How “Oil & Water” Came Together

David Poritz (left) and Hugo Lucitante visit a Petroamanas oil field in Ecuador.

David Poritz (left) and Hugo Lucitante visit a Petroamanas oil field in Ecuador.

Ed. note: This guest post by the directors of the ITVS-funded documentary Oil & Water, which premieres Sunday, September 21st on the WORLD Channel [check local listings] as part of the Global Voices series, gives you some of the fascinating background behind this film. Oil & Water was also just featured on Boston’s NPR station WBUR as well [more here]. [Update: Oil & Water is now available to watch online via PBS until October 21, 2014.]


By Laurel Spellman Smith and Francine Strickwerda

A documentary filmmaker once said that when you choose an idea for a film, you need to date it a while, and make sure you can fall in love with it. Because you will be eating, drinking, and sleeping with it for a long time.  It made us laugh, because it’s so true. It’s also about how a human story can knock the wind out of you with its brilliance, and then how it will haunt and nag you until you have no choice but to make your film. That’s how we got to making Oil & Water, which we began filming in 2006.

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Wonder Women! Inspires WONDER CITY Game

By Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and Kelcey Edwards
Filmmakers, Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines

WONDER CITY has been developed as companion game to the PBS documentary feature, Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines (tonight at 10 PM on Independent Lens). While the film encourages young audiences to explore pop cultural history as a means of thinking critically, the WONDER CITY game aims to change how we visualize power and gender.

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We were first encouraged to create a game at the BAVC Producers’ New Media Institute. Our research found that half of girls ages 8 to 12 play games online. The most popular “girl games” center on themes like cooking, shopping, makeup, and dating, and the default protagonist of most other games is a white male. This lack of representation discourages girls and women from participating in the gaming community – as either consumers or creators.

While making the film, we became aware of how few women occupy leadership positions – fewer than 15 percent! – in politics, business, government and the media. Despite the gains of the women’s movement, we still live in a world where girls are rarely protagonists, let alone shown as strong, smart, or bold. Girls are constantly bombarded by messages and media representations that put them into narrow, stereotyped boxes and limit their choices. Too few girls have risen to be leaders in business, politics, government, or media.

Our hope is that WONDER CITY will undermine these problematic stereotypes and gender limitations by immersing players in a world that represents a more realistic diversity in race, gender, and body image. By empowering tweens to adopt their own superhero identity, they become agents of their own values. Continue reading

Adrian Baker on Animating Native American Oral History

By Rebecca Huval
Originally posted on the Independent Lens Blog

Sometimes, the shameful chapters of our past deserve to be excavated through an animated short, the form du jour for oral history projects such as StoryCorps. From the PBS Online Film Festival, the short documentary Injunuity: Buried features the story of a Native American burial ground and shellmound recently built over by a Bay Area mall.

Adrian Baker, director of Injunuity, one of 25 short videos in the PBS 2013 Online Film Festival

Adrian Baker, director of Injunuity, one of 25 short videos in the PBS 2013 Online Film Festival

Buried will be available on the PBS Online Film Festival webpage and the rest of the shorts will soon be available on the Injunuity website. The series captures field recordings of Native Americans who dissect issues such as Native American language preservation and education, remixed as three-minute animations in a variety of styles. The 25 films in the overall festival will be available between March 4 to 22.

Director Adrian Baker shared with us the inspiration for his cinematic collages and animations that capture modern-day Native American issues, as well as the stories of our shared past.

1. Why did you structure these stories in three-minute shorts?

There are so many issues to talk about and discuss, so many problems that need our attention. So rather than setting out to solve all of these issues or come to hard and fast conclusions, instead, I wanted to create starting points for discussions more than anything else. In three minutes you can create that foundation that’s necessary to begin meaningful dialog, but where it goes from there is up to the viewer, or the teacher who watches it with their classroom, or the parent who watches it with their child.

