directly contradicts what many believe religiously.

Moore’s magnum opus comes to an end with a sequence of Obama riling up citizens for “hope and change.” Shots of individuals taking on the recession, shots of people refusing to let capitalism take away basic needs that are necessary for survival, and shots of workers championing democracy in the workplace end the film on a high note.

The idea of democracy in the workplace was emboldened by the presence of the Republic Windows workers whose story was featured in the film. Moore and his crew were the only media allowed in to the factory during the sit-in. It is evident that the workers trusted Moore as an ally who would give voice to their values and a few of the workers choose to thank him personally during the Q&A.

The audience participating in the Q&A showed signs of increasing skepticism for Obama. Chicago might be “Obamaland,” but the engaged working class of Chicago knew even more clearly after seeing Moore’s film that Obama has been conducting policy for the richest 1% at the expense of the poor, working, and middle classes of America.

Moore indicated that he found the appointment of Timothy Geithner to Secretary of Treasury and the naming of Larry Summers as an adviser to be very unsettling. Instead of being properly critical of Obama, he chose to apply twisted logic to the situation and argue that big banks hire bank robbers to help them prevent banks from being robbed and so, perhaps, Obama hired Geithner, Summers, and others closely linked to the banking industry so they could tell him how to prevent Americans from being robbed again.

It doesn’t quite make sense how willing Moore is to contend that we should continue to hope Obama does something that would sharply contrast his history as a senator, presidential candidate, and as a president so far. What does make sense, however, is how Moore explains that Obama has been out there alone with little support from the Left in America.

Moore tells the audience there is no crying in politics. Americans have to get busy themselves and cannot leave this up to a Michael Moore or Barack Obama. He asks the audience to organize around the movie and bring groups and unions to the film that will open in more than 1,000 theaters.

Capitalism: A Love Story has the potential to tap into the anger boiling beneath the surface, anger that has manifested itself on the right but has unfortunately been stifled and stymied by progressives, liberals, activist organizations, and even unions.

A film student stood up during the Q&A to ask what advice he would give film students. Moore told film students in the audience “beg, borrow, and steal” and “shoot, shoot, shoot.” He says “make films from your heart.”

He added, “Don't make what you think will look good. Make something you would like to go see on a Friday night.”

Finally, he told film students, “Think about the 1 million who want to see your movie, not the other 299 million in America” that won't. Focus on mobilizing that audience to see your film and you'll be successful.

The New Americans and Me

Jose from The New Americans
Looking back, I can find all types of moments that may have foreshadowed my love for documentary but if there was a time that truly made me commit to non-fiction, it was my last year at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. The design of the film program at that time was that you make a choice at the thesis level; make a narrative film in 16mm snyc-sound or a documentary in digital video with the Canon XL1. The year that followed stretched me and challenged me in so many ways that I realized that documentary filmmaking makes you eat, sleep and breathe film in the way that my Production 1 teacher, Mike Covell, talked about in my first real film class. At that age all I wanted to do was change the world and documentary gave me to tools to do so.

My thesis film followed a bus full of immigration rights activists for 8 days as they lobbied and rallied in Washington D.C. with thousands of others from around the country. The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride marked the beginning of a new civil rights movement that combined the issues of all immigrants instead of just one population. I knew little about all this when I stepped on the bus and I probably never would have if I hadn’t taken a leap into something completely foreign to me but I was college so I took the chance.

In a tiny way, getting on that bus was like the immigrant experience. I left home with a few bags and a camera and I lived among a group of people that I knew very little about. Feelings of displacement, helplessness, pride and acceptance were some that I was able to sample during those 8 days and 9 nights. I was different when I returned but I still didn’t have the language to articulate my new outlook on life. I was a kid with 30 hours of footage and about 10 hours of experience in non-linear, digital editing. Lily Buroskowski helped me manage the footage and look for the story but it was a grueling 4 months of bad edits and do overs.

It was in this venerable state that I first encountered The New Americans. Steve James, a Southern Illinois alum and Academy Award nominated director of Hoop Dreams, was screening his series, The New Americans during The Big Muddy Film Festival. The film was spread out over 3 days which meant that we were able to watch it the way that Kartemquin preferred. The series still hadn’t aired on television and we had the privilege of listening to Steve James, who was there for a Q & A after part 1. I spoke to him briefly about my thesis project and he was very encouraging. The details of the conversation are blurred by my star-struck memory but I’m sure I sounded like a nervous little fanboy so I still appreciate how kind he was.

