Rural Civil Rights Project: Martin, TN

UTM Registrar's Office, 1963

Recently, the Rural Civil Rights Project (RCRP) has grown into a multi-site program. Last year, Kassi Abney developed the Rural Civil Rights Project: Martin, TN. With her documentary, “More Black Than White,” Abney has engaged in community screenings of her documentary about the slow process of desegregation in the local education system, decades after Brown v. Board of Education. This documentary has sparked an incredible dialogue in her community. Abney is borrowing from the conceptual framework of the Rural Civil Rights Project: Southern Illinois. The goal is to document untold civil rights history, a history that is largely silent about the racial tensions in the North and in rural Midwest communities. The purpose is to use digital rhetoric and technologies such as video production, digital archiving and mapping with the specific purpose of addressing the legacy of contemporary social conditions. Abney has adapted the topics of civil rights and community discussion based on the local history and current tensions in Martin, TN.

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Youth Media and Social Justice

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A few months ago I had the opportunity to work with the Southern Poverty Law Center on an article for their Teaching Tolerance Magazine. Calling to interview me about the K-12 classroom, social justice and documentary, I asked the woman writing the article how she found me. “You are kind of an expert in this, right?” Without a lot of awareness on my end, I had collected quite a lot of experience working in youth media production in the past 10 years.

I started working with youth during the production of Ellen Spiro’s documentary, Troop 1500 in 2003. The documentary was about a troop of girl scouts whose mother’s are in prison. We were running media workshops to give the girl scouts production skill; shooting music videos, writing scripts, and learning how to interview their moms on camera. It was a powerful experience watching a young women ask her mother what “plans she was making to ensure she would not ‘mess up’ when released from prison.” The mother, daughter and the audience were changed after watching that conversation.

I continued working with youth media out of a desire to have revelatory experiences but to also help improve gender imbalances in the media industry. With a few other colleagues, we started Girls Make Movies. Entering its 5th year, the first high school girls’ media initiative in the region was constructed to address the issues that discourage girls from seeking creative roles in the media industry. Ms. Magazine has named the camp one of the “up and coming media organization helping to increase the ranks of women in the entertainment and media industries.”

This summer, I will get the opportunity to explore another facet of youth media production, working with young men who have been struggling with behavioral issues in the middle school classroom. Each time I take on one of these project, I am always surprised by the restorative capacity of media production to empower those who invest in the issues that are of most important to them.

I encourage you to read more about the possibilities for youth media production in Lights, Camera, Social Action and the corresponding toolkit.

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Notes on the Process and Practices of Being Creative

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“Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just get to work” –Chuck Close

“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration” Thomas Edison

This semester, I have the opportunity to do one of my favorite things, bring my experiences outside the academy into the classroom. I am teaching a festival and art distribution course and tonight we talked about the creative process, a conversation that seemed oddly foreign for the jammed packed 16-week structure of the average university production course. This is what we talked about tonight:

1. Understanding your own creative process is key to bringing your work into a place that allows sharing with others and a process for growth.

Check out this great project about the misconceptions of creativity:

2. Become active at creating the conditions necessary for creative exploration.

“Everybody who does creative work has figured out how to deal with their own demons to get their work done.” -Seth Godin

Peaceful surroundings, time to play, a clear working space, good music, proper beverage, good sleep, surrounding yourself with smart collaborators, the key essential equipment, ect…these conditions are specific to you and will create a space for optimum creativity. Typically we are not always tuned into these necessary conditions but you must find them and use them (often) as a tool toward propelling you forward.

3. Expand your capacity for uncertainty, explore and do stuff everyday.

Most of the work you create will absolutely never see the light of day. Be willing to chase down ideas, even when that idea might not lead to anything. Embrace the process: one-idea leads to the next. You will write, edit, research, organize, create, play and experiment with things that will only build towards those projects you will share with the world. Sometimes you will feel like your spinning your wheels. Engaging with your work daily as a practice is essential to developing your vision. Embrace what John Keats identified as Negative Capability— the willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery, and make peace with ambiguity.

