Connect with us

Opinion Editorials

Filmmaker sheds light on the obstacles of documenting social issues

(EDITORIAL) Documentary filmmaker, Eli Steele, talks to The American Genius about the different obstacles involved with creating films surrounding social issues.

Published

on

documentary

Where creativity meets passion

Bringing a film to life is a lot like the dichotomies of the right and left side of the brain. The right side is more creative and artistic while the left side is more logical.

bar
When creating a movie, you have the right side which entails the inspiration and vision for the film, while the left side is the business aspect that produces the film.

Art of the documentary

Documentary filmmaker Eli Steele discusses with The American Genius how he’s worked to bring both his right and left side together in order to create a body of work that examines social issues.

After working on mainly the artistic side for years, Steele eventually decided to launch his own production company.

His most recent film, “I Am or How Jack Became Black,” was inspired by a Los Angeles public school system threatening to deny his son enrollment into school if Steele did not select a “primary race” on the admissions form. Along with being multiracial, Steele is also deaf which has had an influence on his interest in social issues.

What motivated you to begin your own production company?

Like several filmmakers that I know, I started out thinking that filmmaking was purely an art form and not a business. Developing one’s own voice as a filmmaker is an all-consuming challenge and I had spent the previous ten years writing script after script. I worked jobs like Starbucks and the post office. When I finally finished the script that would become my first feature narrative, “What’s Bugging Seth,” the process consumed much of me that I was completely on the artistic side of the film world.

So, when I began the pre-production phase on the film, I couldn’t have been more naive.

Nobody from the Screen Actors Guild, to rental houses like Panavision, would talk to me unless I had a production company. Developing my skills as a writer allowed me to produce a script; however, it would be establishing my own production company and learning the film business on the fly that would allow me to turn the script into an actual film. I learned many lessons through this baptism by fire. Perhaps the most important one: the words you write in a script are never purely artistic for it always takes a production company and all of its business resources to bring those words to life on the screen.

What sparked your interest in documentary filmmaking?

“I Am or How Jack Became Black” marks my return to the documentary format. When I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker in my teens I started by making short documentaries – that’s how I got into college. After graduation, I pursued a career in the independent film world on the narrative side and eventually made “What’s Bugging Seth,” a MTV Network pilot called, “Katrina,” and several other films. However, when my two kids (the third multiracial generation in my family) were born, I began to wonder what America would be like as it grew more multiracial.

Then I came upon this statistic: by the year 2050, at least 20 percent of all Americans will self-identify as two or more races.

This struck a nerve – that’s more than the black population, more than the Asian population. How would this change race in America? I knew right then that this was an issue that I had to explore and that the documentary format would give me the freedom to give my full voice to this issue. It was the subject that dictated the format.

Tell us about your previous work and awards that you have received.

I have worked on many projects, credited and un-credited, but the two biggest projects were the film “What’s Bugging Seth” and the MTV Networks pilot “Katrina.” “What’s Bugging Seth” was a romantic comedy that told the story of a deaf young man who determined to let nothing, not the most absurd comic misunderstandings, stop him from pursuing his dreams and love in an unforgiving world.

This film won awards at over ten film festivals and secured distribution deals in America, UK, and elsewhere.

After “What’s Bugging Seth,” I was invited by Warrington Hudlin (producer of “House Party” and “Boomerang”) along with my sister, Loni, to participate in the Breakthrough Filmmaker’s competition to produce an MTV Network pilot. Our pitch was “Katrina,” a dramedy that told the story of two Hurricane Katrina survivors that end up in San Francisco with a yuppie family headed by two mothers. We won the top award and went on to produce a well-received pilot, “Katrina.” While it was never green-lit for a season, the pilot opened many doors for us.

What is the subject of your current project? What inspired that?

My current documentary, “I Am or How Jack Became Black,” explores the impact of the multiracial baby boom upon Identity Politics-driven America, a country that has shed much blood on the color line. The inspiration for this documentary came when I went to register my multiracial son at his local public elementary school in Los Angeles. To my surprise, we were told we had to reduce my son’s complex identity – black, Jewish, Mexican, white, Native American – to a “Primary Race” box or he would not be allowed to enroll. There was no multiracial box or “check all that apply” type of scenario. (I would later learn that schools that allowed these boxes often put multiracial kids back into the primary race boxes behind the scenes.) What bothered me about this encounter with the school officials was what kind of message was the government sending my son by asking him to reduce his heritage to one race?

At home, we teach him the opposite: to embrace all of who he is.

