Joey Ally: making films with integrity

All any filmmaker can do is focus on creating something that has depth and resonance, and do whatever possible to get it seen by audiences and hope the word spreads.
– Megan Griffiths, American director, writer, and producer

As a child actor, who has appeared in such television shows as Sesame Street, Joey Ally pointedly noted, “I was not one of those kids who grew up with a camera in their hand – quite the contrary.” When the time came to attend college, however, the writer, director, actor, and producer opted not to go to a conservatory for acting. Instead, she attended Amherst College to study political science and French, with an eye toward entering law school later. “I wanted to work in the international criminal court,” she said. “I wanted to move to human rights law.” While at Amherst, Joey met a playwright who then wrote the lead part of his new play for her. As soon as she got back into acting, she realized how much she had missed it. “It got me back into acting,” Joey said, of the experience. “I just purely loved it so much, I realized I had to try to do this before I decide to go to law school. That changed my trajectory.”

Joey Ally

She returned to New York City, where she was born and raised – she also spent part of her childhood in Connecticut – and acted for a couple of years. But, she confessed, “I didn’t really love the business side of it. I didn’t love auditioning. I didn’t love what I was auditioning for.” She also didn’t love a lot of the scripts she was reading, so she started writing for herself. Although Joey was trying to avoid moving to Los Angeles when her apartment lease was up, it became her temporary destination when her best friend relocated there. Another friend who was going to volunteer at the Sundance Film Festival convinced her to join her in Park City, Utah. “I’d never been exposed to indie films much before that,” Joey admitted. At Sundance, she saw the film The Off Hours (2011) and loved it. When writer and director Megan Griffiths spoke to the audience after her screening, Joey said, “She was inspiring to me. The things she said, I thought, ‘I feel that I understand that person. I feel the same way as that person. I think I’d like to do those things.'” At that moment, the notion of being a director opened up to her. “It was such a revolutionary thought at the time,” she recalled. The Off Hours was the kind of film that she wanted to work on from behind the camera.

She got her first 9-to-5 job as an assistant for Whitewater Films, which, she says, was “the best decision I ever made to that point.” She met Megan on the job and asked if she could be her assistant to get hands-on learning on the set. Joey then moved to Seattle where Megan is based to assist her on the film Lucky Them. While there, Megan recommended Joey to director Lynn Shelton, and she stayed in Seattle to assist on Laggies as well.

Still from the film “Partners.”

From ‘Minimum Wageto ‘Partners’
After that experience, Joey made her first film. “It was very fast once I found it (directing),” Joey said. She wrote the script for “Minimum Wage,” a short film about a cocktail waitress who, at the end of a bad day, is walking home after her car is towed and is solicited by a man who thinks she is a prostitute. The inspiration for the “mixed-morality” film came from an incident that happened right after college – a man solicited her while she was on her mobile phone in front of a grocery store. She wondered what she could have done differently in that situation and what would have happened had she taken the guy’s money without having to do anything for it. The incident occurred during the financial crisis, and many of her friends were losing or had lost their jobs. “The world felt really dark and unfair,” she said, of the time. “This whole story came out of thinking about what morality means, purposefully choosing to do right over wrong, when the world itself isn’t reflecting those values to you.”

Although Joey admitted that she hated the process of writing, she said, “I think certain stories need to be told – I want the stories that I want to be told, to be told. So I keep doing it.” She started writing to create roles and scripts for herself, but by the time she had worked under Megan and Lynn, and started making her first film, she realized she wanted to write and direct even independent of acting. Although she wrote “Minimum Wage” with the intention of playing the lead role of “Kit,” she ultimately decided to cast the role. “It was a life-changing experience to work with Sarah (Ramos), and to really be able to focus on directing exclusively,” she said.

On the set of “Partners.”

One of the perks of directing is the ability to collaborate with others. An official selection of LUNAFEST this year, “Partners” was a collaboration between her and Jen Tullock and Hannah Pearl Utt, who both star in the short film. “I had been wanting to work with improv more heavily in my work,” Joey said, of the experience. They workshopped and rehearsed the script together, with filming and editing lasting two days. “Then we were done,” she said simply. “It really showed me that prep makes a difference.”

Both “Minimum Wage” and “Partners” are productions of SilverOx Pictures, a creative partnership between Joey and T.J. Williams, Jr., an award-winning cinematographer whom she was introduced to by Megan. The partnership allows them to create their own work but also to be involved in co-productions mostly brought to them by friends and their film community. While they won the 2014 MOFILM for Cannes Award for the first SilverOx commercial and won 2015 Video of the Year at WME|IMG, Joey noted that SilverOx Pictures is focused mostly on narratives.

Joey Ally giving direction on the set of “Partners.”

Changing the world – and the industry – with invested stories
“When I gave up the idea of being a human rights attorney, I didn’t give up the idea of working in the human rights sector,” Joey pointed out. “It’s really important to me that my work reflects that, on some level, every time.” The points needn’t be made emphatically. “It can be as simple as changing the gender, sexuality, or the race of a character – and say nothing about it,” she said. “I want to push on those things.”

Although Joey has experienced gender discrimination as an actor, she insisted, “I’ve had a really strangely easy experience entering the industry as a director. Although I’ve been lucky, I know a lot of people who haven’t. I’ve been treated like a normal human being, and that should be the status quo for everybody.”

Her two apprenticeships with diverse crews under two strong, well-respected female directors contributed to her positive experiences. She learned from Megan and Lynn to “treat each other fairly” as a director. “It’s really important to treat everyone around you with not only respect but respect for their position because as much as you are the film, they are the film,” she said. Joey strives to create a “crewtopia” – coined by Megan and Lynn – within her own projects and hopes that culture is embraced in the Los Angeles filmmaking industry. Just as she’s learned from the two veteran filmmakers, Joey says she’d advise young directors: “Don’t just make it because you think it will do well; make it because you really care about it. Otherwise, why are you making stories?” she said. “That’s the first thing. And then work on it until it’s good. When it’s good for you, then you’ve made your piece of art. But make what you want to make, with integrity. And surround yourself with people with integrity.”

