FOCUS ON: DAWNLAND

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Father and child, Indian Island, Maine Photo by: Ben Pender-Cudlip Courtesy: Upstander Project

 

By Shelley Sackett

DAWNLAND tells the story of the state of Maine’s effort to come to terms with a shockingly shameful part of its history, when state welfare workers removed Indian children from their families and placed them in foster care. The film follows the work of the state’s Truth And Reconciliation Commission, set up in 2012, which gathered stories from the state’s indigenous people.  It premiered at The Cleveland International Film Festival and recently won the 2018 Jury Award for Best Documentary at the Woods Hole Film Festival.

Salem Film Fest Selection Committee member Shelley Sackett had a chance to talk with co-director and cinematographer Ben Pender-Cudlip, ahead of DAWNLAND’S North Shore premiere, which will take place at The Peabody Essex Museum on Friday, September 21 at 7:00pm.

SS: How did you first get involved in filmmaking?

BP-C: In 2009 I was working in computer consulting. My company was a sponsor of a local film festival (IFFBoston), so I used our complimentary passes and saw a ton of nonfiction films. After going to a bunch of Q&As and talking to directors, I decided: I could do this! So I went to work on Monday, gave my two weeks’ notice, and started figuring out how to make films. DAWNLAND is my first documentary feature, and I’m thrilled that it has the chance to have a really robust social impact.

 

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Georginia Sappier-Richardson sharing her story at a TRC community visit Photo by: Ben Pender-Cudlip Courtesy: Upstander Project

SS: How did you get involved with this project?

BP-C: Co-director Adam Mazo and I had collaborated on other issue-oriented documentary projects. Our friend and colleague Dr. Mishy Lesser—the exceptional learning director for the Upstander Project—heard about the TRC in its formative stages via WBUR. Adam reached out to the TRC and REACH and after 8 months of conversation we were invited to make a film about the process. I joined as co-director and cinematographer, and we ended up spending two years traveling back and forth from our homes in Boston to Maine filming the TRCs work, and gathering the material to tell the story of Indigenous child removal in the United States.

SS: What compelled you to tell this story? What about it ignited a fire in your belly?

BP-C: I didn’t know that Native children were being stolen from their homes by state agents, and I wasn’t aware of this country’s long history of separating Native families. I was shocked and wanted to learn more. I’m a non-Native person, and I feel an obligation to try to end institutional racism in the United States. DAWNLAND allows us to tell a story about a present-day investigation that sheds new light on past wrongs, exposes current injustice and contributes to healing and change.

SS: What do you hope audiences take away from this film?

BP-C: I hope audiences understand that this isn’t just a story about the past. The child welfare crisis in Indian Country is ongoing, especially in places like Minnesota where Native children are 20 times more likely than white children to be in foster care. Genocidal policies have a ripple effect from generation to generation, and whole communities are being damaged. And the same basic impulse is playing out at the southern border under the moniker of “family separation,” predicated on the same belief that families of color are worth less than white families.

 

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Father and child, Indian Island, Maine Photo by: Ben Pender-Cudlip Courtesy: Upstander Project

 

SS: What have been some of the audience responses at screenings? Given its special place in the narrative, was the Maine screening different?

BP-C: Before releasing DAWNLAND widely, we held a series of screenings in Wabanaki communities. It was a very emotional experience to watch the film with the same people who had stared down the pain and come forward to share their stories of survival and resilience with the commission. In one community, people sang along to songs in the soundtrack. In another, we had a circle discussion afterwards and somebody chose that moment to share their story for first time. It’s our highest dream that this film will help Wabanaki people heal.

SS: Anything else you’d like to share?

BP-C: We hope DAWNLAND viewers will come to understand that Wabanaki and Native people are still here. We hope teachers will use the film and companion teacher’s guide with students nationwide, and especially in New England where this story is especially relevant. In particular, for teachers on the north shore and greater Boston, we’d love to invite them to participate in the Upstander Academy in Boston in summer 2019 to learn about genocide and human rights with the DAWNLAND team and film participants.

