Holy Rosary Cemetery and Union Carbide Complex, Taft, Louisiana, 1998 by Richard Misrach
Getting to see from the inside how a documentary film is created has been an invaluable experience for me. In the past, from the perspective of a viewer, I had no idea about the extensive thought and planning that is put into every minute detail.
But that amount of work is necessary—it’s vital to making something that’s good, that stays true and authentic to the story and portrays it in a way that is meaningful and lasting.
As I’ve detailed in my previous posts, the situation on the Gulf Coast is dire. Countless vulnerable communities are being threatened by an encroaching petrochemical industry and a government unwilling to protect its citizens.
Cypress Tree, Alligator Bayou, 1998 by Richard Misrach
This is a beautiful, fragile region of our nation, a place that has witnessed firsthand some of the most tumultuous moments of United States history. And, too, it is often forgotten and exploited; its delicate ecosystem is on the verge of collapse. As climate change accelerates, the Gulf Coast is one of the first regions that’s being impacted—and it’s dramatic: Louisiana is losing approximately a football field of coastal wetlands every hour.
Remarkable people live here, too, struggling to lead normal lives as plants continue to spew toxic chemicals into their air and water. I’ve already detailed the tragedy of Mossville, Louisiana, a majority African American community founded by runaway slaves that’s disintegrating because of aggressive petrochemical industry expansion.
The resilience of these communities is extraordinary, but the bigger picture can be very discouraging. Communities of color are being systematically targeted and exploited by a ravenous petrochemical industry and complicit governments, and precious little is being done about it.
This is where I believe there becomes an urgent need to tell these stories, to put faces to the facts and figures of the suffering, to broadcast the human beings that live in these communities.
For me, this is why my time this summer at Fiege Films has been so rewarding and engaging. In doing my (admittedly small) part as a Research Assistant here, I’ve been able to contribute to this overall mission, and hopefully help get a littler closer to bringing about justice for these communities.
The film, currently titled In the Air, is in the production phase. You can follow our social media for updates and more information, and you can donate to help offset production costs and make this project a reality.
In my time so far this summer at Fiege Films, I’ve had the opportunity to really get a good sense of what working on a team is like. I’m instinctively independent, and I usually like to work on my own, so working here has definitely been a bit of an adjustment compared to how I usually get things done when I’m at school.
Collaborating with a team on a creative project is something that’s relatively new to me, but I’m finding that it’s a really rewarding experience. Because it’s a team, we each have the opportunity to ask for input and get feedback. I think that having the immediate ability to get other people’s opinions on things makes the overall work stronger.
In terms of technical skills, I’ve learned a lot more about video editing than I thought I would. Working on a project in which I assembled choice segments from hours of interview footage, I was able to get frequent feedback on the artistic direction of the project, but also learned and developed a lot on the technical side. Using programs like Final Cut Pro X, Adobe Premiere, and Adobe Media Encoder day-to-day, I think I’ve gained a lot more technical skills that I’m eager to keep working on when I get back to school.
I’ve really been enjoying my time so far at Fiege Films, and the office environment reflects where I would want to work in the future. I like the balance between independence and collaboration, the fact that I’m given plenty of free reign and leeway on assignments, but there’s still always the opportunity to ask for clarification or for help if things aren’t working quite how they should.
In researching the Gulf Coast, I’ve also been able to develop my investigatory and analysis skills, which I’m sure will be handy when research papers start to roll in.
I’m learning different search strategies, and how to dig deeper if at first I can’t seem to find what I’m looking for. For example, in researching the petrochemical complex around Mossville, Louisiana, I was able to dig deep into the Calcasieu Parish tax records to find exactly how much of the surrounding land was owned by oil and chemical companies. And, after a little research, it shocked me.
This chart, put together by The Intercept, further elaborates on how research can illustrate a historic culture of exploitation:
I think this summer has been so rewarding because the purpose of all of this editing and research and development has been for something that I firmly believe in.
Even though doing research work can take a long time, it really doesn’t feel cumbersome or boring—I think it’s because of why I’m doing it. Because I get to be part of a team that’s passionate about fighting for social justice for threatened communities like Mossville, because I’m personally invested in the mission, this experience has been very rich and rewarding, and it’s been going by really fast.