Note: You can see Joey’s short film at LUNAFEST East Bay’s screening on Saturday, March 18th, 7:30pm, at the El Cerrito High School’s Performing Arts Theater. For more information, click here.

Laura Doggett: creating a space for girls to express their stories through film

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
– Marcel Proust, French novelist

Community artist and educator Laura Doggett.

“Another Kind of Girl,” directed by Khaldiya Jibawi – which is a pseudonym to protect her identity – could not have been released at a more relevant time amid media attention on the Syrian refugee crisis and the hot-button topic of immigration. In this short film, an official selection of LUNAFEST Film Festival for 2016/2017, “a 17-year-old girl meditates on how her refugee camp (in Jordan) has opened up new horizons and given her a sense of courage that she lacked in Syria (her homeland).” The film was made in a workshop for teenaged girls run by Laura Doggett, a community artist and educator on a post-graduate fellowship from Duke University in 2014.

Khaldiya taking aim with her camera.

As a Felsman Documentary Fellow, Laura was paired with a Public Policy Fellow to conduct research for two months on girls’ access to education in Jordan – in Za’atari Refugee Camp. For her part, she was tasked with making a film. There was little time to do research on the topic before her arrival, but nevertheless Laura immersed herself in her new environment by giving the girls she was working with the opportunity to teach her through their perspective. “My natural instinct is to give them cameras,” she explained, of her teaching strategy but also her introduction to a new culture through her students.

Still from Another Kind of Girl.

Another kind of workshop
In her first workshop at the refugee camp, Laura and her translator and co-facilitator, Tasneem, taught photography to 20 girls, although two of them were more interested in video. When she returned later in the year (2015) through the International Rescue Committee, she worked in her preferred medium of video with five teenaged girls in Jordan’s northern city of Irbid. The camera became a way for the girls to develop a visual language to express their inner and outer worlds, according to Laura. “Since the first round of workshops, the girls expressed a desire to acquire deeper knowledge of the technical and artistic means to tell their community’s stories, as well as have a supportive community through which they can continue to create more work,” she explained. “From this desire grew the Another Kind of Girl Collective, an arts collective with their female peers that supports further learning, artistic production and social engagement.” As their producer, Laura entered their seven films in various youth film festivals around the world.

The young women in the collective share their work with one another.

To date, international festivals, such as Sundance, Cannes, and SXSW, have screened the films. Conferences focused on the refugee crisis, including the EU Conference on Women Refugees and Asylum Seekers, have showcased their films. The New York Times and National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, among other media outlets, have featured their works. The young women have also won numerous awards, which have included prizes such as a camera and computer, which the individual recipients have shared with the others in the Collective.

Laura, sharing her knowledge with the young women in the Collective.

Khaldiya fled from her hometown of Dara’a four years ago after Syria’s civil war broke out and now lives in Za’atari Refugee Camp. In a post from the Another Kind of Girl Collective website, she explained what filmmaking brought to her life: “In Syria, I didn’t even know how to hold a cell phone and film. Here I fell in love with filming. When I film I just feel at ease. It never crossed my mind that I would become a filmmaker, but when we took the course, I had it in my head that I wanted to be a filmmaker. When I film, I feel like I am someone very important.” Khaldiya wants to take become a leader in continuing the workshops – helping other girls in the camp to give voice to their stories through the arts and to drive change in her community through storytelling. In the meantime, Khaldiya is awaiting Laura’s arrival this month, so that Laura can attend her wedding. Laura keeps in touch with the young women from the workshops, and shared that a few of them have married “amazing” husbands who have supported their wives’ artistic endeavors. Khalidiya’s husband-to-be, too, supports her dreams.

Still from Another Kind of Girl.

Laura and Tasneem began the second round of workshops in November and December 2016, and will return this month to work with them on editing skills. “The workshop gives them a space where they continually create and and speak about being aware that they are providing something really valuable for their community – a collective of passionate, creative, vocal, compassionate, civic-minded young women – and to the world – a new perspective on the lives of refugees,” she said, of the young women. “They are looking for ways to make their day-to-day lives meaningful.”

Sharing and bonding time.

The power of storytelling
Laura has been helping young people – mostly young women – tell their stories and thus become empowered through creative expression for more than two decades. “I’ve always loved stories,” she noted, citing her father as “the first master storyteller in my life.” Laura, who earned her BA in English, Creative Writing, from Wesleyan University, was also inspired by Eudora Welty, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American short story writer and novelist. In a 2013 profile, Laura said of Welty, who wrote about the American South, “She made me want to write characters and stories just like hers, but before she even made me want to write, she made me want to observe.” The power of observation serves the artist well, but it also can inspire greater understanding of and compassion for communities outside of our own.

Capturing one of her students, Stacie, in Appalachia.

As an intern for the public radio documentary show, This American Life, Laura worked on a piece about Mexican-American teenagers and cruising. When she returned to her hometown of Washington, D.C., she ran a youth radio program. Laura spent many years in Appalachia, first directing a program in Kentucky called the Appalachian Media Institute, which trained young people to create documentaries about their own communities, and then later doing the same at High Rocks, a girls’ leadership organization in West Virginia. Laura worked with them to express themselves through media, particularly photography, video, and creative writing.

Filming her student Lauren in a program that she led while in her MFA program.

After her experiences in these various experiences, she decided to go back to school and earned her MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts from Duke University. “It was an opportunity to continue to do storytelling with girls and young women, but to develop a more personal style of collaborating with them in ways that responded to individually their artistic voice and strengths, and the multitude of ways they chose to articulate their visions for themselves,” she said. In between the workshops in Jordan, as a Lewis Hine Fellow, Laura worked with young women aging out of the foster care system in the Bronx.