DAWNLAND will screen at the Peabody Essex Museum on Friday, September 21 at 7pm and tickets can be purchased here: http://salemfilmfest.com/2018/films/dawnland/

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Mr. Fish makes a big splash at Salem Film Fest

By Shelley A. Sackett

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Producer Ted Collins, Mr. Fish and SFF moderator Debra Longo at the PEM post-screening Q&A.

 

Dwayne Booth wears many hats.

 

He lives in the Philadelphia area, where he is a loving family man and a popular lecturer at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

 

For the last 25 years, he has also been known as Mr. Fish, the controversial and enormously talented freelance editorial cartoonist whose work has been published in some of the nation’s most reputable and prestigious magazines, journals, newspapers and web magazines, currently at Harpers.org and Truthdig.com.

 

Although Fish (as he prefers to be called) has written three books of cartoons and essays and won several prestigious awards, his was hardly a household name. All that has changed with the release of the documentary feature, “Mr. Fish: Cartooning from the Deep End,” which screened last Friday evening at the Peabody Essex Museum as part of the Salem Film Fest.

 

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From the left: Mr. Fish (Dwayne Booth), flanked by his two daughters, producer Ted Collins and “Mrs. Fish”, Diana Booth.

 

Not your average editorial cartoonist, Fish’s radical and sometimes outrageous work brims with controversy and biting satire, drawing from politics, propaganda, religion and social taboos. His rebellious anti-establishment philosophy is a throw back to the 1960s, yet his angst is contemporary. He has been called a poet with a cartoonist’s pen.

 

Nothing is off limits to Mr. Fish — he dares us to look away and invites us to cringe all the while challenging us to examine our assumptions and question the status quo. “I want cartooning to be dangerous and to be more than ink on paper,” Fish says to the camera.

 

Director Pablo Bryant shot over 90 hours of footage over the course of five years, and his film lets its audience through the keyhole into Fish’s private family life. Against a backdrop of Fish’s art and animation, the film explores his relationships with his wife Diana and their children; the beginning of his career; his views about money, war, and environmental catastrophe; the decline of the print industry that used to publish his work, and the diminished commercial appeal of his art.

 

“Where is the threat to the dominant culture today? There’s still so much work to do. Who’s going to do it?” Fish says in the film.

 

Watching Fish effortlessly draw his cartoons is one of the film’s greatest pleasures. Bryant’s unobtrusive camera allows the audience to eavesdrop as Fish explains how he comes up with his ideas and what drives him.

 

“The fact that I use art to communicate what it feels like to be human and why it’s significant to me- I feel like I have no other choice,” he says. “A lot of people go thru life masking what it means to be a human being. I would rather use art to demonstrate the injustice of the overall society.”

 

Faced with compromising his creativity to earn a living or staying true to his artistic and moral compass, Fish is at a real financial tipping point by the film’s end, and the audience is left wondering whether Fish will have to sell out after all.

 

Luckily, Fish, his family and the film’s producer and Massachusetts native, Ted Collins, were on hand for a lively and intimate 30-minute Q&A once the near sell-out crowd stopped clapping and settled down.

 

Asked if he was receptive to being the subject of a documentary, Fish said he really didn’t care one way or the other, but credited his wife Diana (who, with their twin daughters, later joined Fish and Collins for the Q&A) with deciding to invite director Bryant to stay with them while he was filming. “For a filmmaker, it was sort of like Jane living with chimps,” Fish said, referring to Jane Goodall.

 

Asked what happens to the original art he creates if it has no current market, Fish told a story about his early career, when he was fiercely opposed to the commodification of art. He would take his cartoons to Staples, make copies and destroy the originals. When he met the famous Los Angeles gallery owner Robert Berman ten years ago, Berman asked him for the originals. “Luckily, I had a few I was too lazy to throw away,” he said as the audience laughed.

 

Fish said that since Trump was elected President, there has been a renewed interest in his art. He published a new book in 2017, “And Then the World Blew Up,” and has two more scheduled. He even has a line of skateboards.

 

“I’ve been told, ‘Now is your time. Now you have a purpose.’ My job is very hard, though. What I don’t want to do is to turn Trump into a clown or a monster. That turns it into burlesque and ignores the underlying problem,” he said.