“You’re much more likely to spot surprising relationships and to see fresh connections among ideas, if your mind is constantly humming with issues related to your work. When I’m deep in a project, everything I experience seems to relate to it in a way that’s absolutely exhilarating. The entire world becomes more interesting. That’s critical, because I have a voracious need for material, and as I become hyperaware of potential fodder, ideas pour in. By contrast, working sporadically makes it hard to keep your focus. It’s easy to become blocked, confused, or distracted, or to forget what you were aiming to accomplish…Creativity arises from a constant churn of ideas, and one of the easiest ways to encourage that fertile froth is to keep your mind engaged with your project. When you work regularly, inspiration strikes regularly.”-Arthur Koestler famously termed “bisociation”

4. Make room for the process of excitement and despair.

Creativity is a messy affair. Despair can lead to new things. Constraints can be a really good thing…embrace the hell out of them.

“…a practice of some kind … It quite frequently happens that you’re just treading water for quite a long time. Nothing really dramatic seems to be happening. … And then suddenly everything seems to lock together in a different way. It’s like a crystallization point where you can’t detect any single element having changed. There’s a proverb that says that the fruit takes a long time to ripen, but it falls suddenly … And that seems to be the process.” -Brian Eno

5. There is a gap for beginners.

In the beginning of our creative process, the work tends to not be so good. Make lots of work and fail forward, great insights come from those failures. The more work you do, the faster you close the gap. Its going to take a while, fight your way through it.

Play this until you don’t need it anymore:

6. Create tools, prompts and rituals for your creative process.

Take a look at some of Brian Eno’s strategies:

Freeform capture: Grab from a range of sources without editorializing. According to Tamm, one of Eno’s tactics “involves keeping a microcassette tape recorder on hand at all times and recording any stray ideas that hit him out of the blue – a melody, a rhythm, a verbal phrase.” He’ll then go through and look for links or connections, something that can form the foundation for a new piece of music.

Blank state: Start with new tools, from nothing, and toy around. For example, Eno approaches this by entering the recording studio with no preconceived ideas, only a set of instruments or a few musicians and “just dabble with sounds until something starts to happen that suggests a texture.” When the sound texture evokes a memory or emotion that impression then takes over in guiding the process.

Deliberate limitations: Before a project begins, develop specific limitations. Eno’s example: “this piece is going to be three minutes and nineteen seconds long and it’s going to have changes here, here and here, and there’s going to be a convolution of events here, and there’s going to be a very fast rhythm here with a very slow moving part over the top of it.”

Opposing forces: Sometimes it’s best to generate a forced collision of ideas. Eno would “gather together a group of musicians who wouldn’t normally work together.” Dissimilar background and approaches can often evoke fresh thinking.

Creative prompts: In the ‘70s Eno developed his Oblique Strategies cards, a series of prompts modeled after the I Ching to disrupt the process and encourage a new way of encountering a creative problem. On the cards are statements and questions like: “Would anybody want it?” “Try faking it!” “Only a part, not the whole.” “Work at a different speed.” “Disconnect from desire.” “Turn it upside down.” “Use an old idea.” These prompts are a method of generating specifics, which most creatives respond favorably to.

7. Ideas need time to breath (incubation stage), build that into your schedule and find coping mechanisms.

Current neuroscience research confirms what creatives intuitively know about being innovative: that it usually happens when we are doing mundane activities. After focusing intently on a project or problem, the brain needs to fully disengage and relax in order to have a revelatory moment. It’s often the mundane activities like taking a shower, driving, or taking a walk that lure great ideas to the surface. Composer Steve Reich, for instance, would ride the subway around New York when he was stuck. I often get stuck when editing documentary work and most of my solutions come to me in a dream where I immediately know how remove the block to my thinking about the story.

8. You are not your work and criticisms of your work are not about you.

Arriving at this place of wisdom takes much time and many years of maturity. On your way to this place of wisdom, listen ferociously to what other say and use what is helpful. You have to humble yourself; learning the delicate balance of how to listen to your own instincts as well as integrating the feedback of others.