One of Laura’s students, Etta, imagines nature in the Bronx.

Nurturing Another Kind of Girl Collective
Laura’s visit to Jordan this month won’t be her last. She’s hoping to secure more funding to continue conducting workshops in Jordan, as well as to find the next community to share her passion for storytelling and to create more opportunities for young women to be heard and become empowered through film. Thus far, she’s been “running to keep up with the project,” but at some point she wants to take time out to strategize with the members of the Another Kind of Girl Collective. “The next step is to move towards making it self-sustainable, where they can continue to create media on their own, learn the various platforms and venues to share their stories and create dialogue, and then ideally also earn income for their media pieces,” she explained. She’s hoping that the women can build on their skills, get their own media out into the market, and create a successful business.

A lighthearted moment between Laura and her Syrian student.

“My desire for the films is what the girls’ desires are for their films as they’re being shown around the world,” Laura said, speaking as the Collective’s creative director. “They are smart, creative young women who have a unique perspective and a lot to say They are not passive or tragic beings, as mainstream media often present them. They are very vocal about wanting to be understood and heard as hard-working, motivated, creative visionaries. They also want their stories to encourage other girls and young women in difficult circumstances to express their most important stories.” Laura shared the sentiments of one young woman in the Collective, Walaa: “It’s important for girls to bring things from inside to the outside. Writing and filmmaking helped me not be afraid to tell my story. I hope that each young woman is able to express her inner-self directly and indirectly, and that she can just break the world. It doesn’t matter, just break it all over the place.…” Such passion and conviction are testaments to the value of artistic expression Laura has brought to these young women and our communities.

Note: You can see Laura’s short film at LUNAFEST East Bay’s screening on Saturday, March 18th, 7:30pm, at the El Cerrito High School’s Performing Arts Theater. For more information, click here.

Top 10 reasons to attend the extra-special LUNAFEST 2017

I can see myself in all things and all people around me.
– Sanskrit phrase

We’re almost a month out from LUNAFEST East Bay’s annual LUNAFEST film festival – “by, for, about women” – which means it’s time for my annual Top 10 reasons to attend. This year is extra special, as you’ll see as you go down the list.

One of our perky ECHS ITA students serving at our VIP event last year.

10. VIP event
If you’re attending the VIP event, which precedes the film screening, you’re in for a real treat. First of all, you’ll be served fantastic food created by J. Gourmet Catering. The flavorful fare will be paired with an assortment of spirits – wine donated by Clif Family Winery and Folsom & Associates (Robert Mondavi and Franciscan) and beer donated by Lagunitas Brewing Company and Trumer Pils. You will get to meet our two guest filmmakers whose short films were selected for LUNAFEST this year. Listen to great music performed by El Cerrito High School student musicians while mingling with other VIP attendees who love film and raising funds for worthy causes. This year, we’ll all be raising a glass of champagne for a toast – but I won’t let on why until further down the list. Intrigued? Sounds like your kind of event? You can get VIP tickets here. But hurry, number of tickets are limited and they are selling quickly!

Head straight for the raffle tables in the lobby to choose what you’ll be buying tickets for.

9. Raffle prizes
Every year, LUNAFEST East Bay raffles off fabulous prizes, and this year is no different. Among the LUNAFEST 2017 prizes are a $100 certificate to Chez Panisse and $100 cash. Check out the raffle board at the VIP event and in the lobby of the El Cerrito High School (ECHS) Performing Arts Theater to peruse the themed basket of prizes, and then nab an ECHS Information Technology Academy (ITA) student who will be selling raffle tickets. $1 a ticket, 12 tickets for $10, and 25 tickets for $20.

Anna Schumacher (photo credit: Talia J Phorography).

8. ECHS alumna Anna Schumacher
Master of ceremony duties belongs to Anna Schumacher, whose short film, “Finding June,” was a LUNAFEST 2016 selection. Anna, who grew up in Kensington, Calif., is a local alumna of Portola Middle School (now Fred T. Korematsu Middle School) and El Cerrito High School. If you went to school with Anna, come on out and reconnect.

7. LUNAFEST filmmakers Lara Everly and Diane Weipert
This year we are lucky to have two filmmakers join us – both at the VIP event and in an on-stage interview. Diane Weipert, who lives in San Francisco, will be showing her short film, “Niñera,” “a story that looks at the bitter irony many nannies face: raising the children of strangers for a living while their own children are virtually left to raise themselves.”

Diane Weipert.

Diane Weipert has worked in film for over a decade. Her screenwriting debut premiered at the World Cinema Competition at Sundance in 2006 (Solo Dios Sabe – Diego Luna, Alica Braga). Her award-winning radio piece, “The Living Room,” was named best story of 2015 by Wired and The Atlantic, and is being developed as a feature film. Weipert is a two-time resident of the San Francisco Film Society’s Film House, where she is in development on her feature, Boyle Heights. Read my profile of Diane here. Then get to know her in person and ask her about her feature film!

Our second guest filmmaker, Lara Everly, hails from Los Angeles. Her short film, “Free to laugh,” is “a documentary that explores the power of comedy after prison.” Lara is a director, actress, and writer championing women in comedy – both in front and behind the camera. Her directorial debut, “Me, You, A Bag & Bamboo,” was awarded Best Family Film at the Canada International Film Festival and won the Viewer’s Choice award at the Ovation Short Film Contest, which led to a televised screening of the film. Lara’s short films have played the film festival circuit, won awards and procured distribution through Shorts HD, Snag Films and Oprah.com.

Lara Everly (photo credit: John Sutton).

Lara loves directing comedy, partnering with companies like FunnyorDie, Comediva, Hello Giggles, and College Humor. Web Series work includes “Love Handles” for FunnyorDie and a music-video web series called “The Queue” for PopularTV.  She most recently directed a musical comedy pilot called “Patriettes” about a mock government summer camp for teenage girls. Read my profile of Lara here. Be sure to meet Lara at either the VIP event or at the film screening – she’s as funny as her short films!