 

When an audience member asked Fish how parent-teacher conferences went, given his known proclivity for the graphically vulgar and obscene, he invited his family to join him on stage. His daughters told a story about their 6th grade teacher who fished their lunch bags out of the trash during a field trip because he knew Fish drew cartoon portraits of the girls.

 

Diana told about the time she entrusted her husband to attend parent-teacher open house, which included attending the girls’ classes to meet their teachers. When she received a call from Fish, she asked him why he wasn’t at the open house. “He told me he was cutting their classes,” she said.

 

Salem Film Fest Program Director Jeff Schmidt knew “Mr. Fish” would be a good fit for the Salem festival. “As a programmer, I’m constantly on the look out for films starting to make their way onto the film festival circuit.  I ran across “Mr. Fish: Cartooning From The Deep End” early on and reached out to producer Ted Collins and director Pablo Bryant to encourage them to submit to the festival. Our programming team loves films with unique characters who take chances, and Mr Fish certainly fits that bill,” he said.

 

 

Salem Film Fest presents special Thanksgiving weekend screening

FOR AHKEEM

By Shelley A. Sackett

Above: Daje Shelton in “For Ahkeem,” a documentary film directed by Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest.

BEVERLY — By the Sunday after Thanksgiving, even the most diehard football fan and Black Friday shopper should be ready to trade leftover pie for popcorn and venture out to the Cabot Theatre where Jeremy Levine, a Beverly native and Emmy Award winning documentary filmmaker from New York, will be returning home to screen his latest feature film, “For Ahkeem.”

The film tells the intimate and frank story of Daje Shelton, a strong-willed Black 17-year-old girl in North St. Louis, Missouri. The audience walks beside her as her path takes her from public school expulsion to the court-supervised Innovative Concept Academy, an alternative school for delinquent youth and her last chance to earn a diploma.

Shot over a two-year period against the charged backdrop of nearby Ferguson, we witness Daje’s struggles as she copes with academic rigors, the murders and funerals of friends, teenage love and a pregnancy that results in the birth of a son, Ahkeem.

With motherhood comes the realization that she must contend with raising a young Black boy in a marginalized neighborhood. The film illuminates the challenges that many Black teenagers face in America today, and witnesses the strength and resilience it takes to survive.

“For Ahkeem” will screen on Sunday, November 26 at 4:30 p.m. at The Cabot Theatre, 286 Cabot Street in Beverly as part of a special Salem Film Fest Presents — the documentary fest’s first cinema presentation outside of Salem. Levine will be on hand at to answer audience questions at the post-screening Q&A.

Salem Five Charitable Foundation is underwriting the screening and three local organizations are community partners: The Beverly Human Rights Committee, First Church Salem, UU and Salem No Place for Hate.

For Levine, who attended Beverly High School and worked for years as a counselor at the Waring School, the film he co-directed is more than a simple coming-of-age story. “It highlights the horrible effects of the school-to-prison pipeline, where we suspend and expel huge numbers of students — especially black and brown students — and the impact that has on girls like Daje from the time they’re five-years-old,” he said by phone from New York City, where he and co-director Landon Van Soest run Transient Productions, a full-service production company.

The film also approaches some of the most pressing social challenges facing America today — racial bias, social inequality, public education, police brutality and a biased criminal justice system.

“We wanted to tell a deeply personal story about what it means to live your life when so many systems are set against you,” Levine, an Ithaca College alumnus with a degree in Documentary Studies, said.

“For Ahkeem” has had an award-winning festival run starting in February at the Berlin Film Festival, followed by prestigious showcases like the Tribeca Film Festival, Canada’s Hot Docs, and the DMZ International Film Festival in South Korea.

While the film’s worldwide audience and awards —such as the Grand Jury Prize Award at Boston’s Independent Film Festival — thrill Levine, for him the screenings and discussions at high schools and prisons fulfill a greater mission of trying to do better for future generations of children.

In Tribeca, New York City, for example, approximately 500 high school students attended a screening. “When Daje came out for the Q&A afterwards, the kids erupted in applause,” Levine said.

