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Three Docs and Life Off Screen
by Sara Dosa
Have Fun With It Durrell Laurey at his Mandarin immersion school, in "Speaking in Tongues." photo Najid Joe Hakim, courtesy of Patchwork Films
Debuting at the height of the financial crisis, three Bay Area docs - "Speaking in Tongues," "New Muslim Cool," and "D tour" - have made it, not just through the bloody funding battlegrounds but the clamor of our media-saturated world. They have become visible.
While still struggling with the indie's inevitable obstacles, Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider, Jennifer Maytorena Taylor, and Jim Granato, have created films with lives that extend far beyond the theater or TV. "They have legs," as the expression goes. The storytelling plays an integral role. Carried by strong characters, each film builds relationships with viewers and cultivates communities.
Take "D tour," for starters. "I have never thought of a backup plan," says protagonist Pat Spurgeon of the band Rogue Wave. "Music is my entire world. I don't have anything else that I do." When Pat's only kidney begins to fail, his passion is put to the test. He must decide whether to sacrifice touring with his band to receive proper medical care, or to undergo dialysis on the road.
Pat chooses to tour, confronting his fate with resounding charisma. It's an easy relationship with Pat - you love him, you root for him along the way. Such storytelling makes audience engagement natural, and the viewers become motivated for organ donation.
Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider's approach is similar in "Speaking in Tongues," which chronicles four San Francisco students in foreign language immersion programs during the recent wave of "English-only" sentiment. The film uses personal stories to link broader issues of language, class mobility, ethnicity, and global citizenship. One of them is Durrell Laury, a native-English-speaking second grader, who is the son of a single mother living in a housing project.
"He comes from the kind of demographic that most people expect not to succeed," director/producer Jarmel explained. Yet Durrell's experience in his immersion elementary school explodes stereotypes as he excels in reading, writing, and speaking fluent Mandarin. Like "D tour," "Speaking" intimately connects viewers to both characters and causes. In fact, it won the Audience Award for the Best Documentary Feature at the San Francisco International Film Festival last year.
"A compelling central character gives people more opportunity to engage emotionally," agrees Jennifer Maytorena Taylor, director of "New Muslim Cool." Her film follows Hamza P‚rez, a Puerto Rican American Muslim hip-hop artist, struggles with street politics as well as government surveillance in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the Bronx. Hamza's transformation from drug dealer to musician and community leader speaks directly to urban youth.
"The real power of the film comes from Hamza," Taylor told me. "I received heartfelt letters from high school students who were inspired by him; kids tell me that they are finding their own 'goodness' because of his story. They have very personal reactions." Through such storytelling, the audience is primed.
But then what? Independent documentary makers bemoan the "orphaning" of their films: a film is released, shown a couple times, but then relegated to libraries or limited DVD sales. In such circumstances, the intended goals of increasing viewership and catalyzing social change fall short. Jarmel and Schneider, Granato and Taylor, however, are among those using community outreach and the Web to extend the impact and visibility of their films.
"We are trying to make ourselves a hub for the issue [of language immersion]," Jarmel told me. Indeed, she and Schneider have built a penetrative network through series of screenings in non-profit centers, governmental organizations, conferences, schools, and libraries. Their "Speaking in Tongues" newsletter reaches over 5,000 people and they keep hundreds updated through Facebook.
"The foreign language people have their universe," Jarmel continued. "The people dealing with bilingual students have theirs; then there's cross-cultural education, and those interested in global competitiveness. We are the place where all those threads can come together."
Their film has established "place" in the ever-changing cyber-geography. They set up a forum for not just showing their film, but for discussing policy and enacting grassroots education. With an updated site (
) soon-to-be released, comprehensive educational resources, and their PBS broadcast this fall, Jarmel and Schneider will be able to direct audiences to their interactive "hub."
"New Muslim Cool" partnered with Active Voice, media strategizers specializing in public policy, to reach wider bases. Active Voice helped Taylor with pre-broadcast screenings to extend their message "beyond the choir." She held a screening at New York City's Lincoln Center and invited - mostly via Facebook - hundreds of young people from marginalized neighborhoods, accessing previously untapped audiences.
"Now, you can reach direct audiences and make an impact," Taylor said. "It's a lot more work, in some ways, but there's lots of opportunity. I'm doing things, like updating my website and creating Facebook events, that I never would have done ten years ago. But then I wouldn't have had this kind of long-term relationship with the film."
Like the others, Jim Granato said he "Utilized the hell out of the Web"- Facebook, twitter and music Websites - for "D tour." He also made strategic alliances by partnering with organ donation advocacy groups and various bands.
"Ninety-nine percent of the organ procurement organizations we contacted were excited by the film and pitched in helping us get the word out," Granato explained. For example, his team worked closely with the Oakland-based, California Transplant Donor Network. "The CTDN became an important player in our film." Some of the film's fans were even inspired to sign up for organ donation. Surely, there is no clearer sign of audience engagement than willingness to give away a body part.
Bands, too, lent their bases to "D tour"'s audience. Rogue Wave, with special guest John Vanderslice, performed following the premier at the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival, "It was pretty magical, to say the least," said Granato. "The intimacy couldn't have felt greater." Along with Web-forums and advocacy campaigns, the concerts helped create a multidimensional life for the documentary.
These filmmakers agree that the media landscape is in tremendous flux and their work is an experiment. Serendipity, though, rewards experimentation. Taylor provides a good example. She printed "New Muslim Cool" shirts, as a way to get the film's name out, then took them to the International Muslim Film Festival in Kazan, Russia. Unaccustomed to swag, the audiences mobbed her. Taylor photographed a babushka-ed woman wearing her shirt, which she posted on the Web. Then she printed more shirts and photographed more people wearing them.
Months later, at a Massachusetts inter-faith conference, a rabbi spotted a young man with one. Intrigued by the phrase "New Muslim Cool," the rabbi contacted Taylor soon after. Now, the two are working on educational materials for the film, and the rabbi set up a screening in his own community. "A random way to generate buzz led to a booking!" Taylor said.
"Every time we have a new technology, we think it's a panacea," Taylor added. "Then, we realize there are new challenges. But, after the challenges, come the opportunities." Taylor, Jarmel, Schneider and Granato are capitalizing on such opportunities, carving out visible pathways through the media clutte and taking their audiences along for the ride. For more info: "Speaking:"
, "New Muslim:"
, and "D tour:" dtourmovie.com.
Sara Dosa is a documentary filmmaker and writer living in the Bay Area.
Posted on Mar 08, 2010 - 04:40 PM