September 29, 2018

IDA Keynote Presentation Transcript

Michèle Stephenson

I want to thank Simon Kilmurry, Claire Aguilar and the entire IDA team for inviting me to share with you my journey in filmmaking and working in immersive media. I am taking this opportunity to share my personal thoughts on the field. I am a non-fiction storyteller. Together with my filmmaking partner, Joe Brewster, we founded the Rada Film Group in Brooklyn NY. We started our work not by focusing on inclusion or diversity but rather by putting justice and expressing our complicated existences and lives front and center of the stories we tell. That’s what drove us. We gradually came to see that justice in the context of documentary film always involves being aware of:

1. Power dynamics of who is telling whose stories
2. How emerging technology and documentary film are made and its resources distributed

3. Which storytellers, engineers and audiences or users are we seeing and validating?

With that task in mind my fundamental question here today is: Am I going to get real at Getting Real, right here right now?

What do I stand to lose? One fear would be rejection, banishment from the community, not getting that next grant or NETFLIX deal, or never getting another speaking engagement.

And you know what? Given the current social and political climate we live in today, risk has become necessary. So, I have decided to get real.

This photo captures my 9 year old skeptical self. My dad’s profile is to your right. We are recently arrived black immigrants to a bucolic, rural location in Quebec, Canada.

I was born in Haiti to a Haitian father and a Panamanian mother. As a daughter of the Caribbean and Latin America, the violent legacy of genocide, colonialism, slavery and skin color privilege literally run through my veins. It has shaped my family and how I see the world and interact with others. It is my lived experience.

None of us with generations on the soils of the Americas from as far north as the Hudson Bay to the southern tips of Argentina can escape that violent legacy. Its roots go far and deep.

I am also part of a family who fled into exile from Haiti’s Papa Doc Duvalier’s brutal dictatorship in the 60s. I have no memory of that flight.

But I grew up immersed in my father’s magical realist stories of taking over Haiti with his rebel friends.

As I child I remember how he would disappear once a week to meet with his comrades and plot a return invasion to Haiti to overthrow the government. At bedtime he would weave these fantastical stories about a glorious mountainous Haiti of his childhood. How he would one day return and how we had to resist and fight injustice. That’s some heavy stuff for a little girl.

These stories shaped my sense of self and how I processed our migration and settling to North American territory where we all faced regular racial aggressions as black latinx immigrants.

My father’s dreams of a gallant return to Haiti, like Don Quixote, never happened. His only source of control or power was over my mother and me. A brutal dictatorship reined in the heart of our home. I was afraid of him and his wrath. Back then I did not understand that global systemic forces had shaped my father’s limitations and the deep-seeded contradictions between his idealism and deeply flawed behavior at home.

I clung to his idealism.

That’s me at 24. Full of hope, doing the work of the United Nations Development Programme in Cape Verde, West Africa. I was convinced I could make a difference in global development work. Not all was well, I quickly found myself in the belly of the beast. I was a tool in a system that extracted more than it gave.

When I ordered a tractor for a project or hired a consultant, certain conditions had to be met that benefited so-called “donor” countries. And I was benefiting from an unequal pay scale within the UN system where I, who was fresh out of college getting trained by talented local staff, was getting paid twice their salaries. There was justifiable resentment and tension between local and international staff. It all felt like the re-purposing of old colonial structures.

I felt ill at ease, and sick. Survival meant closing my eyes. It meant getting LESS real. But the deepest contradiction for me was how this structure was connected to the lot and suffering of my very family members spread across the Haitian and Latinx diaspora. I was part of the problem and had to get out. I headed to law school.

But it didn’t do it for me either. Just as I started law school, I met my partner Joe Brewster. While I had always been involved in the arts as much as I could—mostly dance and photography—I couldn’t wrap my head around how I could marry my political convictions with art, it seemed like a far away economically unattainable possibility. Meeting Joe shifted that aspiration for me. And I went in full throttle. I went to law school, but I found film.