I also wanted to create pieces that fit into today’s quick twitch lifestyle where more media is being consumed in shorter amounts of time. The fixed running time model that we have for television is being replaced by the free form of the web, where time length isn’t dictated by commercial concerns or by what comes on before or after. And really, all you have to do is take a look at anyone’s Facebook feed to see that there are more and more shorter pieces of content being passed around and shared. Today’s viewer is on the go, watching a smart phone for ten minutes on BART [the Bay Area’s commuter rail service]. So there is a growing market for shorter content. But what may be the best thing about the three-minute short is that, even if the viewer doesn’t like it that much, no matter where you are in the piece, even if it’s just beginning, it’s almost over. Continue reading

Alison Klayman on Filming Ai Weiwei

Independent Lens sat down with filmmaker Alison Klayman to talk about the joys and challenges of filming China’s most famous artist and dissident, Ai Weiwei. Her film, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, premieres on Independent Lens February 25 at 10 PM (check local listings).

Ai Weiwei is arguably the most internationally celebrated Chinese artist of the modern era. At heart, he is a troublemaker with a serious agenda: to challenge the oppression of the Chinese people by their government with rebellious and irreverent gestures. His activism has cost him his freedom repeatedly, but he never seems to lose his childlike approach to serious dissidence executed with a wink. But what was it like to film such a celebrated and controversial figure? Filmmaker Alison Klayman gives us insider access to the one and only Ai Weiwei.

Closeup of filmmaker Alison Klayman with Ai Weiwei

Filmmaker Alison Klayman with Ai Weiwei

What impact do you hope this film will have?

I believe there are several layers of impact to the film. The first is that people get to know Ai Weiwei as a person, going behind the headlines and the iconography. As a documentary film, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is able to provide a much more intimate understanding of Ai Weiwei’s character and motivations than a short news story can, and it hopefully means that audiences will follow his case as it continues to develop.

By watching the film people also get a window into many aspects of contemporary China they might not have seen before. I hope it shows China as a complex place, with lots of diversity of opinion and a rich community of artists, activists and young people who care about improving their country.

Most importantly, though, are the universal lessons contained in the film. It’s really a story about individual courage, about how creativity and finding your voice can lead to change, how social media is transforming our world, how rule of law and transparency and freedom of expression are important in any society.

What led you to make this film?

When I graduated from Brown University in 2006 I wanted to travel abroad to have adventures, learn new languages, and try to start a career as a journalist and documentary filmmaker. I started my journey by going on a five-month trip to China with a college classmate, and I unexpectedly ended up staying there for four years.

It wasn’t until 2008 that I first met Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. My first few weeks of filming were enough to convince me that he was a charismatic and fascinating character, and that I wanted to dig deeper into his story. I wanted to know more about who Ai Weiwei really was, what motivates his art and activism, and what would happen to him. I also thought that people around the world would learn something new about China by being introduced to him. Continue reading

Powerbroker Filmmaker Bonnie Boswell on How Her Youth Shaped Her Film

Filmmaker Bonnie Boswell has an unusually close tie to her forthcoming film, The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights. Whitney Young, Jr., was her uncle and his parents helped raise her. Independent Lens sat down with Boswell to learn more about how her early life influenced her film. The Powerbroker premieres February 18 at 10pm PST on PBS (check local listings).

Watch Spotlight on Civil Rights Leader Whitney Young, Jr. on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.

You didn’t just do a documentary on something that interested you. You did it on something you lived.

Yes, my early childhood was spent at Lincoln Institute, a black boarding high school in Kentucky where my grandfather was principal and my uncle was born. My grandparents raised me. If you came into their orbit, they raised you. My grandmom was supermom.

What was one of their main influences on you?

Both of my grandparents taught all of us on campus that despite the ills of segregation, never succumb to anger. “Don’t get mad, get smart,” they said. “Never let anyone drag you so low as to hate them.” These words of wisdom, I believe, helped Whitney Young become the great mediator of the 1960s civil rights movement. Continue reading

Letters to Barbara: ‘When I Rise’ Streaming on PBS Video

By Mat Hames
Director, When I Rise

When I Rise tells the story of a gifted black music student at the University of Texas who is thrust into a civil-rights storm that changes her life forever. Filmmaker Mat Hames shares a critical step in making the documentary, which is currently streaming on PBS Video.

Watch When I Rise – Center Point: A Musical Legacy on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.

Very early on in the process of making When I Rise, I spent several weeks pouring through old University documents. At the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History in Austin, I came across a box of files related to Barbara Smith Conrad from the University President’s office. Inside was an old, thick file folder from 1956, simply labeled “Opera Incident.” Many of the letters inside were handwritten, a few were typed, and all of them contained an outpouring of emotion over Barbara’s removal from a UT opera by President Wilson at the urging of segregationists in the Texas Legislature.

