Beyond Resilience Masterclasses: Changing the Story
Much of our work at Firelight Media is designed to support and encourage early- and mid-career filmmakers as they seek and uncover the truth about our shared history. This truth-seeking is sometimes related to finding one’s own voice as a filmmaker, which our artist programs encourage, but more often the truth documentary filmmakers seek is embedded deep within the stories they uncover through their own lived experiences.
Documentary filmmaking has long been a medium through which artists seek and uncover the truth about American history through the prism of their own experience. Examples of truths uncovered by Firelight-supported filmmakers include the power of everyday activists in exposing injustices, such as the 2014 uprising in Ferguson, Missouri as depicted in Documentary Lab alumni Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’s film Whose Streets?, which they shot while on the ground among the protestors; the religious and cultural prejudices faced by an entire generation of Muslims in the U.S., as in Documentary Lab alum and Impact Campaign Fund grantee Nausheen Dadabhoy’s An Act of Worship, which includes personal archival material submitted by Muslim Americans for the film; and how emerging technologies have the potential to limit our freedoms, such as Documentary Lab alum and Impact Campaign Fund grantee Shalini Kantayya’s Coded Bias, which documents a Black woman researcher’s own experience of being unrecognizable to facial recognition technology.
But, critically, what filmmakers and their protagonists experience as truth must be interrogated through rigorous fact-finding — including archival research, interviews with experts, and contextualization by historians — in order to ensure that their stories are accurate and accountable to the communities they represent.
This year, in an effort to showcase the power and impact of documentary films on the field of the humanities, we launched Beyond Resilience Masterclass, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, a sub-strand of our popular Beyond Resilience series. These virtual panels, broadcast via Zoom Webinar and YouTube, gathered humanities scholars, filmmakers, impact producers, and documentary industry veterans for discussions that interrogated the role of nonfiction cinema in educating the public about our shared history. Events in the series explored the role of Black filmmakers in shaping Black history, revealed the power of personal archives in shaping historical narratives, and re-examined the lives of historical figures such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass with the latest available scholarship.
Each Beyond Resilience Masterclass featured Academy-Award nominated filmmaker and MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Stanley Nelson, who is also the co-founder of Firelight Media, whose films, including The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and Attica, challenge prevailing historical narratives and center protagonists whose experiences have been left out of history books. Nelson set the tone for the Masterclass series by stating in our first event that the challenge for Black documentary filmmakers in particular is “to be totally accurate as filmmakers with our stories…[and to still] make history live and exciting.”
For Us By Us
That first Beyond Resilience Masterclass featured acclaimed filmmakers Stanley Nelson, Roger Ross Williams, Dawn Porter, and Sam Pollard, alongside Cameo George, Executive Producer of PBS American Experience. The conversation began with a simple question: What is Black history when told through the lens of Black filmmakers? Roger Ross Williams, who won an Oscar for his documentary short film Music By Prudence, answered that “there’s a big correction that has to happen now in the [documentary] industry, because for so long we weren’t telling our stories. Others were parachuting into our communities and telling a story that perpetuated a certain type of racist idea about African Americans. This is a time that — after George Floyd, the reckoning in America — things started to shift… We need to tell our own stories.”
Williams shared that his forthcoming documentary Stamped From The Beginning, based on Dr. Ibrahim X. Kendi’s book of the same name, which is a history of racist ideas in America, will center Black women historians as commentators as they reflect on how racist practices like redlining affected their families personally. This creative choice, he hopes, will add nuance and a dose of reality for audiences who might perceive history as a series of disembodied facts.
Interrogating the Archive
For the second and third events in the Beyond Resilience Masterclass series, we interrogated the use of personal and historical archives in documentary filmmaking, and how personal archives can advance and enliven our understanding of historical moments and figures.
Taking inspiration from Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Bing Liu’s documentary Minding the Gap, our second Masterclass “The Personal is Historical” considered the power of personal archives now that history is being recorded in real time. With billions of people moving about the world with camera-equipped smartphones in hand, history is being captured minute by minute by amateur photographers in photos and videos that in many cases become historical records. The panel brought together Liu, First People’s Fund President Lori Pourier, Yale Professor Elleza Kelley, and Stanley Nelson to discuss the role of personal archives in shaping our understanding of history.