The first film I was involved in was a feature fiction. My partner’s first feature film THE KEEPER, premiered at SUNDANCE. THE KEEPER tells the story of a light-skinned black prison guard who begins to question his role in the criminal justice system. But developing the story became a deep dive into my own self-examination, my own responsibility and accountability to my communities. The role of story became a looking glass experience for me and I was hooked.

Film became a way of both dealing with my frustrations and feeling like maybe I was getting a step closer to personal and community liberation. I quickly moved from fiction to non-fiction storytelling to occupy a space where I could question, explore, and bear witness.

Fast forward to our third feature documentary, AMERICAN PROMISE, a thirteen year journey where Joe and I decided to embark on one of the most challenging experiences of our lives—to make a film about our son’s educational journey.

I personally started off with one idea in mind, but in reality ended up making a film about myself along the way. It was a deep dive that went way beyond the questions raised in THE KEEPER.

Here is the trailer.

American Promise began as an exploration of an educational system that on the surface was embracing diversity but underneath was perpetuating inequity for black boys. But as black middle class filmmakers telling a black middle class story certain gatekeepers needed convincing of its value. It didn’t fit that usual extractive documentary model. Was there room for black middle class stories in documentary film?

I too began to question the process, my own exceptionalism. My potential role as an overseer in a sys- tem of exploitation in the very documenting of an educational system that was rigged against our com- munities. More importantly on this journey of filming my family, was I practicing a version of subjugation on my child that my father had imposed upon me? Was I repeating generational trauma? But the rich relationship that I now have with my children and the enthusiasm for this film that spanned the nation and globally, led me to believe that we had done the right thing.

Screening the film was never enough for audiences. People had questions, the looking glass was now a mirror for others to see themselves. The debate and dialogue spilled over more than we could have ever imagined. We had touched a nerve that was raw. It sparked a revolution for parents and educators.

We did it by being vulnerable and connecting systemic inequality to our own very specific racialized lived experiences that others like us immediately recognized. It was galvanizing. We were our audience.

On tour with American Promise Community Engagement Campaign I participated in a number of deep dive workshops on undoing racism.

One workshop in particular continues to resonate for me today. It provided a space to examine how I as a person of color experienced and practiced internalized oppression on a daily basis.

The facilitator pulled up this slide of a tabletop with these sturdy legs. When I saw the simple graphic a light bulb instantly lit up for me. I now could better understand my purpose and the direction for my artistic work and practice.

The facilitator explained it like this:

In order for the structural table top of white supremacy, patriarchy, and other systemic inequities to persist that table needs two strong legs:

One leg is the institutions—whether it’s the criminal justice system, government, schools, foundations, IDA, the film industry, or emerging media—that keep recreating that cycle of inherited oppression by default.

Then that other leg is ME and YOU. It is US—the individuals that make up the institutions. And more specifically, those of us who create culture. Where internalized attitudes are consciously and unconsciously replicating white dominance and other systemic inequities in all our relationships. We can’t escape it. It’s like the air we breathe.

But with storytelling and artistic expression I have a tool that I choose to use to chip away at that internalized cultural leg both within me and in my connection with others in the creative process. While I am solidly grounded in cultural work with the various communities I am a part of, I know that, however slowly, my intentional process AND product, work towards dismantling the pillars that uphold systemic injustice. As long as I stay self-aware, forgive myself when I make mistakes, I will keep doing the work.

My spirit these days lies in challenging what we mean by words such as Inclusion and Allyship. They are often being used in white dominant liberal spaces. These are two terms that I personally find deeply problematic.

I reject the term ally. Because being an ally for me implies you are doing something for me, to help me or to help a group in need. When in reality we must all believe that we are doing the work—whether in storytelling or elsewhere—to save ourselves. White supremacy, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression negatively affects us all. Until we understand that we all have skin in the game—both privileged and non-privileged—we can’t expect inclusion will solve the problems of power and subjugation.