There are those who have argued with me that these boxes are meaningless, for mere data collection. But, if that is true then why did America’s second largest school district, Los Angeles Unified School District, refuse enrollment to my son unless a “Primary Race” was checked? Why was his race more important than him walking through the school doors? And what value did these race boxes hold if my son essentially had to lie about his racial identity in order to check one? These questions and many others became the driving force behind my documentary that I knew I had to seek answers for.

Your documentary “I Am or How Jack Became Black” dealt with the topic of being forced to select a race in a school admittance setting. Is this something you’ve seen happen in the business world?

I think as a multiracial you often encounter situations in the business world where how you chose to identify racially reflects on you. Because we come from two or more races, we can make people nervous. Where do my racial loyalties lie? Which race am I more of? And so on. I encountered this when pitching film or television ideas to executives. Since my scripts reflected my diverse world-view, some executives would take a roundabout way to figure out what my racial background was.

They wanted to know if I had the racial authority or “street cred” to tell the stories that I wanted.

I found this to be detrimental because once the race issue had been breached it usually dominated the conversation to the end. After these meetings, sometimes I wondered if the pitch had been rejected for its merits alone or if it was because I had said something politically incorrect along racial lines. In the end, it didn’t really matter – that door was closed. I would have to find another open door. And every time I took steps forward I would always come upon another open door. One of them was “I Am or How Jack Became Black.”

What advice would you give to someone looking to get into documentary filmmaking?

A year or two ago, a filmmaker friend asked me to donate to his Kickstarter campaign. His goal was to raise about $50,000. I ran into him recently and asked him how his documentary was progressing. He said he had fallen short of raising the funds and was not pursuing the film. There was absolutely no reason, in my mind, why he could not have gone out and shot the documentary on his downtime. The fact that he let a failed Kickstarter campaign decide his fate showed that he lacked the two most important things: belief and passion. Documentary filmmaking for many filmmakers is the equivalent of flying blindly. You’ve got to step off the cliff. I know and hate that feeling. I’m an introvert and I have had to force myself to do man-on-the-street interviews where you stop a stranger cold for an out-of-the-blue interview.

There were days where I struck out completely.

But I gave myself no choice but to continue this torture and when things finally broke my way and I landed the interview I wanted, it was the best feeling. I would never have spent the five years it took to make “I Am or How Jack Became Black” without belief and passion. And that has always been my advice to anybody embarking on a documentary – make sure you have that belief and passion in the idea to carry you through all the ups and the far many more downs that you surely will encounter.

Has being deaf had any influence on your filmmaking?

People always ask me about my deafness and how it affects my filmmaking. I know why some people are curious, but for me I was born profoundly deaf and it is the only world that I know, the only way of living that I know. I know that some of these people think being deaf comes with obstacles and I don’t disagree. Sometimes when I walk up to someone on the street for an interview I find I can’t hear or lip-read them – like the man without dentures or the woman that I thought was speaking too fast for me to lip-read, but was actually speaking Russian.

Sometimes I’ve been interviewing someone and my cochlear implant battery dies, leaving me praying that their lips are lip-readable.

Other times, I’ve gone in for a job interview and noticed a change in the interviewer’s manners when he or she notices my cochlear implant. While these and many other obstacles are real, I don’t view them as negatives. Instead, I’ve used these obstacles to define me for the positive. It is these obstacles that have forced me to look at the world from a different perspective, an outsider perspective, and that has allowed me to see things that others may not. I know it was being deaf along with being multiracial that gave me this outsider perspective that allowed me to give an unique voice to “I Am or How Jack Became Black.” On a last note, people often ask me if I could magically have normal hearing, would I? My answer always is no. There is no greater reward after a long day of interviews or editing than taking off the cochlear implant and entering a world of complete silence.

#documentary

Staff Writer, Taylor Leddin is a publicist and freelance writer for a number of national outlets. She was featured on Thrive Global as a successful woman in journalism, and is the editor-in-chief of The Tidbit. Taylor resides in Chicago and has a Bachelor in Communication Studies from Illinois State University.

Opinion Editorials

How Gen X is nailing the COVID-19 social distancing order

(EDITORIAL) Of course, someone found a way to bring up generational stereotyping during COVID-19 and claim who is best, but are they onto something?

Published

on

Demographics and categorizing people helps us to process groups. A huge part of demographics and how we market ourselves in a job search, for example, is sharing our level of experiences and skill sets related to our profession – thus alluding to our age. Millennials (b. 1981-1996) received a lot of generational shame for being elitist and growing up in a time where they all received participation trophies – therefore being judged for not always winning a fair competition.

Gen X (roughly b. 1961-1981) has often commented that they feel like the forgotten generation which so much attention being play to the Baby Boomers (b. 1946-1964) who seemed to be born in to a great time of prosperity for “The American Dream” and then the Millennials who overtook Gen X and some of their jobs while they weren’t enough Gen Xers to fill them.