9. Every once in a while (or more periodically) you need to step back and have a big giant think:

“When I understood the message of what my work was, beyond the visual vocabulary of what I was doing, I was communicating a spirit, an ethos…once I understood what my work was about I could do a whole bunch of different stuff.”-Jonathan Adler, Designer

10. Finally, Success is fickle: “Don’t aim at success

…The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it”― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

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Circulation and Engagement

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production still, Death Work (2013), Oakland Cemetary in Carbondale, IL

October has been a very busy month for getting work done and for good news! There have been some recent screenings and much visibility gained for the Racial Justice Community Coalition, a social movement that has emerged from the community screenings of 778 Bullets (2011). Before we continue the discussion about community engagement, my most recent shorts, Death Work (2013) and Sexy Scissors (2012), have been finding their way to audiences around the globe.

Death Work (2013) has recently premiered at the Transient Visions: Festival of the Moving Image in Johnson City, NY, at the Spool Contemporary Art Center, an artist-run alternative space.  Death Work (2013) addresses the invisible labor of those who dig graves and how history flows through the practices of burring the dead. In a few weeks, the short will have its international premiere at Nuremberg International Short Film Festival in Germany.

Sexy Scissors (2012) has recently screened at the OffShoot Film Festival and Phenom Film Festival where the documentary was nominated for best short. Sexy Scissors (2012) documents a “special” men’s hair cutting salon in Austin, TX, exploring the funky vortex of sex, power, masculinity and the endless journey to get the perfect haircut. The short will soon have its international premiere at the South West London International Film Festival in the UK.

The Rural Civil Rights Project and 778 Bullets (2011) continue to gain a great deal of support from the local community. I was recently invited by the City of Carbondale’s Human Relations Commission to screen 778 Bullets (2011) as a way to raise discussion about local tensions around issues of race. The students from my graduate course, Documentary and Critical Practices, attended the public meeting and contributed to the discussion. The film was met with enthusiastic reception. Afterwards the graduate class discussed nontraditional distribution and community engagement.

Finally, the Racial Justice Community Coalition and the anniversary of the shootout between black panthers and police made the local news! This is a particularly big deal because the newscast was broadcast across a conservative Southern Illinois. Here is what emerged:

Carbondale police shootout with Black Panthers 43 years ago

 

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Seed & Spark* Features The Ritual and Crowdfunding

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This summer we completed our first crowd funding campaign for my upcoming feature documentary, The Ritual. It was a hard earned success and we reached our goal. It was also a exhausting, heartwarming, and a big learning experience. The up and coming (fair trade) crowd funding website built for indie filmmakers, Seed and Spark , just published an article I wrote about our experience. I was interested in helping first time filmmakers learn from our campaign and to side step some of the popular myths about this activity. Come check out the article:

How to Crowdfund When You Are Not Zach Braff or Spike Lee: The First Time Filmmakers Guide To A Brave New World

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Documentary and Community Engagement

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For the last decade, I have been reading and writing about the potenial of documentary to engage large scale popular publics, local communities and everything in between. Additionally, I have been circulating five short documentaries as an experiment in my own creative inquiry but also in gathering insights that might jar this question of documentary and community engagement. What I learned long ago is that there is a great academic and cultural divide between those who produce documentary and those who study and write about it….and that difference matters when it concerns understanding community engagement and social change. I am in the process of exploring the ways in which this divide matters in how we theorize and historicize the social transformation potential of documentary. Additionally, this divide discourages scholars to include practitioners as part of their audience. I am suggesting insightful scholarly work on documentary could, more frequently, function as a springboard into activist arts practice as well as practice informing how we theorize.

778 Bullets screened on September 6th as part of the Sustainable Living Film series at Longbranch Coffee House in Carbondale. In the sixth community screening, the audience was mostly a combination of locals, followers of the Sustainable Living Film Series, university students and faculty. Most of our other screenings had been based out of community centers, church basements, grade schools and other such venues that produced a crowd not directly connected to the university. As at most local screenings, conversation begins with a focus on historical details, understandings of power relationships and the social construction of history. But the consistent theme throughout our community screenings is that most of the discussion involves the documentary screen as a sounding board for a host of normally unspoken issues about race in the local community including how history impacts the current educational enviornment and police relations.