Professor Kelley shared that the very definition of “archive” is a matter of some controversy for scholars at the moment. “In my line of work, this is a contentious debate: What even is an archive? A noun? A verb? Or [does it symbolize] history itself, [with a focus on] particularly white narratives?” Professor Kelley stated that her own interest lies in “[restoring] value to practices of collecting, preserving, safeguarding, and transmitting stories and knowledge within our community” — that is, communities of color whose histories have largely been told by white scholars.
Lori Pourier, whose work at the First Peoples Fund includes documenting and uplifting stories of Indigenous peoples, bluntly questioned the notion of “truth” that constitutes the public’s understanding of our shared history. Since Indigenous nations were first colonized, she said, there have been countless pieces in museums like the Smithsonian and the National Museum of the American Indian that have been mislabeled or misrepresented by archivists, but nevertheless have come to shape dominant narratives about Indigenous people. Pourier stated that “there are so many headdresses out there that are mislabeled, for so many years, but thankfully there are more Native archivists out there now who are fixing that.”
The historical misrepresentation of Indigenous people is why part of the work of the First Peoples Fund, like Firelight Media, is to provide funding to Indigenous documentary filmmakers so that they can document the history of their own communities, ensuring accurate and self-representational portrayals.
But what do filmmakers do when their historical subject is not well-documented through visual archival material, as was the case for filmmakers Stanley Nelson and Nicole London when making a film about the life of Harriet Tubman? In our third Masterclass on the making of the PBS documentaries Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom and Becoming Frederick Douglass, we interrogated how the filmmakers, alongside screenwriter Marcia Smith and historical consultants such as Dr. Erica Armstrong Dunbar of Rutgers University, used cinematic tools like dramatic readings, historical recreations, and visual effects to illuminate the context in which their historical subjects lived. Smith said that her approach to writing historical documentaries is “trying to remember and project these [historical subjects] as human beings with all of the feelings and decisions and choices that we all make…We work really hard at putting them in their context, so that viewers come to understand not just some narrow facts about this person, but the environment in which they lived, the time period, the place — understand something about their circumstances, as those things shaped the choices that they made.”
Making an Impact
Our final Beyond Resilience Masterclass on Producing Documentaries with Impact, which featured Stanley Nelson, filmmaker and Firelight Media consultant Loira Limbal; Firelight-supported filmmakers Kevin Shaw and Nausheen Dadabhoy, their respective impact producers Locsi Ferrá and Aber Kawas, alongside moderator Asad Muhammad, VP of Impact and Engagement Strategy at POV/American Documentary, highlighted documentaries designed to push back at ahistorical narratives about communities of color, revealing how self-representational storytelling can change how communities of color see themselves.
Filmmaker Nausheen Dadabhoy’s film An Act of Worship was created to expose the vitriol thrust upon Muslim communities in the U.S. in wake of 9/11 by showcasing the self-documented lived experiences of Muslim Americans during this period. Dadabhoy and her Impact Producer Aber Kawas designed an impact and engagement campaign around the film that centers the experiences of the Muslim audiences who would see it. In fact, filmmaker Nausheen Dadabhoy said, “understanding who the audience was was part of the journey of making the film.” By focusing their community screenings and events on the Muslim community in particular, Dadabhoy and Kawas not only reflected the lived realities of the Muslum community back upon itself, but also provided a forum for the audience to acknowledge and begin to heal associated traumas.
In their totality, the four events in our Beyond Resilience Masterclass series demonstrate how filmmakers of color, in partnership with humanities scholars, can create new understanding about our shared history as told through the protagonists and communities who experience it first-hand. By bringing their own lived experience into the filmmaking process, and using the rigorous scholarly practices of fact-checking, archival research, and consulting with historians and other humanities experts, filmmakers can reach a broad audience with films that are accessible, accurate, and accountable to the communities they represent.
Beyond Resilience Masterclasses, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, focused on deeply-researched historical documentary films by and about BIPOC communities.
To learn about Firelight Media and our Beyond Resilience series, visit firelightmedia.tv/programs/beyond-resilience.