6. The Breast Cancer Fund and ECHS ITA benefit
When you attend a fundraiser, you want to ensure that it’s working to make the world a better place. LUNAFEST East Bay is supporting both a local organization and the Breast Cancer Fund. The Breast Cancer Fund “works to prevent breast cancer by eliminating our exposure to toxic chemicals and radiation linked to the disease.”

The nonprofit organization translates the “growing body of scientific evidence linking breast cancer and environmental exposures into public education and advocacy campaigns that protect our health and reduce breast cancer risk.” The Breast Cancer Fund also helps to “transform how our society thinks about and uses chemicals and radiation, with the goal of preventing breast cancer and sustaining health and life,” and finds “practical solutions so that our children, grandchildren and planet can thrive.”

ECHS’s ITA students – volunteering for LUNAFEST and gaining invaluable IT experience.

ECHS’s ITA is our local beneficiary. ITA is a small learning community supported by TechFutures, a nonprofit organization started by Mr. and Mrs. Ron Whittier. Their objective is “to give the underserved WCCUSD students an opportunity to have career focused courses in digital art and computer systems management.” From the funds raised by LUNAFEST East Bay, ITA has purchased, among other things such as art supplies, a three-dimensional printer, which is serving tens of hundreds of students. The students have created short films that will be shown at the film festival, which is paving the way for future filmmakers.

A great way to spend an evening with your women friends! Our LUNAFEST East Bay committee members raise a glass to another successful event!

5. Women’s Night Out
Historically, women have had to fight for too many things – the right to vote, protection of their reproductive rights, equal pay, and the list goes on and on. And we’re still fighting on many of these issues! Just as Black Lives Matter, there’s a reason why a film festival “for, by, about women” exists. It’s not meant to be exclusive. Rather, it highlights the fact that women have not had equality or equity in the film industry. Especially during these times, let’s celebrate the accomplishments of women. Let’s be right beside them when they dream big and make good on their vision. Let’s celebrate their artistic vision. If you went to one of the women’s marches around the Bay Area, gather your friends again and celebrate LUNAFEST by making it a Women’s Night Out.

My friend Wendy and her daughter, Lindsay, enjoy their evening out.

4. Mom/daughter night out
Following on the theme of the recent women’s march and Women’s Night Out, it’s important to think of our daughters, as they are the future of our world and what happens now affects their future. Taking our daughters to LUNAFEST is a way to introduce them to films with a woman’s perspective, to other cultures, to other ways of thinking and seeing. It’s a way of expanding their world and connecting them with people outside of our community. My daughter, Isabella, will be attending her third LUNAFEST. Technically, we’re not together in the audience since I’m in and out, behind the scenes, so she sits with a good friend of hers, who also comes with her mother. It’s a tradition that I’m thrilled to share with her, but it’s also something that she’ll take with her when she’s an adult – appreciating and supporting women filmmakers, raising awareness of the environmental impact on breast cancer, and raising funds for worthy causes.

A family of friends have some fun at the LUNAFEST photo booth last year.

3. Family night out – LUNAFEST is for everybody
So I’ve been advocating Women’s Night Out and Mother/Daughter Night Out, but I believe in inclusivity, so if you feel inclined, bring your whole family and make it a Family Night Out. In fact, my husband, David, and my son, Jacob, who is in the ECHS ITA, also attend LUNAFEST. I feel that it’s important for everyone – not just women and not just for preaching to the choir – to see films made by women filmmakers. Let your sons and husbands be exposed to and appreciate short films that speak to a woman’s view. It’s a great way to expand their capacity for compassion.

At last year’s LUNAFEST, the East Bay committee gets a little crazy at the close of the event.

2. 10th anniversary of LUNAFEST East Bay and 100th anniversary of City of El Cerrito!
It’s our 10th anniversary of bringing this fundraising film festival to the San Francisco East Bay. Sure, more than 175 cities across the country have been showing this year’s films, including local communities in the area. But we’re special: to date, in nine years, LUNAFEST East Bay has raised more than $27,000 for the Breast Cancer Fund, a distinction that has been recognized by both the nonprofit organization and LUNAFEST. We have also been supporting ECHS ITA for the last six years, raising nearly $11,000 for the learning community. We look forward to adding to those amazing totals with our 10th film screening. So come on out and celebrate this banner year! Our LUNAFEST film festival is also one of the official events recognizing the 100th anniversary of the City of El Cerrito. So, if you’re a resident of El Cerrito, join us in celebrating our host city’s centennial!

Still from this year’s LUNAFEST selection, “Another Kind of Girl.”

1. LUNAFEST films are fantastic
If you’ve been to LUNAFEST film festivals in the past, then you know how wonderful the films are. Quiet, rebellious, thoughtful, laugh-out-loud funny, sad, biting, gentle, animated, innovative, traditional – for the past 15 years, LUNAFEST has honored a broad spectrum of short films. If you’ve never been, join us and see why our event keeps growing in attendance every year, and many attendees return and make the event a tradition. We support excellence in short filmmaking. Be entertained. Be awed. Become full of wonder. Expand your world and your love and compassion. Get to know your neighbor in the theater and talk about which short film was your favorite and why. Connect and share. Walk away changed by the vision of these talented women filmmakers.

Note: For more information on LUNAFEST East Bay’s LUNAFEST screening, click here.