Inclusion implies there is a better, superior place that marginalized folks should be brought into. But in reality that space is often already toxic from its roots because decision-making power is not questioned. And so, Inclu- sion and Allyship are traps for maintaining a status quo and not getting at the root of how structural inequality perpetuates itself, and how we are involved in it, especially as creators of culture.

Listening to and reading the work and interviews of Toni Morrison and Claudia Rankine have helped me unpack some of the discomfort I have been feeling. It’s also helped ground my personal work and how I mentor and teach.

Toni Morrison often talks about how the problem of American society when it comes to racialized people lies in the pathology of white identity and dominance. She rejects the white gaze on her community and rather turns that gaze on its head—suggesting white people need to look at themselves and the pathological behaviors that have emerged with privilege for the sake of maintaining white dominance.

For example, in the case of documentary storytelling, we may all suffer from not truly getting enough complicated pictures of stories of southern white working-class people and life because perhaps it messes with and might too deeply question the true source of white power and domination and how it manipulates us all.

Claudia Rankine started the Racial Imaginary Institute to deeply question how our collective imaginary is framed around a lens of white dominance and supremacy. How can we create space to shift and/or interrogate that in our work? This past summer the Racial Imaginary Institute has had a number of symposiums, screenings, and exhibitions provoking thought and engaging artists of all types. I cannot wait to see more.

These are exciting times. I as a storyteller work in the imaginary constantly. What kind of racial imaginary am I creating, challenging, or perpetuating in my work? I have to be open to that self-interrogation.

So what does this all mean from a practical standpoint as a storyteller? I am continuously trying to work that out. It is a daily routine of self-awareness and commitment to creativity and personal and community growth.

How do I show up when I think about the stories I want to tell? How do I show up when I work with my partner to decide what team we would like to build for our story projects? How do I engage the subjects in our stories? What important unfiltered dialogue do I have with my editor about character development? Where and how do I check my light-skinned, cis-gendered privilege in the team building exercises we do on our various projects?

The list is long and ever-present. And I am a work in progress.


Some of these daily efforts were put into practice with our NYT OPDocs Conversations on Race series. We built a collective of filmmakers, Geeta Gandbhir, Blair Foster, Perri Petlz, and Joe Brewster, where we were intentional about co-directing across our differences as a team. We challenged each other in the process. And we engaged our subjects to go deep.

The series has reached over 40 million views. A testament to having touched a raw nerve again and how daily practice and intention in co-creation can resonate in limitless ways.

My current feature doc work-in-progress has taken me to the island where I was born, forcing me to reckon with the color-caste system there. HISPANIOLA examines the lives of Dominicans of Haitian descent whose citizenship was ripped from them by the Dominican government.

I knew that as a woman of Haitian descent, I needed to use my light-skin privilege to access certain emotionally difficult spaces with people who engaged in anti-black hatred as part of their life in order to get a deeper, more complex picture of the extent of the impact of global white supremacy on the island.

I couldn’t get to talking about emerging media without making sense of and tracking my own creative and personal evolution that brought me to occupy this space. There is no separating the creative from the political. I have come to understand how our stories can risk being ignored, removed, appropriated or reinterpreted by dominant culture.

So it almost felt like a duty to occupy the space of virtual reality—a duty to explore my creativity in that space and channel my ancestors. I also discovered that I had a community waiting for me that were ready to support, guide, and mentor. People of color were already there doing the work, and in many cases were the pioneers in the field.

In her series, MAKING A NEW REALITY, Kamal Sinclair, one of our sister pioneers in the field, takes a deep dive investigating strategies for achieving equality and justice in emerging media. It is a must read for anyone wishing to enter the field and a great blueprint for doing similar research in our own documentary space.

The series on multiple occasions points to how our communities are here and have been here since the beginning. In some cases, it is not a matter of inclusion but of simply seeing further than our sylos.