For the future, I think this means that I’m on the right path, career-wise. I’m glad I’m studying film, because this internship has confirmed for me that it’s a great and effective way to tell stories that matter. And I think that’s why this summer has been so great for me, because I get to work creatively with a great team to help further a cause I care about.
This summer, I’m working at Fiege Films in Austin, Texas. It’s a small independent film company that I’m really glad to be a part of.
John Fiege, the founder of Fiege Films, is an environmentalist and documentary filmmaker. His past work includes the films Mississippi Chicken, an examination of undocumented workers in the poultry industry in Mississippi, and Above All Else, the story of a last-ditch attempt to stop the Keystone XL pipeline expansion in East Texas.
John has many shorter pieces too. This short film, Torrent on the Blanco, chronicles the devastating flooding that occurred in Wimberley, Texas in 2015:
The environment is a key focus at Fiege Films, and it’s especially important in the current moment, with environmental catastrophes like climate change feeling ever more acute, and a political administration unwilling to do anything to stop it. It’s paramount that people advocate for our habitat.
Currently, I’m helping out with pre-production on In the Air, an experimental, feature-length film about environmental devastation on the Gulf Coast, told from the perspectives of local artists, such as poets and dancers.
We’re focusing particularly on a part of the country called “Cancer Alley,” a stretch of land along the Mississippi host to over 100 petrochemical complexes and a disproportionate amount of illness.
It’s a depressing situation, but also a great opportunity to speak out about this great injustice. I believe that environmental justice is social justice, and that by fighting for better air and water conditions for the residents of this region that have been traditionally mistreated, I’m helping to further the cause of social justice. When we protect our environment, we protect the people living there, too. That’s why telling this story is so important.
Here’s an excerpt from the work sample for In the Air. It was shot in Baytown, Texas, and features a piece of poetry from Baytown native Ebony Stewart:
Right now, there’s a lot of work to be done for the film, and it’s pretty busy here in the office—but also really exciting. Coming off a successful Kickstarter in April, we’ve raised enough funds to start production, and for me that means researching locations, creating shooting schedules, and coordinating with artists, among many other tasks.
My hope for this time is that I can best facilitate the creative vision for the film, to help the story of a very marginalized and exploited part of the country get told. Making a film takes a ton of work, but in this case, with such dire subject matter, it’s self-evident how important it is. I’m very grateful to the WOW program for making it possible for me to work for social justice this summer. It’s awesome that I get to spend my time doing something so meaningful and important.
In mid-August, I left my temporary shotgun home in the Upper Ninth Ward after making videos and collecting footage on Downtown New Orleans. Since my last blog post, I attended several of NOVAC’s film workshops and networking events. One of my learning goals this summer was to meet independent documentary filmmakers. One of the people I met was Lily Keber, the director of Bayou Maharajah, at her workshop she co-taught with one of my supervisors, Biliana Grozanda (see photo below). Since they are both documentarians, they offered an Interview Techniques for Documentary workshop. The workshop was part of a larger course, the Documentary Production Project, that brings a group of indie filmmakers together to craft a documentary on a subject of their choice. I left this workshop knowing how to ask my future subjects questions to lead to a good story and I also learned how to prepare for an interview—research your subject, plan to meet them in a space conducive to dialogue, etc. After taking this workshop, I felt comfortable interviewing subjects for my first video but I still felt I needed to work on my production and editing skills, which was another one of my learning goals this summer. I was assigned to a Virtuous Video assignment. For those that forgot, NOVAC’s Virtuous Video Program brings filmmakers and non-profit organizations together to produce videos to spread awareness about their cause. For my Virtuous Video assignment, I worked with Core Element Hands On STEM Camp, a summer camp for children and teachers in Jefferson and New Orleans Parish that focuses on increasing interest in science. I worked with an independent filmmaker and assisted him with sound. That project was a huge learning lesson; I messed up the sound on numerous occasions and I kept entering the frame. However, I now know how to act on set and how to properly operate sound equipment. I was also allowed to make the first rough cut of the video and that certainly aided my editing skills.
