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A Homecoming for “Our School” A Guest Blog by filmmaker Mona Nicoara

Friday, June 24th, 2011

After starting in festivals in Europe and the US, Our School finally had its premiere in Romania – a homecoming of sorts for the film and an event that we have been anticipating for almost six years.

We shot in a small town in Transylvania, a very real place in Northern Romania. Our intention was to begin to understand, and hopefully improve, race relations between majority Romanians and the Roma ethnic minority by showing under a magnifying glass the story of three spirited Roma children involved in a school integration project in Targu Lapus. After four years of production and two years of editing we ended up with a paradigmatic story of hope, squandered opportunities, and infuriating cultural and institutional inertia. And racism, quite a bit of racism. Some intentional, some merely reflexive, yet all of it profoundly familiar to all Romanians (ourselves, the filmmakers, included). This is precisely why we were bracing so hard and for so long for the Romanian premiere. We knew that in Romania, even more than in other places in Europe or the United States, Our School would be holding a mirror up to its audience – an unflattering one at that. And there are few things as counter-productive and virulent as unexamined, defensive racism.

We did what we could to prepare for the premiere in terms of press, NGO partners on the ground, and the main characters themselves. The NGO partners were as nervous as we were and chomping at the bit to use the film for their own purposes. The characters got to see the film on their own terms before the festival premiere, on the principle that it is cruel and unusual treatment to see your own story projected on a very large screen with a large audience before absorbing it privately. The kids had never been to the cinema before, so they were extra nervous. Our youngest participant, Alin, helped to lighten the mood by eating three ice-creams in rapid succession and contently throwing up right before the screening.

The press was lukewarm, understandably, since they had not seen the film, and the international success of the new Romanian cinema over past ten years has made them unimpressed with projects with the kind of international festival success that Our School has had). The online comments to the advance press coverage came exclusively from people who had not seen it, but assumed that no film on Roma would ever help. They made violent threats and personal attacks against our team for “destroying Romania’s image abroad.” We imagined they were people who had too much time on their hands, but we were still put on notice: Our School had the potential of generating a strong backlash, and that was the last thing we wanted to happen.

Matters were not helped much by the great folk at the Transylvania Film Festival who programmed us in the largest cinema they had: 750 seats. We worried that the seats would remain empty or would be filled with people who do not like what they seen on the screen.

We worried about everything.

Whatever fears we had were dispersed in the first five minutes of the screening. The huge audience laughed loudly at even the smallest jokes in the film. They clapped after particularly poignant lines, making the projectionist worried that they would not hear the soundtrack. They started sniffling, visibly moved towards the end. And, when the credits ended and we all lined up on the stage, we found them giving the children a standing ovation. For five whole minutes.

Alin turned to me and whispered: “Are all of these guys Romanian?” Yes, they were. And they were applauding the courage, resilience, spirit and sass of Alin, Dana, Beni – and all the Romanian friends they managed to make, despite all odds, along the way. The audience had connected to the kids, managing to see themselves in our film without defensiveness or rancor. They found ways to process and understand what they could change in themselves by the time the credits stopped rolling.

After the film…

A teacher confessed to treating her Roma students as inferior. I wanted to put her in touch with the New York teacher who confessed during our Q&A at the Tribeca Film Festival that she had been tracking immigrant children in special education programs because she herself lacked support and know-how to integrate them.

A local mentioned a case of segregation next door to the screening venue – an activist invited the audience to investigate the case, right then and there. A journalist mused about what the Ministry of Education should do with the film – we referred him to the principal in Our School, who despite an awareness that the film showed him in a light that was “a little too true” (his words), ended up generously saying that it is an extraordinary tool that should be used to train and inform people not only in Romania, but abroad.

There were also hugs – lots of them. Alin, Beni, and Dana said that they were treated, for that one night, better than they had been treated, cumulatively, their entire life.

The press reaction that came in response to the screening was no less enthusiastic. A journalist confessed an allergy to issue films and declared herself not only surprised, but cured. An editorial talked about how Our School is not only a film about Roma, it is a film about us. A reputed blog said the audience had come in with fixed ideas and had come out with the urge to apologize to Roma children on behalf of all Romanians.

We know this was an ideal audience in many ways – progressive, trained by ten years of challenging festival experiences, and moved by the presence of the children in the room. But having an initial reaction like this from hundreds of people gives us confidence in what this film can do. It gives us trust that the film can accomplish what we always intended: Point to a systemic problem, make us understand it in the most direct, human way, and do the hardest things of all – change hearts and minds and open up a some hope for the future.

Guest post by Mona Nicoara, Director of Our School.

Our School is part of Working Films Reel Education collaborative.

The film screens at Silverdocs this Saturday, June 25th at 5:30pm.

