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.
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.
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.”
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 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.
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
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.
We were fortunate to have had Mexican casting director Aurora Nemegye as a part of our crew for the Mexican production shoot. Aurora is known not only for spotting exceptional professionals but for her ability to find amateur talent through “street casting.” As we prepare for our May 1st shoot featuring the International Worker’s Day March and so many community members in Los Angeles. We thought we’d ask Aurora to share a bit about the concept of “street casting,” and how it works.
Anike: Aurora, how would you define street casting?
Aurora: Just like it sounds; street casting got its name because casting directors were heading to the streets to find their cast, or more specifically to look for actors with specific characteristics for a particular role. In Spanish, we call them “actores naturales.”
Anike: Natural Actors?
Aurora: Exactly, and while they may not be professionals, natural actors often have an awareness and personal experience that they can use for the role, bringing a sense of authenticity in front of the camera. For years, European fashion Scouts found their talent on the street, the great supermodels of the ’90s were especially known for having been found this way. While street casting has been around awhile the trend has become increasingly popular in Mexican art cinema. Perhaps most recently evidenced by the recent Oscar nomination of Yalitza Aparicio — found while studying to be an educator in Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca, by a casting director who was looking for the protagonist of Alfonso Cuarón’s film “Roma.”
Anike: Why do you think that street casting has gained so much popularity as of late?
Aurora: A film director usually decides to work with street casting when he or she wants to give his or her film an almost documentary aesthetic. For example, with our shoot in Mexico, we were lucky that actor Ricardo Cisneros, a strong professional actor in his own right, also qualified as a “natural actor” in that he had real-life experience to lend to the film (a real immigrant to the U.S. playing an immigrant on screen). While we were shooting the scenes of the deported character tracing his origins, struggling with the language of his native country, etc. it just so happened that the central American caravan had arrived in Tijuana right around the same time. We literally went to the streets to find natural actors, listened to their stories and experiences and recruited them for our protest on screen. There is no acting technique that can bring about this kind of authenticity – they were literally living the experience we were exploring on film which makes this final march scene take on an impressive force.
Anike: Well let’s hope we capture the same quality during our May 1st march shoot. Many community members will be in the shoot as well as activist and first-time actress Paulina Ruiz. We found Paulina, as you know, through street casting – literally on our own block as she is a CHIRLA member. Paulina will be playing the role of the protagonist daughter, Valentina.
Aurora: YES! Paulina is going to be a fantastic addition to the cast and I know the shoot is going to be great!
———————————————————————————————————- Want to see yourself on screen? You can join us for our May 1st shoot! We’ll be featuring many kinds of folks, the more diversity the better, plus you’ll be marching for a great cause! Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get in touch with the details.
Years ago, when I moved to Los Angeles, I remember getting into a debate with an industry colleague about the impact of Mahatma Gandhi. He argued that the only reason anyone ever knew who Mohammed Gandhi was was because of the success of the movie made about him. I remember being outraged by this suggestion, arguing back that Gandhi was (and still is!) one of the greatest human rights activists of all time, a person who moved millions, whose leadership changed laws, conquered British colonial rule, inspired generations of activists and changed the face of social justice. How could you compare the impact of the man’s actual life to the movie of his life? My friend yawned and asked me where I learned the most about Gandhi. I told him I had read his autobiography, which I had. What I didn’t tell him was that I saw the movie first as a kid. I didn’t tell him that I remember the other kids I saw it with, that I remember the intermission in the theater, how absolutely astounded by Ben Kingsley’s performance I was, or that I remembered the last words of the film; that good always triumphs over evil. I didn’t share that the shot of the people marching to the sea to make salt may be permanently fixed in my brain.
As we approach our next production shoot date of May 1st, I’ve been binge watching protest films in preparation of the shot list to film the family closing scene and the International Workers Day March that will correspond with marches across the Globe. In honor of César Chávez day and as part of my research, last night I watched the bio pic of César Chávez directed by Diego Luna. And I have to admit, I learned quite bit, some of which may have been fictionalized, but some pretty significant things that were not (um, how could I not have known that the grape boycott lasted five years? A year or two OK, but five??) I didn’t know about his travels to Europe to bring in international support of the boycott or the extent of his hunger fasts. And well maybe I didn’t need to know that he had eight kids or was estranged from the oldest son (not sure the estrangement was entirely true,) but it helped me to relate to him more, and as a result César Chávez, and everything he stood for is sticking to me a little stronger.
I’m under no illusions that a movie is anything more or less than a movie. But then again, if seeing a film, any film, means that more people pay attention, may connect with their own sense of compassion and as a result take action towards what they know is right, well then I just might believe that film is the most powerful kind of storytelling there is. I’m hopeful, that America’s Family will do for at least a few people what so many other films have done for me; teach and inspire.