Diane Weipert: creating compelling stories about women

University researchers studying Latina immigrants in Los Angeles estimated that 24 percent of housekeepers and 82 percent of live-in nannies have left kids behind.
– from “The Nanny’s Child,” Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, May 6, 2014

When Diane Weipert first moved to San Francisco, she gravitated toward the Mission District because, at that time, she said, “It felt like Mexico.” The writer, director, and producer had spent a great deal of time in Mexico and Central and South America, and thus developed an affinity for Latino culture. “There were panaderías, peluquerías, joyerías, and lavanderías everywhere. I fell into a kind of bohemian scene of Latino locals, lots of artists and poets and musicians,” she recalled. “I was often the only gringa around, but I was happier in that world than anywhere else in the city.”

Diane’s son, Theo, at Mission Playground in San Francisco.

Diane continued traveling for long stretches of time. “By the time my son, Theo, was born, many years later, the city had changed,” she said. “Thousands of Latino families had been driven out of the Mission by the rich techies that wanted to live there. Almost everybody I knew from the old days was gone.” Gentrification had taken over with trendy restaurants, designer clothing boutiques, and gourmet coffee places occupying neighborhood storefronts. “I was pushing around a janky, secondhand stroller past high-end baby stores and flyers advertising expensive music classes for toddlers – I felt out of place,” she revealed. “But the playgrounds and rec centers were filled with Mexican and Central American nannies taking care of little blond kids, feeding them from BPA-free containers and stainless steel water bottles. And they never judged my obvious lack of money.”

Fluent in Spanish, she spent time with them talking about their kids. “I realized how lucky I was; I was watching my own little guy playing in the sand while we talked,” she said. While these women were taking care of other people’s children, their own children were being looked after by a patchwork of neighbors, friends, or family. Some of the nannies confessed to Diane that when they came home from their jobs, they were too exhausted to enjoy their own children. “They were the inspiration for ‘Niñera,'” she explained, of the short film’s backstory.

Diane directing on the set of “Niñera” (photo credit by Audrey Gloeckner-Kalousek).

LUNAFEST is the first film festival for “Niñera,” a story that “looks at the bitter irony many nannies face: raising the children of strangers for a living while their own children are virtually left to raise themselves.” The LUNAFEST premier in late September was the film’s coming-out party, so to speak. Its entry, however, comes at a time in our history where, as Diane describes it, “the world is primed to enter another dark age.”

“Those of us fighting for light are searching for the most effective ways to channel our energy and advance our struggle,” she said. “The best way I know how to do that, at the moment, is by telling stories that – hopefully – invoke empathy, even from those who have been swayed by a toxic ideology. Most people who are anti-immigrant have never had a meaningful relationship or encounter with an undocumented person. They exist only as an idea, and that ‘otherness’ makes them easy to demonize and dismiss.” But there’s hope, Diane insists, saying, “The only way I know how to push against it is by making stories about real people who everyone can empathize with – engaged in universal struggles – people that we’re all rooting for.”

Still from Niñera – Georgina feeding William.

The vagabond writer with ties to Latin America
A Spanish and Anthropology major at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Diane spent a year abroad, studying at the University of Seville in Spain. She saw Cuban troubadour Silvio Rodriguez perform live and became “obsessed” with his music. “His lyrics completely changed my sense of language, of what was possible with music as a means of expression,” she shared. “In fact, learning Spanish opened up a vast, beautiful world for me.” Diane was influenced by Cuban, Chilean, and Argentinian music of the 1960s and 1970s. Her favorite authors at the time were Garcia Marquez, Borges, Cortázar, Vargas Llosa, and Carlos Fuentes. And the Latin American poets, filmmakers, visual artists, and muralists made a lasting impression on her.

Diane with friends in Baños, Ecuador.

When she returned to Boulder, she completed her thesis on the Tarahumara Indians of the northern Sierras in Chihuahua, Mexico, where she conducted fieldwork. Upon graduation, she edited and wrote for a bilingual weekly newspaper in Southern Colorado, but after a year, she hit the road for a year, starting out in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and traveling as far south as Puerto Montt, Chile. “I made my deepest and longest lasting friendships in the eastern provinces of Cuba, where I spent a month with artists and writers,” she said. “I was the only American most of them had ever met, and at the time it was like being a rock star.”

Diane at the Mexico City premiere of Sólo Dios Sabe.

Diane has been in the film industry for more than a decade. Before that, she described herself as a “consummate vagabond and writer” whose stints with temp jobs and freelance writing paid for her travels. When the freelance writing assignments dried up, she went on to get her MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, where she discovered her passion for fiction writing. When she was living in San Francisco, she volunteered as a driver for local film festivals, gravitating to the Latino festivals, where being bilingual gave her an advantage. “I would pick up directors from the airport and we almost always hit it off. I’d show them around the city, we’d have dinner and drinks, and often discuss our creative projects,” she revealed. One such excursion landed her a screenwriting gig when a Mexican director asked her to write the script for his film, Sólo Dios Sabe, which stars Diego Luna.

Diane never stopped traveling to visit friends, “migrating back” to Mexico City and Cuba, where she realized she was happiest and felt at home in the Spanish-speaking world. With her light hair and fair skin, however, throughout her travels she was called gringa, gavacha, gidi, colorada, cruda, chabochi, yanki, yuma. “The gist of all of these words was ‘outsider,'” she explained, which made her realize that while she felt at home in Latin America, she didn’t really belong – it was not truly her culture. And yet, she pointed out, “I didn’t feel quite at home or entirely myself in my own culture either. That feeling of being unmoored between worlds caused an identity crisis that lasted for years, and is why so much of my work deals with issues of identity.” And because she has been so immersed in the culture, the world that she has written about so intimately is from the Spanish-speaking, Latin American perspective.

With friends in Las Tunas, Cuba.

Boyle Heights: self-identity versus cultural identity
Diane’s latest project, Boyle Heights, is set in 1973 and based on the illegal tubal ligations performed on Mexican women by USC County Hospital after the women delivered their babies. “That part is all true,” she pointed out, of the sterilizations that the women unknowingly gave consent or that were forced upon them. “It happened to many, many women [regardless of their ages] and it destroyed their lives,” she said. In 1975, a group of Latina women brought a class-action lawsuit, Madrigal v. Quilligan. While the judge ruled in favor of the county hospital, the case paved the way for improving the education and process around patient consent, especially for non-English speakers. Renee Tajima-Peña’s documentary about these women, No Más Bebés, premiered February 2016.