In this article “It Took a Global Pandemic, But Generation X is Finally Getting Love”, it is discussed how great Gen X is at this social distancing thing and maybe this will be helpful to anyone who feels like they are losing their mind. This is by no means an intent to shame any generation nor claim no one else knows how to handle it but this article does a great job about why Gen X might be primed to be handling the global pandemic well with the times they were raised in.

Right now, it’s a waiting game for many people who’s professions and lives have changed in what seemed like overnight. The patience required. The uncertainty of it all. The global pandemic forced (without any forgiveness), a swift move to new ways of life. The busy-ness of our days came to a crashing halt when we were no longer allowed to be out and about in places with large groups and possibly sent home to work remotely.

Many non-essential businesses were forced to close which meant people could not only not work at the office, but also had to cease their extra-curricular activities like working out at the gym, shopping, eating brunch with friends or taking their kids to their sporting events, a playground and/or coordinating a play date or sleepover. The directive from our local and federal government was for “social distancing” before the shelter in place orders came.

Gen X may agree that there were some pretty great things about their childhood – the types of things you do with your time because you don’t have a smartphone or tablet addiction and the fact that there was no way for your work to get a hold of you 24/7. Gen X did have TV and video games and sure, Mom and Dad didn’t really want you spending all of your time behind a screen but it also seemed that there wasn’t as much of a guilt trip if you did spend some of your “summer vacation” from school playing Nintendo or Sega with your neighborhood friends.

It seems like the article alludes to the idea that COVID might be helping people to get back to some of those basics before smartphones became as important to us as one of our limbs.

Gen X has had no problem adapting to technology and in their careers, they have had to adapt to many new ways of doing things (remember when caller ID came out and it was no longer a surprise who was calling?! Whaaaat?! And you can’t prank call anyone any more with your teenage friends at a sleepover! Gasp! You also wouldn’t dare TP an ex-boyfriend’s house right now).

Regardless of the need to learn new hard skills and technologies, everyone has been forced to adjust their soft skills like how technology and still being a human can play well together (since it is really nice to be able to FaceTime with loved ones far away). It seems those slightly unquantifiable adaptable and flexible skills are even more required now. It also seems that as you grow in your career, Emotional Intelligence might be your best skill in these uncertain times.

And not that we are recommending eating like crap or too many unhealthy items, Gen X has been known to be content surviving on Pop Tarts, Spaghetti O’s, Ding-dongs and macaroni and cheese which are all pretty shelf stable items right now. Whatever way is possible for you, it might be a good time to find the balance again in work, technology, home, rest, relaxation and education if at all possible.

Continue Reading

Opinion Editorials

How strong leaders use times of crises to improve their company’s future

(EDITORIAL) We’re weeks into the COVID-19 crisis, and some leaders are fumbling through it, while others are quietly safeguarding their company’s future.

Published

on

strong leaders

Anthony J. Algmin is the Founder and CEO of Algmin Data Leadership, a company helping business and technology leaders transform their future with data, and author of a new book on data leadership. We asked for his insights on how a strong leader can see their teams, their companies, their people through this global pandemic (and other crises in the future). The following are his own words:

Managers sometimes forget that the people we lead have lives outside of the office. This is true always, but is amplified when a crisis like COVID-19 occurs. We need to remember that our job is to serve our teams, to help them be as aligned and productive as possible in the short and long terms. 
 
Crises are exactly when we need to think about what they might be going through, and realize that the partnership we have with our employees is more than a transaction. If we’ve ever asked our people to make sacrifices, like working over a weekend without extra pay, we should be thinking first about how we can support them through the tough times. When we do right by people when they really need it, they will run through walls again for our organizations when things return to normal.

Let them know it’s okay to breathe and talk about it. In a situation like COVID-19 where everything is disrupted and people are now adjusting to things like working from home, it is naturally going to be difficult and frustrating.
 
The best advice is to encourage people to turn off the TV and stop frequently checking the news websites. As fast as news is happening, it will not make a difference in what we can control ourselves. Right now most of us know what our day will look like, and nothing that comes out in the news is going to materially change it. If we avoid the noisy inputs, we’ll be much better able to focus and get our brains to stop spinning on things we can’t control.
 
And this may be the only time I would advocate for more meetings. If you don’t have at least a daily standup with your team, you should. And encourage everyone to have a video-enabled setup if at all possible. We may not be able to be in the same room, but the sense of engagement with video is much greater than audio-only calls.
 