I couldn’t agree more with Kartemquin’s claim that The New Americans intimately connects viewers to its subjects. This was the first series that I’d seen that was able to follow immigrant families from their home countries to the United States and one of the largest payoffs to this approach comes in the story of Jose and Riccardo, two baseball players that the L.A. Dodgers recruit from the Dominican Republic.The juxtaposition between Riccardo, an unmistakable talent, and Jose, a poor boy who can play, gives us a wide range of information about why families pin in their hopes to something as fickle as a professional baseball career. There are echoes of this relationship when Jose and Riccardo negotiate contracts with management and are happy to have check for $5,000 for a season while their U.S. born counterparts won’t consider playing for under a million dollars.

The Nigerian story of Ogoni Refugees, Israel and Ngozi shows a completely different approach to the story because we are introduced to Israel and Ngozi Nwidor after they’ve lived for a refugee camp for 2 years and are about to make the transition of starting a new life in America. This storyline requires a backstory to explain the circumstances that brought the Nwidor family, and many other Ogonis, to this point.

Isreal’s optimism serves as a reminder of what makes people risk their futures to come to the U.S. A scene where Ngozi and Isreal send a portion of their earnings shows some of the pressure that most immigrant families are under to maintain the image of the American Dream in the eyes of family back at home. Even though they are suffering through hardships, they still have to send money back home and tell everyone that they are doing well.

Watching the Nwidor family experience America for the first time is an amazing thing. When the refugees are first given McDonald’s hamburgers it’s as if they’ve finally arrived in the land of opportunity. It’s a food that I do everything in my power to avoid but watching Isreal eat one makes me appreciate what it would mean to appreciate it without even knowing what’s inside. His excitement to learn what goes on the outside and what is in the middle shows that, like anyone on the brink of change, he doesn’t know what he’s in for.

The last story that’s introduced in the first part of the series is of Naima Saadeh, a Palestinian bride that is determined to leave her small town in the Israeli-occupied West Bank where she has lived her whole life. We get to know Naima as she goes through a typical commute to school. She needs to take three taxi-vans and cross an Israeli checkpoint to get to school. We get some of the back story of the situation in the West Back through letters that her brother, Jihad, wrote to her while imprisoned for his role in the youth movement during the Intifada. I love the scene for it’s emotional power, the amount of information communicated and because they allow Naima to break the fourth wall by telling Jihad that “They” asked to see the letters.

The relationship between of Naima and her fiance, first-generation Palestinian American Hatem Abudayyeh, is fascinating because of the differences between the way they view Naima’s life. Hatem is offended to see Naima and all of his people have to travel through checkpoints. There’s also a scene where Hatem sheds a tear for the story of one of his father’s tenants. Naima, on the other hand, doesn’t find her story as tragic and seems uncomfortable that her husband is so moved and she isn’t.

The tapestry that’s woven with these 3 stories creates a depth that couldn’t be achieved by focusing on an individual family. However, Kartemquin’s approach doesn’t cheat any of the characters out of their own complexity. That’s why I’ve found it so easy to find parallels between The New Americans and my own life last time I watch it as well as this time. The issues that are bought out of the lives of these families translate to the lives of anyone that is in transition.

The feelings of displacement that I felt when I was on a bus full of strangers is the same as those that Jose and Ricardo felt when they were brought up by the Dodgers. The helplessness that Isreal and Ngozi felt in trying to advance at their jobs is similar to my having a mountain of footage and no knowledge of how to edit it and the feeling that I had as I neared graduation echoed Naima’s experience as she passed her exam and prepared for her new life in America. As the series is rebroadcast, I find myself in a similar transition as I assimilate into the culture of documentary filmmakers and begin a new chapter in my own life. I can’t wait to see what this series holds for me this time around.

The filmmakers behind The New Americans will be visiting the Viva Doc online forum soon. To read more about that, click here.

The Michael Rabiger Center for Documentary Film Celebrates its 20th Anniversary

The party will take place from 4-7 (and probably later) in the Doc Center, 1104 S Wabash, suite 407. Photos and video will be uploaded to the Viva Doc website afterwards.

Update: Mario C. adds a slew of photos he took at the event:

Passing the Camera
Little Bits Catering

Animators Love Documentary!
Russell Introduces the Panelists

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Tod Lending

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