Still from Boyle Heights.

In the fictionalized Boyle Heights – a neighborhood in East Los Angeles – Valentina, a 20-year-old immigrant woman, is sterilized after delivering a stillborn baby. Her husband leaves her when he discovers they will never be able to have a family. Undeterred, Valentina recruits her opinionated Chicana activist neighbor Maya to help her find her husband. “At its core, Boyle Heights is a coming-of-age story about how Valentina’s experiences with Maya open her eyes to a world she never knew existed, and the many different ways that a woman can live her life,” Diane explained. “It’s about self-discovery.”

When she first heard about the sterilization of Mexican women in East Los Angeles in the 1970s, the horror she felt and her obsession led her to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Chicano Studies Department, where she sifted through all the depositions and interviews. “What was striking was how the women, almost to a person, said they no longer felt like women,” Diane noted. “According to the anthropologist who interviewed them, their main cultural identity was being a mother. As someone who is obsessed with the idea of identity, I thought a lot about what would happen if everything you expected to be in your life was suddenly taken away.” The questions are heartbreaking and painful: Who would you be then? What would you do? “The important thing here is that this is not a fictional question. There were many women forced to face it, which is horrific,” Diane said. “The freedom comes from finding my way into this world through fictional characters and guiding their stories. The women who were affected in real life weren’t granted this luxury.”

Theo and Diane on the ferry.

Complex female protagonists
In a Filmmaker Magazine profile, Diane related an anecdote about a Hollywood manager who treated her dismissively after learning of her pregnancy. That incident happened years ago when she was a “hip-pocketed indie writer in a pond of big fish clients.” Diane pointed out that the industry has changed considerably, notably in the last couple of years. Early in her career, in order to get a reading, she was advised to use her initials instead of her first name when she submitted an action thriller script she had penned. “Now they’re actually looking for women who can write action and who come up with strong female characters,” she marveled. “I was actually told to take off my initials and put my name on the title page.” Studio programs are paving the way for up-and-coming female directors to have the opportunity to direct network television episodes. “And brilliant women directors like Ava Duvernay and Jill Solloway are reaching out to female writers and directors to help bring them up as well,” Diane said.

Diane Weipert.

She credits social media activism and the “wonderful, relentless criticism” of Hollywood and the filmmaking industry for its long-time discrimination against women and people of color. While slightly trending upward, the number of and percentage of women in various positions in the industry is “abysmal,” according to Diane. “But the pressure is on,” she declared. “And hopefully it’s a current that continues to flow in one direction until we see nothing less than parity.”

“My greatest goal is to create compelling stories about women,” Diane said. “I’m interested in working in many different genres, but the common denominator will always be the complex female protagonists.” With the majority of writers and directors being men, “a plague of cultural misconceptions about what a girl or a woman is supposed to be” has existed since the advent of the film industry, according to Diane. “In the eyes of the vast majority of male writers,” she noted, “a woman’s singular purpose in any story is sex appeal.”

Diane on the set of Niñera (photo credit by Audrey Gloeckner-Kalousek).

“Women are half the population and we’re tired of it,” she said, of the portrayal of women in film. “We want to see ourselves represented on screen kicking ass and saving the world, too, not to mention having complex interior lives, interesting jobs, and multi-dimensional personalities.” Luckily for us, Diane has a mission: “As a writer-director, I want to bring these stories and characters into existence while retaining control of that vision and maintaining its integrity.”

Note: You can see Diane’s short film at LUNAFEST East Bay’s screening on Saturday, March 18th, 7:30pm, at the El Cerrito High School’s Performing Arts Theater. You can also meet her at our VIP event and following the screening. For more information, click here.

Frederike Migom: the art of mixing art and social engagement

True art, art that comes from the center of a people, from their very core, is inherently political.
– Beverly Smith, American artist

Frederike Migom.

While Frederike Migom’s “Nkosi Coiffure” – one of this year’s LUNAFEST film festival’s official selections – is, on the surface, about a woman who escapes into a hair salon in Brussels after a fight with her boyfriend in public, the short film pays homage to her Flemish mother’s unlikely friendship with her Senegalese friend. Whereas her mother is reserved both emotionally and in appearance, her mother’s friend is the exact opposite. “It was really interesting to see them relate,” she said of the two women. “It was really beautiful to see both of them together.” The Belgian filmmaker and actor was also inspired by her family’s connections with Africa – her father was born in what was once the Belgian Congo in Central Africa, and her brother studied in Senegal. Although her brother passed away while in the West African country, Frederike noted that positive things came out of her family’s tragic loss.

The idea for “Nkosi Coiffure” (2015) grew out of photos that her mother had sent to Frederike in a text message. Her mother’s friend had convinced her to go to the hair salon where she worked to have her makeup done and extensions woven into her hair. The photos surprised and amused Frederike because, as she related, “that was so not my mom.” Over a cup of coffee with her mother’s friend, Frederike laid out her vision of building a story around her mother’s salon visit for a short film. She knew that writing the script would be difficult because it wasn’t her culture. “It was going to be a challenge to portray the community honestly and with respect,” she said. So together, she and her mother’s friend wrote the script.

Still from “Nkosi Coiffure.”