Making the Most of Interns – An Interview with Stephanie Bleyer

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

STEPHANIE BLEYER produces engagement campaigns and raises funds for social issue documentaries. Some of her current and past clients include Academy Award nominees Gasland and Sun Come Up, BBC’s Why Poverty?, The Documentary Group’s 10×10, Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure, Planet Green’s No Impact Man, PBS’ To Be Heard and OWN’s One Lucky Elephant. Stephanie has studied organic farming in Italy, bicycled across Cuba on a grant to study sustainable energy, created a documentary for Oxygen about her social action bicycle trip from Seattle to Washington D.C., produced a 35-city bus tour for the Eat Well Guide to promote family farming, produced an international conference for a 9/11 family group, produced the opening of Mercy Corps’ Action Center to End World Hunger, worked at a performing arts school for street boys in Kenya and managed displacement camps for thousands of tsunami survivors in Sri Lanka. Stephanie holds a Masters of Public Administration from New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service.

Stephanie Bleyer has a lot on her plate. How does she keep up with it all? Here’s what she told us:

I always have at least four interns working with me; they are my tentacles, my foot soldiers and my secret weapon. On average, 25% of the tasks I assign my interns are administrative and the rest of the work is challenging, creative and cerebral. To keep them engaged, I know I need to build their skill set and give them a sense of ownership over their work. I give them a lot of responsibility with minimal oversight, which empowers them and saves me a hell of a lot of time. There’s usually a one-month learning curve, I start out slow with them and then build up so they take on more and more responsibility and require less and less of my time.

Many social issue filmmakers involved in outreach and engagement campaigns would like to work with interns but are worried about quality control. How do you give meaningful work to interns and assure excellent outcomes?

The quality of interns can vary pretty widely but I’ve figured out a few simple ways to insure some quality control:

1. I only hire grad students, never post-grads and rarely undergrads (unless they are experienced and exceptionally mature). Post-grads will either quit on you once they find a paying gig or they will expect you to start paying them within a month of working. My interns work virtually so it doesn’t matter where they live but it does matter to me that they are current students enrolled in quality programs.

2. I don’t hire film students because they rarely care about learning about outreach and engagement. I hire writers and organizers, students studying marketing and communications and young people who are very passionate about the issue that the film addresses.

3. I post my job ad on career boards for the top schools in the country, never on craigslist or on filmmaking job boards and rarely Idealist. I also distribute the job ad through my social network and on the Facebook page for the film so I can find interns who are already familiar with the film.

During a number of our recent trainings and consultations, filmmakers have expressed concern that it takes too much time to train and manage interns. How extensive is your orientation and training of interns?

If you choose the right interns you shouldn’t need more than a one-hour orientation. I require them to read every page on the film’s website before the orientation and I expect that for the first month they’ll need some guidance and that it will lessen over time.

How often to you check-in with them and how do you make sure they are “on track”?

My interns check in every Monday morning and Friday afternoon. We email throughout the week and they call me when they’re stuck. We meet face-to-face maybe once or twice during the internship.

How do you create incentives for unpaid interns to stick with a project?

I incentivize interns in three ways:

1) I organize career building brown bag luncheons twice throughout the semester. During the brown bag I give them an hour lecture about getting, finding and keeping a job. Part two of the career-building luncheon is a one-on-one session where I rip their resumes to shreds and help them rebuild it. They love this.

2) I challenge them.

3) I only ask that they work 10 hours/week.

Are there pitfalls that you have learned to avoid in your experience with interns?

Top 5 lessons:

1) Commitment. I just lost two interns in a two-week time period. Two of these interns were grad students but weren’t receiving credit, and mid-semester they felt overwhelmed with the internship and school and work. If they were receiving credit, it would have prevented them from leaving. I make it very clear up front that I need a four-month commitment, and 99% of the time the interns live up to their commitment.

2) Generation Text. Most of my interns are afraid of calling people up on the telephone and I have to constantly push them to pick up the phone if they haven’t received a response to their emails.

3) Communication. Because my interns all work virtually, I need them to over-communicate with me. I constantly have to remind my interns to let me know where things stand.

4) Overwork. I have a tendency to pile work on my interns expecting they’ll get it all done efficiently and well. I’ll have the rare intern who can’t meet deadlines and ultimately creates more work for me with the quality of their work. They don’t last.

5) Dear Stephanie Bleyer. This is not a pitfall; it’s just a funny thing that every single one of my interns does when they first start with me. They think the proper way to address someone in an email is Dear first name, last name.

To inquire about Stephanie Bleyer’s audience outreach and engagement services, contact her directly at bleyer@gmail.com.

IMPACT: Deep Down – Make it Local

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

How do you make your documentary film resonate with local audiences and issues? How do you build a bridge between community activist groups and the movements in your film? Watch how Deep Down’s film team is bringing together grassroots leaders from Appalachia with community leaders from across the country engaged in similar struggles.