Since I received more experience, I started collecting footage for a short documentary that I am in the process of editing. I interviewed Eve Abrams, a writer that created her own audio-documentary called Along the St. Claude, for her experience with gentrification in the Bywater, Lower Ninth Ward, area. Then after I collected some footage of her, I interviewed a student at Clark Preparatory High School, a student from Tulane University, a native of New Orleans, and an artist that may be considered a gentrifier. Usually when people discuss gentrification, things become black and white: a group of people, usually young white people with money, comes into a space that is predominantly black and low-income. However, based on the interviews I conducted over the summer, I realized that the gentrification process crossed into different racial, class, and age groups. Plus, New Orleans is a port city, so different people have always entered New Orleans. Although New Orleans was segregated until the 1960s, I think New Orleanians were used to people from different backgrounds entering their city. Personally, I think people notice the different class groups entering different neighborhoods first, then I think the intersection between race and class becomes more apparent, especially since poverty is sometimes matched with the black experience in America.
I decided to take all of my footage and split it into multiple parts around a theme. My first video is a pair of people that were at Shotgun Cinema’s first film festival, True Orleans. True Orleans is a film festival dedicated to celebrating innovative non-fiction/documentary films made by New Orleans’ filmmakers. Aside from screenings, they also offered free panel discussions centered around non-fiction storytelling. When I was not filming the attendees for my project, I managed to sneak into a couple of the panel discussions. At True New Orleans, I asked a couple of people at the theater if they could describe gentrification in New Orleans in one word or what word would they associate with gentrification in New Orleans. I broke up their responses into two videos. You guys can watch the first one here!
Overall, I think I meet all of my learning goals: I met some cool independent filmmakers and even a stop motion animator; I learned how to conduct interviews, which could help me with my sociology interviews and with my future documentary projects; I learned how to use some applications in the Adobe Creative Cloud; and I learned how to use basic video and audio equipment. Plus, I was in the same room as Ava Devarnay, so I definitely had the best summer ever. Thank for reading my summer blog!
After hearing Ava DuVernay speak about diversity in media at the Essence Festival and seeing a diverse number of independent filmmakers in and out of our office, I am proud to be a summer intern for an organization that is about making filmmaking and community media accessible for all members of society. At its core, NOVAC is about giving the citizens of New Orleans access to channels of communication so they can tell their personal narratives. NOVAC provides the tools necessary for digital storytelling to its local community by forming workforce training programs, digital storytelling camps, filmmaker workshops, and free conferences.
Since late June, my responsibilities includes designing logos for non-profit organizations, creating slideshows and short videos for NOVAC and taking notes in meetings with NOVAC affiliates. But lately everyone at NOVAC has been trying to spread awareness about the detrimental effects of the HB 289 Bill that just passed through the Louisiana state legislature. The HB 289 Bill caps tax incentives at 180 million dollars for film production companies. This bill would increase unemployment and displace film professionals out of their profession because film studios would rather produce films in areas that do not cap tax incentives, like Atlanta. The HBO/Cinemax Quarry Internship program was an amazing opportunity that provide 15 individuals with an internship based on their interests, but now their industry worthy skills may be under utilized because of the the HB 289 Bill. NOVAC’s workforce training workshops are economic opportunities for local residents. After New Orleanians complete our training programs, they gain access to jobs in the film industry through our job referral program and they can use their newly acquired skills to gain social mobility but the HB 289 Bill may hinder that.
Despite worrying about the effects of the HB 289 Bill, NOVAC has been preoccupied with New Orleans youth! Earlier this month, I checked in with parents to confirmed their children’s spot in NOVAC’s Youth Digital Storytelling Summer Camp. These young aspiring filmmakers spent one week creating a PSA about the harmful effects of smoking. From creating their own props to adding the credits, our campers had a say in the creative process and in deciding what issue they wanted to tackle with their video. Through digital storytelling, these students were able to disseminate a powerful message about the effects of smoking, and here at NOVAC we think it is imperative that community members, young and old, learn how to use mediums of communication to inform citizens about social justice issues. After all, in 1972, when NOVAC was founded, one of their aims was to use videos to spread awareness about poverty in New Orleans. Now, NOVAC provides outlets for New Orleans youth to tackle issues of domestic violence, drug abuse, homelessness, abuse, and other issues they are passionate about.
