The Power of 12 / by KirstenStudio

The 10th Annual Media That Matters collection was screened last night at the SVA Theater in New York City.  This event kicks off a 10 city tour in celebration of Media That Matter's 10th anniversary.

The 2010 collection of 12 social issues documentaries, all 12 minutes or under, consisted of an excellent array of filmmakers and stories.  The subjects ranged from health care, to gender identity, to the environmental, to immigration, racism, police brutality, displaced cities, the homeless and more.  As the filmmaker, Julie Winokur put it, all these stories are statistics until they become personalized. People don't get engaged over statistics.

The first piece shown yesterday evening was Denied, by Director and Producer, Julie Winokur. The film's follows Sheila Wessenberg as she and her family struggle with insurance companies and the medical industry to get enough health care coverage to treat the breast cancer she's been diagnosed with. After loosing coverage, depleting their out-of-pocket funds and sacrificing valuable time without any medical attention, Ms. Wessenberg began to beg on the street to raise money for treatment.  It wasn't until the filmmaker (who is also a writer) ran a story in the New York Times about Ms. Wessenberg's situation did people pick up the phone.  Ms. Winokur reported that the Wessenberg family  received about 50,000 in unsolicited funds from strangers, simply because they read about her story.  A doctor even gave her his time free of charge and she began to receive treatment again. People were engaged and therefore they acted.

I'm Just Anneke, a film by Johathan Skurnik tackled a 12-year old's understanding of her gender identity around the delicate time of approaching puberty.  A beautiful story of a supportive family who just wants their child to be happy. The documentary by Stacey Muhammad entitled, I Am Sean Bell addressed police brutality.  Ms. Muhammad interviewed kids about their thoughts and fears around the every day violence in their neighborhoods. Great spoken word artist performances were effectively interspersed.

Director Josephine Boxwell and Producer Laurie Nicholls brought the story of a once homeless couple to touching life in, No One Bothered. Claire and Darren take their audience on a tour of the streets they once lived on while they movingly recall watching life pass them by as they scraped together money from selling The Big Issue newspaper. During the festival post Q & A, Ms. Boxwell said an article on Big Issue sellers inspired the film. Claire and Darren defy the homeless stereotype by their tender demeanors and obvious love for one another.  The filmmakers offer some of the couple's backstory, but really it's the tour of the city through Clare and Darren's eyes, where they slept, who gave them food, who ran them out, who abused them and how they eventually were taken in, that provides a human-to-human connection. Ms. Boxwell and Ms. Nichols give us the feeling that we're there with them, looking at the bare dirt or concrete ground the couple often slept on, and as Clare puts it, "... with one eye open."

Patrick Smith gave great insight to race relations and violence that divide the island shared by Dominican Republic and Haiti in Shades of the Border. The film, My Hotness is Pasted on Yey!, by Gus Andrews, was a hilarious and successful use of puppetry to expose and debate the trade secrets of the "beauty industry".  Day Job, a film by Sara Hopman, chronicles day laborers as they spend long hours in parking lots waiting for manual labor jobs that often pays less than what anyone would need to survive.  The Last Town is made up of powerfully captured images by Yan Chun Su.  The film reminded me in some ways of Manufactured Landscapes, and that's a huge compliment, while remaining it's own story. Yan Chun Su used more imagery than dialogue and it works well.  The documentary captures a last look at a 2000 year old town being demolished and abandon before being flooded for Three Gorges Dam project in China.

Guantanamo detainees tell their stories in Justice Denied: Voices from Guantanamo.  Even after everything most of us have seen on the news this film still shocks. A group of wrongfully imprisoned men recall their time lost and unfathomable abuses from a country that's supposed to represent freedom.  Director Joel Engardio, Producers Joel Engardio and Ateqah Kaki wondered who these detainees were before Guantanamo, but I found what was most powerful was what these men experienced after being released.  The feeling of being on a motorcycle again, seeing your children that don't recognize you, post sexual and physical abuse trauma.  How does a person begin to live again?  What do they think of America now? One character pours Coca-Cola into his glass. A nostalgic symbol of Americana that doesn't escape his notice. Additional video material is available on the ACLU website that did not make it in the cut.

Aquafinito is a terrific film about a subject I feel passionate about, water bottles and their dismal effect on the environment.  Director and producer Annalise Littman made this film as a junior in high school after learning that her water bottle wasn't as healthy as she had previous thought.  The documentary also addresses the idea of water being a basic human right rather than a corporate owned product. Katie Falkenberg puts faces of the impoverished Mississippi Delta residents who battle the daily choice between feeding themselves and their families and receiving much needed health care in Uninsured in The Mississippi Delta.

Lastly, and possibly my favorite, is Lessons from a Tailor, a beautiful photographed story of Martin Greenfield's life and business.  This film may on the surface seem to be less social issue oriented than the other Media That Matters 2010 offerings, but a closer look and listen reveals just the opposite. Multilayered stories woven effectively into one, Mr. Greenfield and the filmmakers address immigration, community activism, the Holocaust, a trade that shouldn't loose it's value to mass manufacturing and much more. Mr. Greenfield's insights and contributions are vast. What I thought the most poignant though was what Director Galen Summer and Producer Caitlin Dourmashkin obviously recognized and that is the simple beauty of understanding that a life long lived is an incredible value in itself, especially coming from someone as thoughtful and interesting as Mr. Greenfield. The cinematography is gorgeous and makes a tailor's workshop (and the skilled workers who are employed there) look like a work of art.  Indeed it is.

In conclusion something that shouldn't be excluded when covering the subject of social issue documentary making is the importance of humor and many of these filmmakers seemed to understand the need for it in their work.  Without the relief of humor, sometimes difficult subject matter because too difficult. Not only that, but there truly is humor in the often ridiculousness of life's pitfalls.  Whether it's Sheila Wessenberg popping off her post chemo wig while singing to her daughter in the car, Mr. Greenfield's recollection of telling Bill Clinton that he essentially should dress better, or one Guantanamo detainee laughing at the other (Ruhal Ahmed and Shafiq Rasu) for never removing his hat, those details are vital to the human experience and some of the best moments of the films.

All 12 films are available for viewing on the Media That Matters site.  Today Arts Engine hosted MTM: Impact.  MTM: Impact is a series of workshop type conversations for filmmakers, activists and educators who are working to harness the power of media to enact change. I unfortunately waited to long to sign up for this all day free event before it sold out and reached capacity (why did I wait!), but definitely plan to be more on the ball next year.  Art Engine hosts a variety of community engaged events during the year and has a great interactive site with online films from all the Media That Matters Film Festivals and offers resources for activist filmmakers looking to create change with their work.