Fusing art and social engagement
Frederike shot on location in a Congolese neighborhood hair salon, and “Nkosi Coiffure” premiered at a small African film festival in the same neighborhood. Brussels is home to a tight-knit Congolese community. “It felt important,” she said, of her choices in location and screening, “. . . to bring people together.” While mixing art with social engagement is more apparent in her other work, it’s still inherent in “Nkosi Coiffure.” And yet, Frederike insisted, “I did not want my film to be political at all because I don’t have the desire to do that.” She went on, “There are a lot of ways to tell stories that involve or hint at these themes without actually trying to exploit them or to pretend that I have the answers – because I don’t. All I know is that we’re all here in this city together.” In Europe, she pointed out, many films about immigration often focus on the problems of immigration for host countries. “But I want to tell a positive side of the story,” she said. “We’re going to have to learn how to live together.”

Still from “Nkosi Coiffure.”

“Si-G,” her first documentary, which premieres locally at the end of February, embodies her fusion of art and social engagement. By happenstance, Frederike was watching a local news story about students at a school and was intrigued by a girl in special needs education who performed an impromptu rap. She originally wanted to write a fictional story about Cansu, who gave herself the rapper name of Si-G. As she awaited word on government funding to make the short film, she got to know the girl better. Cansu had recently moved from a small town in the Netherlands to a small apartment that she shared with her father and sister in Brussels. “Rap for her was a need,” Frederike explained.

Cansu rapping in “Si-G.”

Frederike connected Cansu with a hip-hop workshop at the local library and filmed the event. The rapper who led the workshop became Si-G’s mentor and the two ended up collaborating on a song. When funding didn’t come through, Frederike decided to make the short film a documentary, taking a look at rap from a kid’s point of view. At that time, terrorists had attacked Paris in multiple locations and the news media reported that the terrorists came from Cansu’s neighborhood in Brussels. Soon after, the area received international scrutiny and negative press. “She’s had to be on guard a lot, but she just had this really energetic, positive story to tell,” Frederike declared. “This rap comes from the heart and it’s a way to express yourself.” She believes Cansu can be a role model to the kids in her neighborhood and to adults, too, with the film being the messenger that shows them: “Don’t judge these kids.”

Still of Cansu in the short documentary, “Si-G.”

The evolving dreams of our youth
When Frederike was a child, she wanted to be a storyteller and thought that becoming an actor was the natural next step. She studied at the performing arts conservatory American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, but she discovered that acting didn’t give her creative satisfaction. So she started writing to stay creative. When her student visa ended, Frederike didn’t want to return home and instead landed in Paris and attended film school. Commitment to being a filmmaker didn’t take hold when she was a student because the school’s technical approach over artistic focus didn’t appeal to her. It wasn’t until she graduated and worked in production that she found her true place behind the camera.

Still from the Flemish feature film, Boosters, starring Frederike.

“I’ve always been fascinated by people’s dreams,” she related. People may have dreams as children and grow up chasing those dreams. Over the years, however, when the prospect of accomplishing those dreams dims, the dreams evolve as people make necessary adaptations, according to Frederike. Her short film “Adam and Everything” (2014) explores that theme – the fork in the road where one must make decisions and then gracefully accept those changes. “When I was an actor in New York, I saw how hard it is and how so many people struggle and you have to make a decision – am I going on with this or am I choosing a more stable life?” she posed.

Still from “Adam and Everything.”

Frederike directing in “Adam and Everything.”

Frederike is continuing to explore that theme. A Belgium television station commissioned her to make a short documentary in Flemish about any subject she wanted to do, so long as it was a personal story. So she settled on filming a documentary on her classmates from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. “We’re all 30 now – where is everyone? What are they doing?” she wanted to know. As it turns out, many of her classmates are no longer acting. When they were in the performing arts conservatory, such an outcome would have been deemed a “terrible thing,” she declared. But with lives changing and presenting new challenges and opportunities, she concludes: “It’s okay.” The documentary, she says, is “more about dreams and the question of what really defines success.” Frederike is contemplating making a second version in English after the Flemish version is completed at the end of January.

Beginnings and endings all lead to hope
Communicating and connecting are also themes in her emerging body of film work. “Malakim” (2014), the story about a lonely boy and an angel on the street, was inspired by a living statue dressed as an angel that Frederike spied when she was in Sấo Palo, Brazil. He never moved because nobody gave him money. She wondered: “What if nobody sees him? What if I’m the only one who sees him because nobody is giving him any money?” Intrigued by “loneliness in crowded places,” Frederike explores the desire to communicate amidst the challenge of not being able to connect. While she admitted that “Malakim” is a “dark film” because the boy is so desperate to communicate that he throws a rock at someone, she argues that in the end boy and angel find one another.

Still from “Malakim.”

“All of my films end with a new beginning,” Frederike said. In “Nkosi Coiffure,” the main character, who is making a momentous decision, sees life in a different but positive light after her discussion with the women in the hair salon. Frederike confessed that she had always wanted to be a “complicated, dark artist,” but to the core she has always been a positive person. While there’s a lot of negativity in the world today, she points out, “Life is really a beautiful thing in the end. We’re all together in this, and we need to find a way to live together and find your place in the world. I think my stories, in the end, will always have hope.”

A prototype poster for Frederike’s feature film, Binti, which is not animated.

Frederike is currently working on her first feature film, Binti, about a 10-year-old Congolese girl who has lived her whole live in Brussels with her father and who dreams of being a television presenter. When their undocumented status is exposed, father and daughter run away. Binti meets 10-year-old Elias – a “nature boy,” as Frederike describes him – who has taken to hiding in his treehouse ever since his father had run away with another woman. Binti hatches a plan to get her father and Elias’s mother to fall in love and marry so that she and her father can remain in Belgium and she can still pursue her dream. This family film, Frederike points out, is perhaps her most socially engaged film to date. “I’m very shocked by the deportation of children, especially if they’ve lived in another country their whole life,” she declared. “It’s the most ridiculous thing to spend time and money kicking them out to a place that they’ve never been.” With Binti, Frederike wants to instill hope. She recently received word that the Belgian government has awarded her funds to develop the film – good news, indeed. The grant will enable her to move forward, with shooting expected to commence in the summer of 2018. With the world in uncertain times today, it will be interesting to see what kind of world exists when Binti premieres.