Each of these women and man have pioneered the emerging media space in one form or another and have touched and supported my work. From Shari Frilot’s New Frontiers Festival—back at the start when for me she created an immersive space of creative inspiration and respite from the stress and pressures of the Film Festival—to Jackie Jones’ founding the New Media Institute back in 2006 with the bold beautiful ideas of turning Jackson, Mississippi into a completely wired space for black creativity.

I can go on. Nonni Delapena, the virtual reality pioneer of our day, and her mentoring both Joe and me at the Tribeca New Media Fund retreat. To Anne Bennett and her pioneering work with Thomas Allen Harris’ Digital Diaspora interactive project. Her patience to meet with me and just brainstorm ideas for how we could work on a truly interactive digital campaign for our film, American Promise.

The New Media Institute founded by BLACK PUBLIC MEDIA and spearheaded by Leslie Fields Cruz and Jacquie Jones, specifically allowed me to incubate and execute multiple web based interactive projects— from Pawn Shop Chronicles to Haiti One Day One Destiny.

They had laid a stake on the ground from way back.

Those experiments, mentorships and collaborations allowed me and our team at Rada Film Group to dig deeper on what type of emerging media was relevant to our communities.

For our American Promise community engagement campaign we developed a prototype for a phone app for black parents. It was a behavior change app developed in consultation with the Stanford Behavior Design lab to assist parents in improving educational outcomes for Black boys. The PROMISE TRACKER was built using a deep community involvement model. We incubated the work thanks to the support of Wendy Levy and BAVC and the Tribeca New Media Fund under Ingrid Kopf and Opeyemi Olukemi as well as with support from the Campaign for Black Male Achievement.

Although we did not fully realize the launch because of funding challenges for marketing and outreach, the lessons were invaluable:

1. New technology is totally doable for us,
2. Taking risks in the field and being OK with failure is a must, and 3. Teamwork is an indispensable part of the process.

So fast forward to 2 years ago and the opportunity provided by Sundance and Skoll’s Stories of Change Program: the bigger idea of THE CHANGING SAME emerged. On this project, I have been standing on my ancestors’ shoulders, embracing my father’s spirit, accepting him, his flaws and all. Our story cannot appeal to anyone’s sense of guilt but needs rather to inspire folks to recognize our common history and our common fate.

The CHANGING SAME is a groundbreaking immersive Virtual Reality room-scale installation where the user travels through time and space on a pilgrimage to visit events of our common racialized history and present-day lived experiences. Our virtual reality story world embodies the idea that slavery never ended; it has simply evolved. It uses cutting-edge reality capture techniques with profound storytelling to create an innovative, immersive documentary that is native for this medium. A first of its kind.

We are currently scheduled to go into production later this Fall in collaboration with some kick-ass partners: Scatter Studios, POV Spark, MIT, Fledgling Fund, and Chicken & Egg Pictures have joined the journey.

The immersive experience places you in parallel storyworlds that span hundreds of years.

And the search for light becomes a metaphor for hope and change from one storyworld to the next as we unearth buried histories and present-day realities.

Magical realist time travel allows us to lyrically move through the past, present, and future to contemplate the cycles of history and their strong influence on our lived experiences today.

How much has really changed and how have experiences mutated?

Through a magical realist lens we can also envision a new future where we can dream of a space or community where racial terror is acknowledged and differences are viewed through a distinct transformative lens.

So how am I getting real in my work? How are we getting real? Carl Jung once said, “The reason for evil in the world is that people are not able to tell their stories.” But I would flip that and say that evil persists when we refuse to see that other stories exist and are being told on their own terms with their own purpose. We claim the space. Others cannot do the work for me, my people, or my communities.

Getting Real for me is about seeing the power in being vulnerable; in occupying space and not letting others occupy the space for me. And also understanding the complexity of my own privileges. If we can’t reckon with these, we can’t do the work. And creativity suffers.

Let’s challenge ourselves to be a community, a network, a world, in which what we’ve inherited is not what we perpetuate. That takes self-awareness, practice, patience, and a willingness to be uncomfortable.

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