A Firelight Impact Fellow Reflects on the The Power Of Film
By Nadia Awad
The writer Delmore Schwartz once wrote: “In dreams begin responsibilities.” Films are dreams; their power lies in their capacity to give communities images they recognize. Films can invite us to imagine who we might become — differently — or they can be alibis for our worst beliefs about ourselves.
For the past year, I had been producing ‘rapid response’ video content at my day job to amplify engagement with Congress and inform certain American publics about various bills, their legal hazards, and potential harms. Those affected by such harms and those whose existence, like gravity, is counted without question are radically different groups of people. Their languages and fears are different. They bristle at the television, the phone, the president, at different moments. Often, the latter group cannot stomach the mention of the former, except in a theoretical way. In recent months, my work has become less about advocacy or argument, than about pretending change might come, even belatedly, from those who are counted.
By the time the second Impact Producer Fellowship retreat came around, I was tired. I very much needed to be with people who question what responsibilities might emerge from our dreams. What world are we fighting for and what world are we fighting to preserve? Who might we become if we push our communities towards recognition — of any kind?
The Impact Producer retreat in Los Angeles this past September began with the assumption that each participant faces a variation of this very particular kind of fatigue. Then, it cultivates a space to enable us to focus on what actually brings us together in this fellowship. This is why community building, not merely “collaboration,” is such a central part of Firelight Media’s programs.
On our first day, we met at Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY Campus to check in with one another, have dinner, and discuss projects with our Doc Lab colleagues. I collaborated with Ahlam Said, to think through the impact goals of Nausheen Dadabhoy’s film, An Act of Worship. The film traces the rise of Muslim American women activists in the aftermath of the Muslim travel ban. While discussing the ways the film could give impetus to the political work of the film’s protagonists, I had a revelation. Over 30+ members of my community have had their lives irrevocably harmed by this ban and I have been asked to edit, consult on, or share countless videos on the airport protests. Yet, Dadabhoy’s film excerpt was the first professionally shot footage I had seen whose images of protest were not primarily of white attorneys, but young Muslim activists. This revelation is a crude metaphor for my experience of the retreat and conference. Both were spaces in which the ‘common sense’ of documentary production was challenged in refreshing and profound ways.
During the retreat, we spoke about recognition, vulnerability, ethics, and power. We had in-depth conversations with Sabaah Folayan, director of Whose Streets?, on centering the needs of your subjects at every stage of your film, and Assia Boundaoui, who participated in a live “brain trust” with organisers and impact producers on her film The Feeling of Being Watched. We talked about trauma-informed producing with Twiggy Pucci-Garcon and Sonya Childress. I learned that many filmmakers and impact producers are including mental health care for their subjects in their budgets. This small step can radically transform how we imagine documentary production, whose historical relationship to colonialism persists, as well as how the philanthropic world might deepen film’s potential to affect change.
The retreat provided a crucial frame for our participation in Getting Real, a biennial gathering for nonfiction filmmakers and professionals. For the first time, A-DOC, Firelight Media, and Brown Girls Doc Mafia held a convening of filmmakers of color to amplify the needs of our community and kickstart industry-wide initiatives towards systemic change. The “#DecolonizeDocs series” highlighted the challenges filmmakers of colour face to get their work made and seen — in the fullest sense of the word. A filmmaker whose work tackles disability, Jason DaSilva spoke about his difficulty getting E&O insurance due to its trenchant critique of the healthcare industry.
That said, the conference wasn’t all inspiring. I ambled in and out of other panels, whose ethos puzzled or disturbed me. One offered techniques for recording vulnerable subjects without their knowledge. Another panel, unironically titled “After #MeToo,” was held at the same moment that Dr. Blasey Ford testified.
As this community of filmmakers of color builds power, its demands must be integrated more intentionally into Getting Real’s programming and the industry more broadly. But, in the meantime, I am grateful to be part of a community that affirms my wildest dreams and shares in their most pressing responsibilities.