Note: You can see Frederike’s short film at LUNAFEST East Bay’s screening on Saturday, March 18th, 7:30pm, at the El Cerrito High School’s Performing Arts Theater. For more information, click here.

Patricia Beckmann Wells: a ‘fan of poetry told through moving images’

I think animation is a very truthful way to express your thoughts, because the process is very direct . . . You go from the idea to execution, straight from your brain. It’s like when you hear someone playing an instrument, and you feel the direct connection between the instrument and his brain, because the instrument becomes an extension of his arms and fingers. It’s like a scanner of the brain and thought process that you can watch, or hear.
 – Michel Gondry, French indie director, screenwriter, and producer

Patricia and her son, PT, in the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art's rain room, site of the Los Angeles International Children's Film Festival.

Patricia and her son, PT, in the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art’s rain room, site of the Los Angeles International Children’s Film Festival.

Before Patricia Beckmann Wells’s “Family Tale” premiered at the Los Angeles International Children’s Film Festival in December 2015, she posted on the Adoptive Families Facebook page about the animated short film’s subject of building a transracial family: “It documents the story of a young family who lost their own biological children, but found love by getting on the roller coaster of adoption. This journey led them to embrace open adoption, which in turn led to its own wonderful and unexpected results. It exists as our son’s story, so he can have record of what led him to join us.” “Family Tale” was also an official selection of this year’s LUNAFEST film festival, which premiered this past September.

She recognized that animation was the best media to tell her story and to personalize her story of adoption. “The audience did not judge me as a face with bias, but were presented with my interior,” she explained. “It was easier for them to identify with the pictures as symbolism than with a human face they may not have liked.”

Still from the short film, "Family Tale."

Still from the short film, “Family Tale.”

Indeed, Patricia shared how her film gave her insight into a larger story. “Somehow that film melted the cold exterior off of strangers,” she said. “I met many, many people with similar stories, and made many friends. It is remarkable how many people have suffered alone with a pain that was taboo to discuss. Usually a quarter of my audience identifies. I have chatted for hours with folks after the film. And have a new world view now.”

Still from "Family Tale."

Still from “Family Tale.”

Animator, professor, author
Patricia earned her Master of Fine Arts in Cinema and her EdD. in Educational Psychology and Leadership from the University of Southern California (USC). As a tenured professor, she teaches animation, game/toy design, virtual reality production and emerging technologies at Irvine Valley College in Irvine, Calif. She has also authored several publications on emerging technologies and art.

Patricia with her animated class and her animations!

Patricia with her animated class and her animations!

Being an animator, professor, and author have all shaped her as filmmaker. Animation suits her preference for being able to work alone and at her own fast pace, and for the way her creativity evolves. “There is creative power in daydreaming and low-stress experimentation,” she pointed out. “A line can lead to a doodle, leading to a truth that only comes from looking sideways at an upside-down thought.” In the college classroom, Patricia has gotten to know a diverse group of students. “This gives me stories,” she said. “All three [animator, professor, author] are just who I am – a sincere fan of the poetry told by moving image,” she said, simply.

Still from "Family Tale."

Still from “Family Tale.”

Navigating the animation industry
Patricia had previously worked on several movies as an animator for Warner Brothers Digital and other film companies. While she was Manager of Shorts Development at Film Roman, three of her entries won the Playboy Animation Festival in 2000. Soon after, she was tapped to develop content for Oxygen Media, the Romp, and Playboy. Later, she was in charge of training as an executive at Walt Disney Animation studios, and as Head of Training assisted Dreamworks SKG in building production studios in India, but it came at a price. “I got distracted by taking on a managerial role in the big animation studios, and lost the time required to develop new ideas,” she said.

Patricia Beckmann Wells, at home.

Patricia Beckmann Wells, at home.

Since becoming a professor, Patricia is able to work on her own ideas, but can only dedicate five months a year for a creative project because of her teaching schedule. “Ideas are mulling all the time, but they pop into production when all of the inspirations and tools present themselves,” she said. “I don’t take on commercial work anymore because there are much more talented artists than me out there who deserve the work, and I want to be free to be creative.”

The animation industry has seen an explosion of talent, but while it has evolved, centralized power and gender disparity still exist. Techtopus, recent lawsuits in which the animation industry tries to control and blacklist talent, is still affecting animation, and few women hold creative leadership, according to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media. “I work alone. I doodle, think, and keep on. My animation heroes are all indie,” she affirmed. “The story is the thing, not the method (which currently happens to be animation), and I am so happy there are many more outlets for media than there were 20 years ago.” With the indie movement firmly entrenched in the industry, she declared, “We do not need to join studios any more.  As a professor, I am in a perfect position to keep making my stories while encouraging new voices to speak as well.  Emerging media is creating new outlets for creativity daily.”

Still from the film, "Don't Cry."

Still from the film, “Don’t Cry.”

Having faith in indies
Patricia is currently in production for “Don’t Cry,” with soundtrack by Boston-based ska punk band Big D and the Kids Table. The film, which is expected to be released in summer 2017, explores a mother’s unconditional love for her adopted son and how she will influence his own family. Patricia is also developing a comedy series “motivated by subtly educating people about the science of global warming,” a science-fiction film about the outsider and education, virtual reality experiments, and educational shorts created for her son.

She hopes that audiences who see her films “leave with faith in the little guy.” “Independent film has an authentic voice and usually just one writer,” Patricia said. “I hope I get better and better and eventually can tell a story that wraps people up in a peaceful blanket of my heart, smothers them with kisses, and leads them back into the world drunk with love.”

Note: You can see Patricia’s short film at LUNAFEST East Bay’s screening on Saturday, March 18th, 7:30pm, at the El Cerrito High School’s Performing Arts Theater. For more information, click here.