The Value Distribution

This past summer, my theater director-producer friend Jeremy Aluma, invited me to The Adams Hill Arts Festival, a neighborhood festival that he was producing in Glendale. If you know anything about LA you know that driving (AKA traffic) defines everything, and Glendale might as well have been Philadelphia given that I live in the far, far away land of Inglewood. As much as I value off road time, I decided to make the trip nonetheless. I was impressed that even as COVID had kept so much theater at bay, my friend was still managing to put his producorial skills to good use.

I was happily even more impressed to find the local artists showing their wares, to hear a neighborhood band performing and to see the many kids playing in the festival park when I arrived. I wandered around, past the homemade kombucha stand and greeting card artist until I came to a make shift pottery booth.  A beautifully handmade cup, with warm sandy colors and without a handle stood out to me. I turned it upside down looking for a price but instead found a name; “Laura Falk.”

“Are you Laura?” I asked the woman standing behind the pottery.

“I am,” she answered.  When I asked her the price I could only blink in disbelief. “What? For a mug?” I thought. I didn’t know anything about Laura Falk and even less about pottery, but I did know something about bargaining.

I learned the skill years ago when living and traveling in Nigeria and Israel, where bargaining threads its way through the purchase and sale of all things. It didn’t take long for folks to figure out that I was a foreigner and as I was determined to be considered a valued customer (and not to get cheated) I got good at negotiating fast. And I took it seriously. Once while haggling with a market woman through an open bus window, the person sitting next to me told me that she had never seen anyone push so hard for a few bananas. Admittedly, I didn’t always get it right. There was the time I argued a little too intensely with a senior in my neighborhood over the price of a used Spike Lee book that I had insisted was too high. Or with the traditional dressmaker in Mexico City who likely needed the few extra dollars a lot more than I needed to save them. But over the years bargaining has become so second nature that it has been a tough habit to shake.

When I suggested to Laura a much lower price than she was offering, she said that she hadn’t come to the neighborhood festival with an intention to negotiate. I explained that I hadn’t come looking for a mug to buy. She pointed to the native California flower that she had hand drawn on the front of the cup and I dug in my heels, clinging to the amount I proposed. Eventually she conceded. Driving home I couldn’t believe I had spent so much on a cup but I was glad to have supported an artist and indirectly my friend.

In the days that followed, my perceptions of that piece of art began to shift. With each time I took it out of the cabinet I was reminded of Jeremy and what he did for his neighborhood by producing that first time arts festival. I tend to drink hot liquids slowly, and as it is technically a cup (not a mug) I can enjoy sipping the smaller amount of coffee and tea it holds before it gets cold. Since there isn’t a handle, I can easily wrap my hands around it, and it fits and warms my hands as if it was made just for me. I have found the practicality and charm of its use a comfort and a dependable de-stressor, particularly when wrestling with a writing deadline or when I’m feeling restless and in search for something warm and simple to get grounded. This little cup has now become my favorite cup in the cabinet (other than perhaps the one with my nephews faces on it) which throws a whole new light on the assessment of its value.

As “America’s Family” is now in the process of seeking distribution, I think about the notion of value all of the time. Like every aspect of making this film, the distribution process is taking much longer than I had anticipated, going through the festival circuit, shopping it out to different distributors, working with a sales agent. I think about what the film is “worth” as I sort through the offers (and the passes) and I wonder who gets the right to determine value and exactly what yard stick is being used to take the measurement. I try to speculate the distance between an audience member who laughs or cries in recognition or gratitude as they resonate with the film, and what the final price tag will be for whomever will ultimately buy it.

The Godmother of documentary filmmaking Julia Reichert used to say that “a filmmaker must identify the beating heart of their film.” It wasn’t that long ago, that I was deep in fundraising for the making of the movie, fighting hard for a collaboration of community members, activists, and professional artists, so that we could get to tell the story we wanted to tell and so that this movie could be seen by the right person at the right time. As I try to reconnect with the beating heart of “America’s Family,” I remember that just as it was community that was at the core of the making of this film, and just as it was the community that filled the seats in our runaway sold out premiere, it will also be the community that makes sure that it’s seen by the public at large. On this I can depend and trust, wherever the movie lands.

I also remember that the real value of “America’s Family,” as with most works of art, can only truly be determined after it makes its way through the test of time. After all, we can only see it for what the movie is now, not for what it may someday be. There will be those who will come to enjoy the movie and still others who may come to need it.

You can find a cup similar to mine and other ceramics made by Laura Falk at They’re worth every penny.