I’ve worked closely with Clark Prep High School rising senior Bernisha Hooker since she joined NOVAC as a summer intern. The city of New Orleans offers an internship program for teenagers in New Orleans, however most of these internships do not correlate with the students’ future career aspirations. Through a special program called Youth Force, Bernisha was placed at an internship site that matches her career interests: photography and filmmaking. Bernisha and I work side by side and I aid her with her duties. Since she is a New Orleanian, I thought it would be interesting to hear about her experience with Hurricane Katrina, especially since this year is the 10th anniversary. I interviewed and recorded her story for NOVAC Project 10. Project 10 is a digital storytelling initiative from NOVAC and the Greater New Orleans Foundation. Representatives from local community organizations and New Orleans citizens tell us their stories about one of the most devastating events in America. The project has taught me about documentary and social justice filmmaking as well as the non-exciting part of filmmaking: planning and working with people’s schedules. There are ALWAYS last minute changes and you have to adapt accordingly. In college, you are aware of deadlines and you usually have enough time to prepare for assignments and projects. I’m realizing in the independent filmmaking world, you just always have to be ready for the next opportunity, especially when working on documentaries based on people volunteering their time to help you with your work.
My internship is providing me with the technical skills necessary for documentary filmmaking and community media. Since I have been in New Orleans, I’ve met state senators, representatives from the Urban League New Orleans Chapter, independent filmmakers and creative problem-solvers. Meeting these people emphasized the importance of teamwork and collaborative practices. As a college student, I am use to working solo, aside from the dreaded group project, and I like working by myself because I make all the decisions and I do not have to work with people’s schedules. However, this summer I was brought into projects, so I could add my own vision and my mentors have pushed me to think critically about the work I am doing, whether it is editing my logo designs or finding an issue to tackle for my final project. Working with other talented individuals makes my work better and I am excited to engage with more community members for my final video project on Gentrification in the Upper Ninth Ward New Orleans!
After arriving at Louis Armstrong New Orlean’s International Airport, a nice warm humid hug welcomed me into New Orleans. This warm embrace was the beginning of many as I met so many warm souls all over New Orleans and at my internship site, New Orleans Video Access Center (NOVAC). Located near the Mississippi River, NOVAC was started by a group of AmeriCorps VISTA fellows who wanted to see an organization in New Orleans that fostered the creation of socially conscious independent films. Although NOVAC’s mission has evolved over the years, NOVAC still provides New Orleans’ filmmakers with workshops and the resources necessary to create their own idiosyncratic pieces. Aside from aiding the independent filmmaking community, NOVAC connects New Orleans’ youth with people in the film industry and NOVAC also allow these teenagers to enhance their visual storytelling skills, whether through NOVAC’s digital storytelling camps or through their new exclusive HBO/Cinemax Quarry internship program that gives 15 local teenagers the opportunity to work on the set of Cinemax’s new series, Quarry, for three weeks!
If my first week at NOVAC is any indication of the work that I will accomplish this summer, then I know I am going to return to Brandeis in the fall equipped with advanced editing and design skills and an appreciation for community-based film projects. As junior year approaches, I worry about potentially leaving Brandeis without the technical skills necessary to enter the film industry. In the past couple of days, I have been developing my design skills by creating promotional materials for NOVAC’s sponsored documentaries. Documentaries under NOVAC’s fiscal sponsorship program can use NOVAC’s non-profit status to apply to more grants and to appeal to individual donors. As an incentive, individual donors will receive a tax reduction if they donate to film projects under this program. Raising money for film projects can be a troublesome task for independent filmmakers, since they usually don’t receive support from entertainment conglomerates. This past week I created website banners for two documentaries and one film in NOVAC’s fiscal sponsorship program: Flotsam; Battlefield: Home; and Easy Does It. Since this was my first summer project for NOVAC, I was eager to display my creativity. However I was also scared of not meeting their expectations. My resourceful and encouraging supervisors were there to guide me through my first assignment and my anxiety soon went away. As I was creating these banners, I gained a more in-depth understanding of NOVAC’s sponsored projects and I was inspired by the way these filmmakers were using film to ask questions about their environment, society, or an issue that they feel is underrepresented in the media. For example, Flotsam is a documentary that looks past the common depictions of Mardi Gras as a glorious celebration to reveal the amount of debris left behind when everyone grabs their beads and leaves the party. Flotsam just unleashed my thirst for finding new content that questions the things that I look past.