Deep Down’s protagonist Beverly May, co-director Jen Gilomen, and outreach director Lora Smith traveled to Chicago for an ITVS Community Cinema Screening partnered with members of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO). The group toured the Little Village neighborhood, a community known as “The Midwest Mexico,” to learn about their struggle to fight the abuses of several toxic industries including two massive coal powered power plant that are poisoning their air and people.

IMPACT is a series of videos created by Working Films and The Fledgling Fund focused on building film campaigns that ignite social change. Previous videos include “No Impact Man: Activating Your Audience” and “IMPACT: A Funder’s Perspective.”

For more information, go to workingfilms.org/impact and thefledglingfund.org/impact.

New Faces: Bringing a little sanity to conversations about immigration

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

We may not be holding a rally like Jon Stewart did, but we do hope that our newly revised curriculum New Faces: Latinos in North Carolina will bring more sanity to conversations about culture, identity, immigration and globalization in classrooms and communities across North Carolina. With laws like the one passed this spring in Arizona and politicians running ads saying things like “This is Alabama; we speak English. If you want to live here, learn it,” it’s clear that anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States certainly isn’t diminishing. There is clearly a lot of education that we need to do.

New Faces Video: From Latin America to North Carolina

Here’s a sample of one of the videos from the New Faces curriculum explaining why a diverse range of Latinos have moved to North Craolina from Latin America.

Unfortunately Latinos are the primary targets of this backlash. When I listen to media reports or even participate in conversations with friends and acquaintances I realize that often this sentiment is fueled by a lack of factual information related to Latino communities and to the subset of Latino immigrants. We need more opportunities to get the facts and to have civil dialogues about these important issues. Our multimedia curriculum, New Faces: Latinos in North Carolina uses documentary film clips, discussion and engaging learning activities to help learners understand more about themselves and about the Latino community in North Carolina. It has been re-designed to spark meaningful conversations and consciousness-raising on issues such as the roots causes of migration, the immigration system, the breakdown of stereotypes and prejudice, characteristics of Latino cultures, and struggles for workers rights. New Faces is a multimedia curriculum for use in middle and high schools classroom and for adults in professional development or popular education settings.

We’ve worked hard to revamp New Faces so that it encourages learners of all backgrounds to reflect on their own cultural identities and immigration histories, giving them important context for learning more about North Carolina’s multifaceted Latino communities. The curriculum was first released in 2007 and well received by educators, human service professionals, and community groups alike. We’ve expanded the curriculum to include 5 units and better indexed the lesson plans so that teachers and community leaders can pick lessons that will be most useful for their particular purposes. We’ve also added new content and shifted the framing of some of the original content to make it more approachable for learners from all walks of life. All the New Faces lesson plans and documentary films clips are available for free at www.workingfilms.org/newfaces, and a DVD of the films clips is available at no charge for teachers and non-profits in North Carolina

APPLY NOW for Reel Engagement: Managing Social Issue Film Campaigns

Monday, October 11th, 2010

Don’t miss the deadline to apply for Reel Engagement: Managing Social Issue Film Campaigns.

Upcoming next month, Working Films and the Fledgling Fund will lead a field building training aimed at the effective management of film campaigns. This 4 day hands-on workshop is designed for individuals who are interested in developing the skills necessary to be an Engagement Coordinator; designing and managing creative and meaningful audience and community engagement campaigns for independent social and environmental issue documentary films or media projects.

Read more and apply now to Reel Engagement: Managing Social Issue Film Campaigns.
Deadline is October 22, 2010.

Get Engaged with Reel Engagement!

Friday, September 17th, 2010

(Photo by Robbie Gemmel)

Are you interested in developing skills to effectively manage film campaigns on social justice issues? If so, you should apply to our latest Reel Engagement workshop, Managing Social Issue Film Campaigns, which we designed with the Fledgling Fund. This 4 day hands-on workshop is designed for individuals who are interested in developing the skills necessary to be Engagement Coordinators; designing and managing creative and impactful audience and community engagement campaigns for independent social issue documentary films or media projects.

Read more and apply now!
Deadline is October 22, 2010

Earth Week: What’s Your IMPACT?

Monday, April 19th, 2010

As Thursday is the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, we’re thinking about our impact in the sustainability work that we do, and the change that media projects like No Impact Man can spark.

How do filmmakers create an audience engagement campaign that is unique, yet has ties to a movement that already exists? Gillian Caldwell, Campaign Director of 1Sky, puts it simply when speaking about their partnership with No Impact Man, “It’s important that the relationship be reciprocal.”

Working Films and The Fledgling Fund are excited to bring you the second video in our series, No Impact Man: Activating Your Audience. It illustrates the benefits of mutually beneficial relationships and demonstrates creating opportunities for participation that extends the story beyond the film. Watch the video and find out how No Impact Man and its partners, like 1Sky, worked together to move participants from individual action to collective action.