In Gratitude for Julia

Academy Award winning filmmaker Julia Reichert is the co-founder of New Day Films, the filmmaker run distribution house of our short film “America; I Too.” I have never spoken to Julia directly other than, perhaps, through Zoom, thanks to New Day’s Annual Meetings or sending a congratulatory e-mail for her Academy Award win on the New Day listserv. I would be surprised if Julia has any idea at all who I am, let alone seen my work. Yet Julia has made an impact on my life as she has on the lives of so many indie filmmakers across the globe.

In watching Julia from afar, I’ve always been struck by her warmth and friendliness peppered with a forthrightness and confidence. I wonder if I have ever seen a filmmaker as confident as Julia — not with bravado or arrogance mind you, but with true confidence. Her confidence makes sense given her talent, accomplishments, multiple awards and the circles she runs in. Yet even when you look at Julia’s early films, her self-possession and sense of purpose are stamped all over them, long before she became one of the greatest documentary filmmakers of our time.  

While all of her films are known to be exceptional, it is her early films that are my favorites. “Growing up Female,” “Union Maids” and “Seeing Red” are scrappy, gritty and direct, like her. They’re filled with vibrant, intelligent and powerful people who aren’t afraid to express their points of view and share their stories. The movies feature killer soundtracks, how-the-hell-did-you-find-this archival footage and camera and editing choices that I hope to emulate in future projects. Julia’s films exemplify, in my opinion, the phrase that every film funder loves to tout: “Something we’ve never seen before,” which is still true, even decades after they were made.

“Growing up Female” may be the film that I connect with the most. I was barely a few minutes into watching it before I found myself yelling at the screen, “Well what if it doesn’t work out, this so-called idealization of marriage? Or what if your husband makes stupid decisions. Or worse, What if he never even appears?” As outraged as it made me when a factory supervisor in the film says, “The very nature of a woman is such that it makes her wishing to get married,” I may sadly on some level sort of believed it. When a very bright young woman in the film says that she watches older women fearing that they’ll lose their looks (and she fears the same,) I wonder if I might be one of the older women she is referring to. It is the incredibly nuanced and complex truth that Julia gets to in this film and all of her films that always hits me hard.

Like many others have noted, I am deeply moved by the space Julia makes for her Subjects to speak in these early films, her knack for getting out of their way so that they can authentically express themselves. One gets the sense that she is really fascinated by the people she interviews — and therefore we should be too. I am equally impressed by camera placement, the juxtaposition of editing choices and her exceptional framing of story. I am most moved by the intimacy of the camera and the use of her close ups. Through this technique, we get to better understand the Subjects as they get to better understand and know themselves. We can see the experience of their self-discovery and the formation of perspective unfold right before our eyes. While I am watching, I vow to never forget this when making my future films: discovery, discovery, discovery, in real time, is the best act in town.

These days I find myself complaining as much as creating. It’s so hard to get the money for the movie, it’s so hard to make the movie, it’s so hard to get distributors to pay attention to the movie and on it goes. I wish I could redirect my frustration into gratitude for what Julia and other such mentoring filmmakers have done for me (near or far as the case may be,) grumbling less and working more. It is hard for me to imagine Julia traveling around the country on a Greyhound bus with a 16mm print of her first film, camping out on a fellow activists’ couch, speaking to whomever would listen and using “Growing up Female” to help build a movement. I’m on a planes far more than buses to share my film and that is tedious enough. As I think about Julia’s tirelessness, tenacity and zeal, I wonder how she managed to never to give up. It occurs to me that Julia may have been traveling on that Greyhound bus in part so that someday I would not have to.  

But this is the kind of generosity that persists among filmmakers in the New Day collective, the distribution co-op that Julia co-founded and that I am so fortunate to be a part of today. The type of kindness that has prompted mentor filmmakers to watch multiple drafts of my recent feature, offering detailed notes and an inordinate amount of support to get it from awful to award winning. Filmmakers who let me crash on their couches when I passed through their cities, filmmakers who let me know that I wasn’t creating work up to par, filmmakers who just made damn good movies.  I wonder if she had an inkling that in addition to her daughter and grandkids and all of her films, that so many filmmakers to come after her, particularly those of us in the New Day Films collective would be a part of her remarkable legacy.