Flotsam and NOVAC’s sponsored projects allow me to peek behind the curtain and discover the ways our local filmmakers are engaging with their community to raise awareness about their concerns. Soon, I will start converting videos in NOVAC’s archive to a digital format. After we digitize the videos, they will be available online for the public to access. NOVAC’s video archive managed to survive Hurricane Katrina but through NOVAC’s digital preservation efforts, NOVAC’s archive will be safe from New Orleans’ next natural catastrophe. Their archive encompasses over 40 years of original content produced by NOVAC and its affiliates. Recently, NOVAC digitized a video produced during one of their workshops in the late 80s that focused on the struggles battered women face. The video is called, Ain’t Nobody’s Business, and it displays the testimonies of women that were victims of domestic abuse. Although this video was created several decades ago, these stories are congruent to the stories told by women affected by domestic violence today.
Aside from cultivating my interest in visual storytelling, NOVAC allows me to meet with so many talented people in the film industry, like my supervisor, Biliana Grozdanova, who recently screened her film, The Last Kamikazes of Heavy Metal, at New Orleans Film Festival and just returned from Cannes Film Festival (as a volunteer). Hopefully, I will continue to meet more people like my supervisor through the many workshops NOVAC offers throughout the summer. By the end of the summer, I want to increase my editing and design skills and uncover more analog videos that are still prevalent today. I also want to produce my own material for NOVAC’s Virtuous Video program. Through this program, community organizations partner with local filmmakers to create videos that highlight their mission and their contributions to their community. Since this year is the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, NOVAC partnered with the Greater New Orleans Foundation to involve New Orleans’ youth with the Virtuous Video Program. This fusion gave birth to Project 10: a digital storytelling undertaking that asks New Orleans community members and organizations about their thoughts on the city’s development after Hurricane Katrina. I am currently researching and watching Hurricane Katrina documentaries to prepare myself for the next component of my internship, but you will find out more about that in my next blog post!
My internship has come to a close! Unlike in my other posts, I feel at a loss for words. This experience at Lava Bear was everything I had hoped it would be. In my exit interview, I pretty much delivered heaps upon heaps of effusive praise. Lava Bear is a great company – it was sheer serendipity that this place was perfect for me. The last few days have been rough, acclimating to the responsibilities of “real life” and accepting that my time in Los Angeles has come to a close (or at least a hiatus).
Spending these last few days reflecting, I feel that I accomplished my many goals. I now know that I could happily live in LA. I now know that I could work in development. I now know that I could read scripts for a living. This summer was not necessarily revelatory (it was too lifelike for that) but it was an incredibly important step in my career. I now know that I want to learn more about film budgeting and the Massachusetts Film Commission (potential future internship site?). I have developed a deeper love of screenwriting that I cannot really expound upon; again, my confidentiality agreement heeds, but I must say that one of the highlights of my summer was sorting through tens of fascinating and individualistic scripts that I cannot tell you about.
I was just discussing with a friend whether I thought reading such a dense volume of scripts improved my writing. While I don’t think it stoked my creative side, I feel my analytical work will be much stronger now. My wit is definitely more acerbic, that’s for sure! I will definitely be able to apply these skills during my final year at Brandeis. On the way out, one of the higher-ups told me I should start a blog. What a thought! I discussed with my coworkers the possibility of moving out here; all of them seemed willing (even eager) to help me locate a job. Writing thank-you notes was easy. I feel blessed and happy that I was able to make this dream a reality (with the help of others). Moreover, I made contact with a bevy of independent artists in the community. The friends I have made in California have been wonderful. I feel satisfied with the networking I did, and furthermore, I believe I developed my skills in networking.
My thoughts on film have shifted, particularly my thoughts on screenwriting. I feel pretty confident that I could work various vocations, from a suit to a creative. Now I have this year to make some decisions about the niche I want to occupy. Thanks to the WOW, I feel certain that I could compete in this landscape. I encourage anyone looking to work in film to simply start networking immediately. Networking is vital and you cannot make film without the assistance of others. That is what I love about film art, that it requires collaboration. I took particular joy in showing the work of Brandeis Television, a club I’m on the E-board of, to my employers and artistic friends. This is also not a shill, but I strongly recommend taking advantage of the resources the Hiatt Career Center has to offer. I used Hiatt offices to conduct my multiple phone interviews, have my resume checked, and the advice of my Hiatt liaison has been vital throughout the process. Keep working, keep pushing, because really, what else is there to life besides kindness and art-making?
