Creating Space for Detroit’s Voices and Stories

by: Alicia M. Díaz Thomas

What is the story of your name?

With that question, Firelight Media opened its first Detroit Groundwork Lab, Firelight Media’s new initiative to introduce emerging artists from the South and Midwest to the opportunities that exist in the documentary landscape.

The answer to that question from the filmmakers in attendance, was a wealth of answers that reflected the Filipino, African diaspora, and Latinx narratives from within our community.

Prevailing narratives of what comprises a “Detroit” story typically fall far short of the diverse visions convened by Firelight at the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership; the former home of Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs, internationally recognized human rights visionaries. Spending a day with Firelight and other emerging filmmakers within a space which has cultivated generations of community creators, set the tone for intentional and demanding creative work.

Firelight mentors and staff, N’jeri Eaton, Loira Limbal and Chloë Walters-Wallace skillfully guided us through the pitfalls and prospects of national film funding (up until then a world unknown to me) and shared critical insights on each of our projects.

As a native Detroiter, I found the most sobering yet motivational moment was Firelight’s discussion of a recent crop of proposed documentary projects about the city in which not one was by a Detroiter. In response, a wave of groans wafted across the room by those in attendance expressing our collective lack of surprise. Yet, there was also an unequivocal resolve for this “trend” to act as an affirmation that the time is now to craft our city’s stories in its own voices.

The day ended with a panel with Firelight staff along with veteran Detroit film and multimedia makers, Juanita Anderson, Bill Kubota and Ill Weaver, who shared their expertise with us in una mezcla of tough love, humor and candor.

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Gathering of storytellers in Detroit for the first Firelight Groundwork Lab.

The Groundwork Lab encouraged my co-producer, Consuela López, and I to push beyond our first time filmmaker pressures and bolstered our courage to see our upcoming documentary short, Dangerous Times | Rebellious Responses as the first step of a feature length work. For too long, storytelling by far too many Detroit creatives has meant migrating to film meccas such as New York. However, through Firelight, we didn’t have to do that to hear our stories and it was incredibly affirming.

With the support of the Detroit Narrative Agency and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation-Detroit Art Challenge, which are creating groundbreaking story telling spaces within our city, Dangerous Times is scheduled to premiere at the 2018 Allied Media Conference held annually in Detroit.

The film traces the 1980’s rise of the Sanctuary Movement, as recounted by my elder sister Esther Gálvez; a Sanctuary advocate whose work with civil-war exiles seeking asylum took her from Detroit to El Salvador and Sihanouk Mariona; whose family spent five years in Sanctuary in Detroit becoming among the most visible Salvadorian exiles in the US.

While Sanctuary was a largely white-led resistance, Dangerous Times instead follows Latinx exiles and advocates who challenged both the US Government and the movement itself. Through present day Detroit migration activists, Dangerous Times also questions whether Sanctuary is in fact possible in an era of seemingly unbridled populism.

Shortly before joining the ancestors in 2015, Grace Lee Boggs challenged Detroiters to devote our collective creativity to build a radically different form of living for our city; including the narratives told by and about it. For example, although Dangerous Times is about a national resistance movement, it’s also about Detroit; a city Latinx have called home for a century, yet no library branch, no street, no park, no monument, no school bears the name of a Latinx Detroiter.

As emerging Detroit filmmakers taking up Grace’s call, we welcome Firelight’s arrival as we answer the question of the story of Detroit’s name in the voices of those whose time has come to be heard.

Alicia M. Díaz Thomas is a Detroit-based filmmaker who is working on her first documentary short, Dangerous Times | Rebellious Responses.

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Firelight Media is dedicated to supporting documentary filmmakers of color and cultivating audiences for their work. We’re #changingthestory.

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