Julia talks a lot about voice, about how she came to understand she had something to say through uplifting workers’ voices and experiences like the voices of her family and community. This got me thinking about my voice as a BIPOC Jewish female filmmaker and is helping me reach for the courage to use it. I am grateful for Julia’s commitment to herself, to finding and developing her unique and powerful filmmaking voice and her indirect encouragement that I continue honing my own. However, this is only one thing I would thank her for. I can appreciate who Julia is and has been, both privately and publicly. I can thank her for her brilliant body of work and for the impact it has had on so many. Most of all I would like to thank Julia for co-creating New Day, and inadvertently connecting me to such amazing filmmakers and helping me become the kind of filmmaker I want to be. ____________________________________________________

Julia Reichert passed away surrounded by family on December 1, 2022, after a long battle with cancer. May her memory be for a revolution, Rest in Power.

Beginning Again

In the years to come, as we look back at this time in history we may ask one another; “Where were you when the Coronavirus hit?” For me the answer will be that it came during my Golden Jubilee Birthday. The name connotes significant celebration and yet it’s strange to think about celebrating during a time of crisis.

The current health scare aside, there are plenty of crises to go around; a tumbling economy, climate change, the disappearance of affordable housing, take your pick. While deplorable detention centers, the lack of resources and separation among mixed-status families may be at a record high under the current administration, things have been bad for a long long time. People are being deported in the hundreds, 365 days a year. The crisis is here and we can’t wash our hands of it.

Yet as we get our bearings, and muster up the strength to face all that is around us, movies become important. Movies help us to escape our oppressive realities and help us to explore them simultaneously. Movies offer us narratives to discuss and can drive us to take social action. They also reflect our celebrations and growth stages and provide a yardstick for the culture. The constant posting of the voracious virus aside does not drown out the steady requests for suggestions of movies to watch and shows to binge on. While folks may be looking for distraction, they may also be looking for an alternative story. Movies can help us make sense of what is happening.

America’s Family is a story of a family that survives crisis. It’s a story of people who fight to protect their family, who each rise to become bigger than they ever intended, sharing their whole selves as they survive together.

Such a story is critical right now when so many mixed-status families are terrified of the ongoing ICE raids, inhumane detention, and the steady rise of hate crimes even as the Coronavirus and economic crisis makes its wildfire spread.

Another thing we need movies for is to remind us that no matter how difficult the storm, no matter how deep the crisis goes, it will eventually come to an end. There will be change and resolution and growth and change again. And we will survive it.

Tomorrow, amid the rain downpours and long grocery lines, in my shelter-in-place, I will eat some of the cake I made and lay down the tomato plants in my garden. Blowing out candles and planting seeds to remember that in spite of the swirling chaos there is always the possibility of growth, renewal and rebirth. And beginning again.

How do you Repair Representation? Frame by Frame

As we do our work in partnership with professional artists, activists and community members, there is a learning curve that accompanies a pursuit of social justice. Cast and crew members come to embrace a new identity of artists/activists as they train in the social justice issue(s) at hand and how best to present them on screen. Activists learn the importance of translating messaging into art, with a growing awareness that audiences are apt to invest their emotions and intellectualism into compelling stories as a precursor to changing their hearts and minds on an issue and/or taking political action. Community members participating in our films rise to the demands of fast-paced production and the expectation of artistic excellence, a step beyond the volunteerism experiences they may have had in the past.  

While the artists of Mixed Operations are at their core, “justice seekers,” we are conscious that we bring our whole, intersectional selves to the table in an effort to build community. Since a Jewish woman of color leads the company and because women filmmakers and filmmakers of color almost always lack access and visibility, we prioritize mentorship and representation, both in front of and behind the camera. 

From Crazy Love webseries “Trip Home”
by Writer/Director Anike Tourse

A few years ago, Mixed Operations developed the first few webisodes of a web series, Crazy Love, about a somewhat mismatched couple and their “crazy” relationship tales. In the opening webisode, Rebecca talks with Adam about bringing him to her hometown for the first time over the Thanksgiving holiday. She spends most of the webisode trying to convince her boyfriend to present a somewhat staged version of himself in order to please her family. She suggests that he wear long sleeves to cover his tattoos that might “give her grandmother a heart attack”.  In the original lines Rebecca jokes that she didn’t want his “tattoos to be the shofar blaring to her bubbe that her granddaughter is marrying into the goyim” – to which Adam responds: “Wait, we’re getting married now?”  

As I was the writer as well as the interracial actress playing the role, I changed the line to the far more generic: “Your tattoos could give my grandmother a heart attack,” concerned that audiences would not get the fact that I am indeed Jewish, or that even if they did get it, they wouldn’t really believe it.  When I look back on this, I realize that I had become so indoctrinated in American Hollywood standards of representation that I somehow did not think that I had the right to represent something that I actually am. I was also insulting the capacity of the audience to draw upon their own set of diverse experiences and perspectives without even realizing it, violating what my favorite (and Pulitzer Prize winning) playwright Tony Kushner advises; “write as if the audience is smarter than you.”

