If You Break the Skin, You Must Come In
Tuesday, February 06, 2007
eye of the storm?
there is a pervasive silence that has hung over us for the last few days. All we know is that lawyers are talking. It has been several days past when we were told we would hear something. Clearly, the situation is far more difficult than anyone had originally thought. I suspect that it is turning out to be especially difficult for those at DHS that thought that they could easily stamp their foot and put the kibosh on the whole thing. I can say easily that this will not be the case.
I'm full of speculation at the moment but what else could I do when no one is saying anything. I suspect that there might be some difficulty deciding legally where this case falls into. I spoke to a volunteer lawyer for the arts and what I get from him is that this could fall somewhere in between an intellectual properties case and a first amendment case. From an objective viewpoint, I find that to be pretty interesting. From a personally perspective, it is extremely frustrating. The sense that I am getting from certain people at DHS is that this is a personal issue that they are having with the film that they wish to see taken care of though giving us scores of legal problems. DHS is also claiming to be looking out for the welfare of the kids, which they should be doing since they are technically the kid's legal guardians. Unfortunately, what they are doing here is flailing wildly to protect their own image at the expense of the kids.
If I wasn't clear enough before. The AIC (who are a division of DHS) own half of the film. The ICA own the other half. That alone makes little logical sense but that's how it is stated in the original (half-assed) contracts that were drawn up. The Big Picture Alliance (who hired me) and the ICA have sole creative control. This might mean very little considering that the BPA don't own any of it. The creators of the film, myself and eight kids, own zero, nothing, nada. What kind of authorship or first amendment rights we might have is still in question, considering that it is a government institution that both own the film and are trying to censor it. Zoe Strauss, the subject of the film, also owns zilch, a big fat donut hole.
Simply put, the people that care about this film the most and would benefit from it the most and who have put the most work into it are left in the dust while the institutions, one that could only claim it as their own and the other that would like to destroy it, own everything and can conceivably keep the project in legal limbo forever. Real nice.
Friday, February 02, 2007
If You Are Just Tuning In
for five weeks over this last summer a bunch of individuals and institutions got together to make a difference in in the lives of eight foster youth by teaching them about art and filmmaking and in the process, we were to have a film that documented this project.
The Achieving Independence Center, an organization under DHS that helps foster youth who are old enough to be making the transition out of the system into becoming independent, worked with the Institute of Contemporary Art, a fine art museum that is part of the University of Pennsylvania to make the project happen. The ICA hired the Big Picture Alliance, a non-profit video production company who hired me, David Kessler, to direct the film and Esther Rosa to produce the film. The two of us were also to be filmmaking teachers and make decisions as to how to have this be both a class as well as a film shoot.
The fulcrum in this was Zoe Strauss, an artist, who at the time had work up at the ICA and who was chosen to be the subject of the film. Hoping to unveil the unique perspective that the kid's had to Zoe's art, I decided that that the film would also have to be about them and their stories.
Through those five weeks the kids were exposed to art, people, skills and ideas that they would not have otherwise and because it would take so long to write specifically what those were, I'll skip it and just say that that is what the film was for. But I will say that the connection between the lives of these kids and to Zoe's artwork was deeper than we could have imagined and through understanding her work they began to be able to see their lives differently and through understanding the kid's lives and their perspective we were able to look at Zoe's art differently. Also, an additional result of this project was that real lasting bonds were made. The film then, was to be something that the kids could hold onto and feel pride in.
It took me about 6 months to edit the film, all the while trying to channel the kids though the process in order to create a film that best represented them and their project.
The editing process was decidedly open. This, I must admit, was especially hard for me to be comfortable with because I do believe that I film is not the work of a committee but must be formed out of a single mind balancing all the interests and where others might have ulterior motives for their suggestions based on institutional initiatives, my only motivation was to make the best film I could and to accurately represent the kids, this project, Zoe Strauss and her artwork. However difficult it was, the parties involved were fair in their suggestions and offered them as such and not as directives, which I was very appreciative for and in the end these suggestions proved to be highly valuable.
The final edit, excluding some audio work and the soundtrack was finished a couple of weeks ago and was entered in the Philadelphia Film Festival. We were planning on finally showing the film to the kids and getting any suggestions from them before we considered the whole thing finished, but that was not to be the case.