I hope you have enjoyed reading my blog posts, my intermittent Carrie–moments. Bonne chance, Brandesians and future WOW’ers!
This is Alex Weick touching down from Lava Bear Films in Los Angeles! More specifically Culver City: the film company where I am working this summer is couched in a creative adaptive reuse project, a “campus,” where the plants are deep green and the food trucks are sumptuous. Lava Bear Films is a production and film financing company.
I have various internship responsibilities, but my predominant obligation is to do Script Coverage. Coverage is when you write a synopsis of a script and give your feedback, suggesting whether it be produced, pursued, or thrown in the trash. The ideal is to separate the wheat from the chaff so that higher-ups don’t have to bother with the subpar work agents submit. I pride myself on being both a benevolent giver of constructive criticism and a vicious critic who eviscerates soulful, sentimental work, thus the work is apt. You would be shocked at the amount of typos professional screenwriters submit; rest assured, I believe I could definitely forge a career in this.
I wish I could tell you all more about what I’ve been reading, but it’s all top-secret! I had to sign a waiver and everything! Although part of me wishes I could share, feeling privy to the internal machinations of the film industry is an exciting feeling that I actually relish. This sensation of exclusivity, seeing the gears which modulate Hollywood and the star machine…it is fascinating and inspiring for someone who loves film deeply.
I located my internship through a friend, but I earned the job through my coverage. I encourage people to locate studios which produce work they really appreciate. Be persistent and responsible in your application process. If you want a career in entertainment, there aren’t any other options than to pull out the stops, locate the work you enjoy and find the people facilitating it.
The first week was interesting. Day one I was excited, I can be a tiny bit nervous when I’m excited about an opportunity. Fortunately, it all worked out beautifully. The staff is lovely, diverse, intimately sized (my mentoring is dedicated, hands-on), and my supervisor is wonderful. She’s helpful, she answers all my questions, and is eminently concerned that I am learning and growing during this process. AND she has fabulous music taste!
I’ve learned a fair amount about how business deals are made (hint: lots of discussion) and I’ve re-learnt a cursory life lesson: the necessity of brevity. I, of course, am the queen of redundancy and tangents, but I’ve managed to become more succinct in the coverage I’ve completed so far. You simply can’t afford to babble when there are more important goals to accomplish. Moreover, I think it will help me when I’m trying to produce creative projects and understand how to better pitch and sell stories.
My overarching goals are manifold. First and foremost, I want to further understand what professional niche I intend to occupy. One can only get a limited idea of what a film-career might look if they rely on screenwriting books and hearsay. Being present is vital: seeing who pulls what weight or how I might someday take on responsibilities. Furthermore, I want to build a network in the area. My coworkers have been very supportive about the prospect of a future career here.
Another goal was to figure if I could imagine living in L.A., and let me tell you, I definitely could! The greenery and weather are glorious, the clubs are exponentially better than any in Boston, and the food is delicious (albeit expensive, but c’mon, it’s L.A.!). It feels incredible to be in a community of artists and people who appreciate art. I feel so whole being around tenacious and creatively engaged citizens, even tangentially and indirectly. I could do without the overabundance of fedoras (which are apparently in style here?) but eh, you take the good with the bad.
My final purpose was to do research that will inform my thesis and future writing and certainly, this all will. The density of scripts I’m reading and the coverage I’m writing are improving my writing, particularly my ability to balance literary economies of purpose, production and expression. In the middle of week one, I had a brain surge that revolutionized my thesis. I feel very in touch with my creative soul in The City of Angels.
I even got to go to Lava Bear’s first film premiere! The Rover, starring Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson, is excellent. Go see it! The movie’s harsh realism was right up my alley. I feel so fortunate to have located a production studio that supports independent, innovative, alternative talent. Also: I made eye contact with Zac Efron at the premiere. It’s puerile of me, but I could have burst into tears. I looked right into the abyss and it inexplicably stared back, filled with promise and potentialities of realizing dreams. I feel confident this is where I should be and fortunate that the WOW has helped make it happen.
So long, WOW’ers and readers. I will return soon to regale you with stories of my travails, and ideally, more celebrity sightings.