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before Netflix Original

Fast forward a few years and I am watching the Netflix movie, To all the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and its sequel, based on the teen novels by Jenny Han. There are many reasons to identify with the Asian American protagonist, Lara Jean, from her unique fashion sense, to her endearing vulnerability, to her ability to whip up a platter of homemade snickerdoodles as she contemplates the ups and downs of relationships #pensivebake. What I relate to the most, however, is her delightful default to draw upon the support of her diverse, eclectic friends and mixed family as she navigates life choices and the ideas for what she wants her relationships to look like. While I haven’t been a teen for several years, I’ll be mixed for the rest of my life and it’s refreshing to see that Lara Jean inhabits the same planet that I do, a world where each of us can claim multiple identities and a world in which we all belong.    

Author Jenny Han
“What would it have meant for me back then to see a girl who looked like me star in a movie? Not as the sidekick or romantic interest, but as the lead? Not just once, but again and again? Everything. There is power in seeing a face that looks like yours do something, be someone. There is power in moving from the sidelines to the center.”

Author Jenny Han explains how important it was for her to find a production company that would put an Asian American teen actress in the role as she reflects on her own adolescent years: 
“What would it have meant for me back then to see a girl who looked like me star in a movie? Not as the sidekick or romantic interest, but as the lead? Not just once, but again and again? Everything. There is power in seeing a face that looks like yours do something, be someone. There is power in moving from the sidelines to the center.”

As we sprint towards 2042, when the United States is projected to be a majority, people of color nation, we know that it is our multiracial faces and mixed ethnic identities that will likely reflect the future of North American communities and beyond. Mixed Operations is excited to do its part in mending broken, outdated representation by building, showcasing and amplifying more diverse pictures of what our nation is actually becoming, engaging in the repair of the world (or as Jews say Tikkun Olam) frame by frame.  

#pensivebake #diversityisbeinginvitedtothepartyinclusionisbeingaskedtodance #miracleseason #snickerdoodles #awkwardvulnerability #POC #JOC #ToAlltheBoysIveLovedBefore, #diversity, #inclusion, #representation, #crazylove #multiracial2042

The Most Creative Connection in Filmmaking

When, close to two decades ago, I first started drafting a screenplay about a mixed status separated family, I had big dreams and reasons or wanting to make the movie. Over time, however, I’ve learned that there are only two things are really important when it comes to this film. The first is that the picture actually gets made, which in this case means that this rare collaboration of community members, activists and professional artists actually gets to tell the story we want to tell. And the second is that the movie is seen by the right person at the right time. Most of those people will be deported immigrants and their families, but some of these audiences will include families separated for other reasons, artists who are just trying to make it, and hopefully people who truly want to learn about and relate to what mixed status families are experiencing and how they can become allies to support them.

Fundraising has historically been my least favorite part of bringing any creative project to fruition.  Drafting grant applications, calling, texting and e-mailing friends and family for support I’ve internally met with dread and surprisingly, with fear. There is no way of getting around the immense vulnerability that arises when I have to squarely tell someone: I need help. I’ve found, however, that being too afraid to ask can quickly become an excuse for hiding out, packing it in and giving up, resolved to a lack of resources.

“Fundraising is the most creative piece to making a film,” a friend told me yesterday. “You have to come up with a way to find the money to make the movie.” After getting over being flabbergasted and downright annoyed with this idea, I realized that he was right. Fundraising is perhaps the ultimate film making challenge of which there is indeed a solution or perhaps many solutions as the case may be. It’s true that I don’t enjoy the asking, but I do appreciate the value of connecting with people in a way that I might not have if I didn’t happen to need them. I like the idea of collectively tapping into our higher calling to create art that helps others and that represents diverse community. I am grateful that I get to provide an opportunity for folks to meaningfully engage with their values when it comes to human rights and to experience the generosity that comes with putting their intentions into action.

I must confess that I often tend to experience the creative process as akin to what indie filmmaker Jay Duplass describes as

kind of like creating a Frankenstein; it’s way bigger than you, it’s terrifying, and that movie or that TV show is threatening to destroy your life and happiness at all times.

Fortunately, I am also aware that the intertwining five stories of America’s Family belong to many people and were born out of many communities. I’m lucky to be a part of these communities and I have to remind myself to trust them more and to worry about the movie less.

It’s like when George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life gets so caught up in thinking that all hope is lost that he never thinks to ask the community for help when he needs it the most. And help him they do.

Should the holiday spirit move you, you are invited to join the America’s Family collaboration.

Happy holidays everyone.