Shortly after submission, the AIC was "tipped off" to possible concerns that they might have with the content of the film. Pandora's Box was wide open. AIC, being part of the larger DHS, a government institution already faced with scores of bad press in the past year for allowing a shocking number of kids to die under their watch, jumped into action and directed that the film be withdrawn from the festival and that no one, including the kids were allowed to see it. The issue was passed up the DHS ladder until it got into the hands of one puritanical tyrant, who may or may not have seen the film but condemned it almost completely, berating everyone in the room responsible for the project including the ICA, Zoe, and her own coworkers at the AIC, claimimg that among other things, that Zoe's art was not suitable for minors. Let me add here that all but one of the youth are 18 and over now and this was shot only 6 months ago. That one under 18, is 16 and I can say that she is mature enough to be able to understand the difference between art and pornography, which is aparantly something this woman is incapable of.
that brings us to today. We are waiting on orders from DHS lawyers as to what content is suitable and what is not. I should not try to guess what those orders will be but I am pretty sure that they will be devastating to the film and will strip away the openness, truth and respect for the youth's own voices.
Repost: Charday's letter
Letter to Philadelphia Department of Human Services from Charday Laverty regarding "If You Break the Skin, You Must Come In"
January 31, 2007
To Whom It May Concern,
My name is Charday Laverty and I was one of the youth that worked to make the documentary on Zoe Strauss. It has come to my understanding, that there is some controversy going on about being able to release the documentary to the public. I have an idea that might work; it would get the movie released as well as keep all parties happy.
First, I would like to give my input about the whole situation. Now this is just my opinion so please do not take offense. I really do not know all the facts and the litigation about why everyone is saying not to put the movie out, but from what I do know, it seems foolish. I understand that as youth in DHS care that we are not allowed to say and do certain things like using obscene language. I also understand the fact that everything we do reflects DHS. I know that this movie may not reflect the image that DHS wanted us to portray but it is from us. It was made by us for us. It was not a DHS promo nor was it to say that life in DHS is easy. As you may have seen that all of our lives while in the system have not been peachy clean. They have been hard. So, like for y’all to say that we the actors, the makers and all that comes in between can not see the movie because you don’t approve of it is very insensitive. I know that if I were able to see the movie then it would be easier to compromise about changes that could possibly be made. But to my understanding that is where the problem is. The working together part and, trust, that is one thing we learned while making this film. We learned that a group has to work as a team to get the job done and get it right. I think that is what we need to do now. We need to work together to get this film right in everyone’s eyes. I just think this whole situation is crazy. I hope that we can really work this out. The biggest problem to me is that it seems as if you want the documentary to change to fit you and your expectations. That was not what the movie was for though. It was to show the life of Zoe Strauss while opening the youth up to new experiences that they, I mean we, may not ever be able to do. When I was hired I was told to be myself. It not only taught me about art but it taught me about life. I have met a lot of great people who are not only prominent in the art world but also prominent in the city. It opened me up to different types of art and different types of lifestyles. The only people that we have to thank for that are those that were involved in making this film.
Second, on to the infamous Ms. Strauss. She is one of a kind. At the start of this I don’t think that Zoe knew she was going to be adopting 5 children. Five very grown children, but she did. She handled and still is handling that responsibility very well. Zoe is the type of person who you can call at anytime and she will be there to listen. She doesn’t bite her tongue but she says what she has to say in the kindest way anyone could have ever thought possible. She has done so much for the group. She took us to a Sixers game. The game was really big for me personally but she made sure we were there. While there we met DMC from the group Run DMC. So yes, Zoe has taken us on and did things outside of the documentary for us. Now personally Zoe, came to court with me the day I got discharged. When no one else was down for it and nobody thought it was right Zoe was there. So she is not a bad influence on any of us. She may be a little crazy but she only means well.
Lastly, I guess this is my time to say what I suggest. I guess the first thing is to not cut the movie. It took a lot of time and energy, not only those two, but also money. The key word in that sentence was money. Money that could have either been, wasted because people can’t compromise or money that was used for a good cause. The cause being that some youth really got the chance to try something new and the chance to meet a really amazing person. I think that everyone that was involved in making this movie (meaning –AIC, BPA, ICA, and DHS) should have a movie preview. We need to all sit down together and watch the movie and when a person finds something that they believe should be edited that can speak up. But if someone disagrees with it they should also be allowed to state their argument. No disagreement can go without being solved. This method would go on throughout the whole movie until it is completed and everyone is pleased. I guess the key word to this is compromise. At this event EVERYONE has to be willing to compromise regardless how much seniority they have. But then again this is just a suggestion.
Anyway, so basically what I am trying to say is please come to an agreement to where everyone can be happy. Everyone can see the movie. But do not cut the movie. It was truly a learning experience for everyone involved. They can all say that they left the movie with something good. I beg of you (and trust I don’t beg) please do not cut the documentary. It means so much to all of us. Thank you.