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With every new community screening we have gathered another cross-section of the town, interested in unearthing historical detail, stories vanishing with time, as a means to better understand the present.

Our next screening of 778 Bullets is at the Carbondale Public Library as a part of the 11 days of Peace sponsored by Nonviolent Carbondale. Join us Sunday October 27th at 2:30 for another discussion about Rural Civil Rights.

The Community Racial Justice Coalition that emerged from the documentary will meet on Thursday, Nov 7 at 7 pm, Church of the Good Shepherd.

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This is how Sexy Scissors programs…

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Issues of programing and how a film is placed among others in a festival is of great interest to me. One day I would like to interview festivals programmers in order to write an article about the process of festival selection and curation. I am curious if programing concerns effects final selections, how programmers place those odd but awesome selections that seems to fit no where and the many other issues about curation in the festival environment. These question have come up for me as I have sent out many different kinds of documentaries in the past five years and find myself fascinated with the process of anticipating programing goals based on a festivals website. Let’s face it, this process is expensive and the more accurate my read on where my film will screen, the more seed money I have for my next project. What I find myself doing, not in any conscious way, is staring at the photos of past festivals asking myself, would this group of festival organizers program a documentary about a shoot out of a black panther residence in the Midwest during 1970? Would these folks be offended by the half-dressed ladies in a haircutting salon? Have they programed anything like this in the past? Is this audience going to find interest in and maybe solidarity with the missing mexican women on the screen?  If the answer is yes, how in the world will they frame, program and promote this work in the context of the festival?

I shot Sexy Scissors many years back and recently finished it to send out to festivals. Today, I just got the programing book for an upcoming festival screening, it seems we are sandwiched between a feature documentary about regulations in the porn industry and a comedy about breasts…its going to be a good one!

Upcoming Screenings for Sexy Scissors:

Phenom Film Festival on September 20th and nominated for best documentary short

Offshoot Film Festival on October 3rd

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Collective Trauma Film Collection

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Ni Una Mas (Not One More) has been selected to be a part of the Collective Trauma Film Collection and a traveling international exhibition, The CologneOFF IX- 9th Cologne International Videoart Festival. We are excited to be a part of this exhibition as the focus is on collective trauma, identity, memory and artistic intervention.

The festival launch is standing in the frame-work of CologneOFF 2013 Lithuania @ A Virtual Memorial Vilnius 2013 under the Patronage of European Parliament, 23 September – 29 October 2013 @ two venues in Lithuania, JCIC Vilnius (23 Sept – 27 Oct 2013) and Kedainiai Regional Museum (02-29 Oct 2013). The manifestation of CTF – Collective Trauma Film Collections which will be presented completely for the first time including SFC – Shoah Film Collection, Cambodia 1975-1979 and “Beyond Memory”.

The next following CologneOFF festival presentations are scheduled until Dec 2013:
CologneOFF 2013 Greece IV, CologneOFF 2013 Poland, CologneOFF 2013 Italy, CologneOFF 2013 Peru, CologneOFF 2013 Romania and CologneOFF 2013 Morocco.

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Death Work Named Film of the Week

A film festival in Portugal, Cine-Amadora Festival Internacional de Cinema, just named Death Work their film of the week. You can watch my new documentary short about how history flows through the rituals of burying the dead. Come check it out!

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News: 778 Bullets Prompts A Community Coalition

After the April 13th and July 26th screening of 778 Bullets, a growing group of concerned citizens continue to meet regarding the issues that emerged from the documentary screening. The Racial Justice Community Coalition is focused on organizing around issues of race in the local community. The next meeting is Thursday, October 3, 7 pm, @ Church of the Good Shepherd.

The next community screening of 778 Bullets is Friday, September 6th at Longbranch coffee house in Carbondale. Come join the discussion!

https://www.facebook.com/events/655242737827928/