The ensuing discussions included kids “really opening up about some of the challenges they face in their lives. It was really incredible,” Levine added. He is currently working to bring the film to more public high schools through a grant program.

Screenings at prisons have been equally powerful. When the lights came up at one screening for 100 inmates, all the tears in the room full of men touched Levine. “One of them wrote a poem for Daje and Ahkeem. Another man said, ‘Who knew I could learn so much about being a man from the story of a young woman?’” he said.

Levine credits the culture of Judaism and Hebrew School lessons at Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly, “a part of my life growing up”, with imbuing in him a sense of responsibility to try to make the world a better place. “I learned about the long suffering of our heritage and the injustice of that. That kind of moral underpinning is definitely huge in the work I do,” he said.

 

“For Ahkeem” will screen on Sunday, November 26 at 4:30 p.m. at The Cabot Theatre, 286 Cabot Street in Beverly as part of a special Salem Film Fest presentation. For more information or to buy tickets, visit theCabot.org.

Celebrating Ten Years with a Bubbly Brew

Far From the Tree Launches special Salem Film Fest Cider

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Alex Snape brewing a special batch of craft cider.

 

When Salem Film Fest, the week-long all documentary film festival that runs from March 2-9, celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, it will be even more special because of Alex and Denise Snape, co-owners of Far from the Tree, a craft cider company specializing in unique, high-quality hard cider made from local ingredients.

 

They will create a special SFF Brew (stay tuned for its official name) that will reflect the film they are co-sponsoring, “First Lady of the Revolution”, the remarkable story of Henrietta Boggs, an Alabama Southern belle who takes a life-altering journey through marriage, civil war and audacious democratic reforms to become the First Lady of Costa Rica.

 

“When we think of documentary film, we think of raw, powerful emotion and beauty in storytelling. We hope to make a cider that will boast strong flavors and a lot of personality that people will enjoy from the first sip to the last,” Alex said.

 

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Jeff Schmidt, SFF program director, couldn’t be more pleased with the collaboration between the two local mainstays. “I think the handcrafted artisan nature of the cider produced by Far From the Tree pairs up in a really interesting way with the artistic process of filmmaking. Henrietta Boggs is quite a character, and creating a tribute to her seems like a great fit!” he said.

 

Alex plans to launch the new cider on Sunday, February 26, days before the festival opens. He is working with the SFF committee to show the short films from the previous festivals in Far from the Tree’s tasting room that night, and he’d like to collaborate with Popped! Gourmet Popcorn in Salem to provide popcorn for his guests.

 

“Whenever we release a new cider, the response has always been very great. We hope the launch on February 26th will be just as successful,” he said.

 

Far from the Tree makes a craft hard cider based on a philosophy that respects tradition by controlling the entire production process from apple pressing straight through to bottling. The cider is made with local apples and exclusively natural ingredients. Over the almost three years they have been serving up their delicious hard cider, they have crafted other special brews, including Husk Cider, a small-batch fermentation designed to complement Island Creek oysters, and four brews inspired by inspired by the works of New England horror author, H.P. Lovecraft and released in October 2015 to coincide with Salem’s month-long celebration of all things Halloween.

 

Alex isn’t the only film fan at Far from the Tree. Erik Pudas, its head cider maker, is a former cinema projectionist who has worked at film festivals in the past and still enjoys the unique films only a festival setting can offer. Jen Tran, the tasting room manager and head of sales, has attended the festivals for the last several years. “As a growing Salem business, we have developed several connections and relationships with community leaders, volunteers and organizers, and are happy to help support them,” Alex said.

 

Salem Chamber of Commerce Executive Director (and a Salem Film Fest co-founder) Rinus Oosthoek echoes Alex’s enthusiasm. “I think the special brew is a fantastic way both to celebrate Salem Film Fest’s 10th Anniversary and to help promote the festival and FFTT at the same time. Our film fest audience will be very receptive to the idea, so we should be able to get FFTT some new customers,” he said, adding in his native Dutch, “Proost!”

 

 

Far from the Tree is located at 108 Jackson Street in Salem. For hours and more information, visit farfromthetreecider.com.

 

Salem Film Fest 2017 runs March 2-9. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit salemfilmfest.com.