Repost From Zoe Strauss's Blog
Thursday, February 01, 2007
If You Break the Skin, It's Mostly Likely Because Zoe Strauss Went on a Stabbing Spree
The process of getting the film out has been absolute torture. I don't even know where to begin with this... DHS demanded that the film be pulled after it had been submitted to the Philadelphia Film Festival, which it was in good faith. DHS and the ICA own the footage of the film. But creative control was in the hands of the BPA and the ICA. And the kids who participated in the project were from the AIC, which is under the auspices of DHS. Acronyms central.
There are a million things that have ensued since the demand to pull the film, but everything blew the fuck up at a DHS/ICA/BPA/PAP meeting at DHS earlier this week. Until this meeting, all groups had been working together to come to a compromise on the final editing of the film. This isn't to say that there hadn't been tension, tension was present all through post-production but that was just related to the completion of the film, which was fairly complex. However, this meeting saw a tsunami of ignorance pour into the room.
My GOD, you can not believe the things I heard. Although all of the DHS workers who I worked with up to this point regarded the project as an incredible success, a woman who I had never met and seemed to be the supervisor of these workers claimed to be taking charge; and in this charge the most shocking things were said. DHS has some concerns with the film that are understandable and would have been able to be discussed, such as a repeated image of "Man Nude on Bed" which includes the images of him standing outside, standing with his pants down, and then the image that I've chosen as a final image. I have a lot to say about that but later, later.
Anyway, this DHS woman, who apparently had not watched the film began making completely insane statements...that my work was not appropriate for the AIC members to have seen at all and then she implied that I was a inappropriate choice as to work with the young adults. She implied that she was the only one "looking out for the children." She attempted to belittle her DHS coworkers. She then went on to compare the AIC members viewing my work and participating in this project to be the equivalent of offering the AIC members marijuana, and I quote "the first time it's fun, but then what happens?" While this statement is actually pretty funny considering that it's probably the only time my work has been described as "fun," it was a moment when I saw just how very myopic this woman was. I am rarely shocked, but in that moment I was completely stunned. Seriously.
Then she mandated that the AIC members who made the film were not allowed to watch it. That's right, the film makers, all of whom (except one) are 18 or older, are prohibited from watching the film. It was also said that the AIC members auto-biographical sections in the documentary could be cut, that these guys might not be allowed to tell their own stories. Jesus H. Christ, my head was going to implode. The thing that's so unbelievable is that this film is the feel good movie of the year. It's love, love and love!
There were many more completely insane things said. And I mean COMPLETELY FUCKING INSANE! And the end result is that DHS lawyers are watching the film and coming back with their assessment, their legal position on the film and a list of mandatory edits tomorrow. Now, I am certain of several things regardless of what "directives" come back tomorrow.
1. I am not an employee of DHS, nor have I ever been. In that regard, any sort of demand made of me from DHS is completely worthless, unless it is a legal mandate. I am waiting to hear what's coming back tomorrow and then will decide what course of action to take, if any.
2. While I am very appreciative to have had my voice heard in the editing process, I am not in a position to say how the film moves forward without the input of the film makers. I will fight against sanitizing this film. David Kessler has directed AND edited this film, which is amazing. He has made it into a feature length film. But the other film makers and stars of the film have been shut out. That's beyond fucked up. I'll fight for the film makers to own their own work and their own stories. Below is the body of an email I sent to the ICA, who, unfortunately, has now been positioned as an adversary to DHS, as opposed to their intended relationship as a collaborator.
Below is the email I sent to the ICA about how I am planning on moving forward after tomorrow.
"I am responding pre DHS directives about how a decision will be made in relation to "If You Break the Skin, You Must Come In" moving forward with the requested edits. I don't believe that I should be making the final decision alone; this is a film about me, not a film I made. I have weighed in on the editing process with a number of suggestions, but they were only suggestions, not demands. The final decision about what will happen with this film will have to come from the filmmakers, the AIC youth who participated making this film. They moved the flow of the project with their ideas and their responses to my work, they did the filming and conducted the interviews and their participation in this project is what influenced David's editing and structuring of the film. They have to weigh in on if they deem the requested edits appropriate or not and if the film accurately presents the summer project. Although I am very happy to have been allowed to give input into the making of the film I have to firmly assert that this film is not my work, it is about my work. I am more than happy to make the final decision and let the ICA know how I want this move forward, but I can't without the filmmakers letting me know their decision on the film."