Toasts all ’round – Full Frame Film Festival

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

“Good work!” to our colleagues at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

The Festival kicks off this Thursday, April 8, with a stellar and rousing line up. We’re connected to a number of films and filmmakers at the fest; join us in celebrating their success!

On Friday, April 9th at 4pm, at the Carolina Theatre’s historic Fletcher Hall is the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Dirty Business. Dirty Business demystifies “clean coal” and explores the extent to which increased energy efficiency and wind, solar and thermal power might make “clean coal” unnecessary and uneconomical. Join the filmmakers Peter Bull and Justin Weinstein and some local folks from NC Interfaith Power & Light and Duke Environmental Alliance afterward for the Q&A. Working Films is currently developing Dirty Business’ audience engagement and hosting a strategy meeting later this month with national NGOs.

Two other films for which we will be hosting strategy summits will be at Full Frame: Stanley Nelson’s Freedom Riders and Stonewall Uprising by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner.  Both projects will also be featured on the PBS series American Experience.

Freedom Riders is the inspirational story of eight months in 1961 when more than 400 black and white Americans risked their lives in protest against Jim Crow laws. It screens at Cinema 3, Sunday, April 11 at 4:10 pm.

Stonewall Uprising , an essential history of gay rights in America, centers on June 27, 1969, the night that patrons of Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn refused to be rounded up and shamed in a series of unjust arrests. It screens on Saturday, April 10, 4:30 pm, Cinema Four.

(more…)

Make the dream of zero-waste a reality! Take action and share the new Garbage Dreams widget.

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

Would you like to see the United States recycle just as much garbage as they do in Cairo? Then check out this Garbage Dreams widget. You can watch a clip from the award-winning film about the inspiring recycling practices of the Zaballeen in Cairo and sign onto a letter asking President Obama to support policies that will assure 75% of our trash gets recycled by 2015. Most importantly you can use the widget to sign up to host your own screening of the film and create an ever bigger impact with it in your community.

Please be sure to click on the share button in the widget and post it to your blog, Facebook or Twitter, or just pass it along through email so that others can check out the film and get involved!

Rose and Nangabire at Story Leads to Action

Friday, March 26th, 2010

Missed last week’s invigorating Story Leads to Action at the 92YTribeca that we co-hosted with Chicken & Egg Pictures? Fear not, filmmakers Elizabeth Mandel and Beth Davenport have agreed to share their lessons learned from the evening for your benefit:

panel discussion

photo by Chicken & Egg Pictures

Three years after filming the reunion of a Congolese girl and her mother, separated by war in Congo, Rose & Nangabire (working title) is almost complete. The work-in-progress screening last Thursday was an exciting opportunity to share our work outside the edit room. With a focus on audience engagement, it was also invigorating to finally explore in a public forum how the film can be used to create change.

While many social-justice issues are covered in the film, our audience engagement strategy focuses on refugee rights and resettlement; peace-building and reconciliation; and women in post-conflict situations. The evening was moderated by Robert West of Working Films, with panelists Matthew Edmundson, Operations Officer, Mapendo International and Desiree Younge, Senior Manager, Global Philanthropists Circle, Synergos. Audience members included representatives from the International Rescue Committee, STEPS to End Family Violence, Witness, Human Rights Watch and The Safe Harbor Project, as well as filmmakers and film fans.

Ideas and thoughts generated by the post-screening discussion included the following uses for the film or modules created from the footage:
•    Reaching policymakers and practitioners who are often, due to politicization, desensitized to the issues Rose and her family confront and challenge.

•    Targeting schools, because the presence of a teenage refugee going to high school in the film will make the issues accessible to a youth audience.

•    Partnering with the Department of Education to train teachers who work with refugees and other ESL populations.

•    Bringing together diaspora communities, for example by creating a women’s-only discussion group, and/or a group for teens, where survivors of war can have a safe space to share their experiences.

•    Working with women- and girls- leadership programs to provide a portrait of a strong, resourceful role model.

It was also pointed out that while embarking on our project we need to assess who is already doing this work and can program the film into their existing frameworks, and who can use the film to take their work to new places. This thought brings us to our next phase, solidifying relationships with organizations that address our three issue areas, and finessing the ways in which Rose & Nangabire can be used to help them in their work. As we finish up the film and begin to screen at film festivals, we’re also looking forward to using this momentum to inspire thinking and follow up action on the part of general audiences as well.

Stay tuned for announcements about our festival premiere and the launch of our audience engagement plan. In the meantime, if you are in any way involved with our issue areas — refugee rights and resettlement; peace-building and reconciliation; and women in post-conflict situations — please be in touch, we’d love to hear from you. We can be reached at elizabeth at artsengine.net or beth at artsengine.net.