Some letters were predictably supportive of Barbara’s ousting, with racist diatribes included; some included pamphlets distributed by White Citizen’s Councils filled with absurd “racial science” attempting to justify keeping segregation in place. “Integration is just another front for Communism,” one man scrawled.

Along with those letters supporting her removal, there were also equal letters of support for Barbara, and I began realizing that most of these letters were praising Barbara’s handling of the situation and written to Barbara herself.  President Wilson was copied also. One letter to Barbara began, “This is just a note to extend to you my deep personal thanks for the grand manner in which you have conducted yourself during the last several days which, I am sure, have been more than trying.” Continue reading

What Makes a Good Work-in-Progress? Part 3: Late Production

By N’Jeri Eaton
Programming Manager, ITVS

The third and final installment of our Open Call “Work-in-Progress” series focuses on the determined filmmaking duo behind Give Up Tomorrow, whose dogged persistence in refining their work-in-progress finally resulted in their film being greenlit. Having successfully submitted to ITVS Open Call, they reveal the thought process behind their editing decisions and advice for potential applicants.

NOTE: Due to rights clearance issues, we are unable to share the work-in-progress samples for these films. Continue reading

What Makes a Good Work-in-Progress? Part 2: The Veteran Filmmaker

By N’Jeri Eaton
Programming Manager, ITVS

The ITVS Open Call deadline is only five days away, making it the perfect time to read the next installment of our ‘work –in-progress’ series.

Submitting an enticing ‘work-in-progress’ can be difficult, even for the veteran filmmaker. Today, we bring you As Goes Janesville’s  Brad Lichtenstein, who despite having vast filmmaking experience, had to learn how to wrangle five main characters in his sample before being successfully funded.  Continue reading

What Makes a Good Work-in-Progress? Part 1: Early Production

By N’Jeri Eaton
Programming Manager, ITVS

With the ITVS Open Call deadline right around the corner (next week in fact!), BTB brings you the first in a three part series breaking down the elusive ‘work-in-progress’.

Here at ITVS, one of the most asked questions is “What Makes a Good Work in Progress?”.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple answer.  The answer can vary depending on what material you have, the style of your film, what stage of production you’re in, etc.

Over the next three days, we will share the experiences of three ITVS-funded producers who successfully submitted their work-in-progress samples to our Open Call initiative.

Today we bring you More Than a Month’s Shukree Tilghman, the first time filmmaker who, despite being early on in production, received funding the first time he applied. Read on as Tilghman reveals the thought process behind his editing decisions and advice for potential applicants. Continue reading

Macky Alston on Bishop Gene Robinson, LGBT Rights, and Making His Film, Love Free or Die

Macky Alston (Hard Road Home) returns to Independent Lens this season with his new film Love Free or Die. Independent Lens sat down to discuss the genesis of his latest work, and the very personal angle from which he chose and profiled his subject. Love Free or Die premieres tonight on Independent Lens at 10 PM (check local listings).

What impact do you hope Love Free or Die will have?

It is our hope that our film will do two things:

  • Reveal to people who are not currently sympathetic that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are fully human; that the way we live and love is not intrinsically better or worse than the way heterosexual people do; that our lives and freedoms matter as much as anyone else’s and that when we are free to love and live, our families and communities are a valuable part of the fabric of humanity. On the flip side, we aim to reveal to LGBT people who have been hurt by institutionalized religion that religious people and institutions are not all anti-gay and that there are a lot of religious people, some of whom are LGBT themselves, who are heroically standing for LGBT equality.
  • Show each one of us that when we stand for justice, we can be catalysts for historic social and systemic change. In Love Free or Die, Bishop Gene Robinson chooses to tell the truth about who he is and what he believes to be right and true. His courage inspires thousands around him to do the same. Together, their stories and stands move the church for the first time in the history of Christendom and the state for the first time in American history to overturn policies that discriminate against LGBT people. The fact that where each of us stands can make a difference is indisputable. History shifted as a result of everyday people right before our eyes as we filmed Love Free or Die. Continue reading