We also risk spiraling if we think too much about how our companies are struggling, or if our teams cannot achieve what our organizations need to be successful. It’s like the difference in sports between practice and the big game. Normal times are when we game plan, we strategize, and work on our fundamentals. Crises are the time to focus and leave it all on the field.
 
That said, do not fail to observe and note what works well and where you struggle. If you had problems with data quality or inefficient processes before the crisis, you are not fixing them now. Pull out the duct tape and find a way through it. But later, when the crisis subsides, learn from the experience and get better for next time.

Find a hobby. Anything you can do to clear your head and separate work from the other considerations in your life. We may feel like the weight of the world is on our shoulders, and without a pressure release we will not be able to sustain this level of stress and remain as productive as our teams, businesses, and families need us.

Continue Reading

Opinion Editorials

I just got furloughed. Now what?

(EDITORIAL) Some companies are furloughing employees, betting on their company’s long-term recovery. Here’s what you can expect and should plan for in your furlough.

Published

on

furloughed woman

Are you furloughed? You are not alone! What now? What does “furlough” even mean? How will I get money? Will I still keep my insurance?

A furlough differs from a layoff in a few ways. Whereas a layoff means you are definitely unemployed, a furlough is at its core unpaid time off. Not all furloughs are created equal, though the basic concept is the same: to keep valued employees on ice without being on the hook for their pay until a financial turnaround occurs.

The good-ish news is that a furlough means the company wants to keep you available. When a company is unable to pay their employees for an extended (often indefinite, as is the case with COVID-19 closures) period, they may opt to furlough them instead of laying them off. This virus has decimated whole industries, at least temporarily.

Furloughed employees are forbidden by law to do so much as answer a work email or text while furloughed–or else the company must pay them. The first large waves of COVID-19 furloughs are in obvious sectors such as hospitality (Marriott International), airlines industries (Virgin Atlantic), though other industries are following suit with furloughs or layoffs.

Some furloughs may mean cutting employees’ hours/days to a minimum. Maybe you’re being asked to take off a couple days/week unpaid if you’re hourly, or one week/month off if you’re on salary. With the COVID-19 situation, though, many companies are furloughing bunches of employees by asking them not to work at all. This particular furlough will last ostensibly for a few months, or until business begins to bounce back, along with normal life.

So, what are your rights? Why would you wait for the company? Can you claim unemployment benefits? What about your other work benefits? I’d be lying if I said I knew all the answers, as the furlough packages differ from company to company, and the laws differ from state to state.

However, here are some broad truths about furloughs that should apply. I hope this information helps you sort through your options. I feel your pain, truly. It’s a tough time all around. I’m on your side.

The first answer people want to know is yes, if you’re furloughed and have lost all or most of your income, you may apply for unemployment benefits. You can’t be expected to live off of thin air. Apply IMMEDIATELY, as there is normally a one or two week wait period until the first check comes in. Don’t delay. Some states provide more livable unemployment benefits (I’m looking at you, Massachusetts) than others, but some income is better than none.

Also, most furloughed employees will likely continue to receive benefits. Typically, life and health insurance remain intact throughout the length of the furlough. This is one of the ways companies let their employees know they are serious about wanting them back as soon as it’s financially realistic. Yet some other benefits, like a matching 401k contribution, will go away, as without a paycheck, there are no contributions to match.

Should you look for a job in the interim? Can you really afford not to? What if the company goes belly up while you’re waiting? Nobody wants that to happen, but the reality is that it might.

If you absolutely love your job and the company you work for and feel fairly confident the furlough is truly short-lived, then look for a short-term job. Thousands upon thousands of positions have opened up to meet the needs of the COVID-19 economy, at grocery stores or Amazon, for example. You could also look for contract work. That way, when your company reopens the doors, you can return to your position while finishing off the contract work on the side.

If the company was on shaky ground to begin with, keep that in mind when applying to new jobs. A full-time, long-term position may serve you better. At the end of this global health and economic crisis, some industries will be slower to return to their former glory–if they ever do. If you’re furloughed from such an industry, you may want to shift to something else completely. Pivot, as they say. Now would be a good time.

The only exceptions are “Excepted” government workers in essential positions, including public health and safety. They would have to work while furloughed in case of a government shutdown (and did previously).

Furloughs are scary, but they offer a greater measure of security than a layoff. They mean the company plans on returning to a good financial situation, which is encouraging. Furloughs also generally offer the comfort–and necessity–of insurance, which means you can breathe a bit easier while deciding your next move.

Continue Reading
Advertisement

Our Great Partners

The
American Genius
news neatly in your inbox

Subscribe to our mailing list for news sent straight to your email inbox.

Emerging Stories

Get The American Genius
neatly in your inbox

Subscribe to get business and tech updates, breaking stories, and more!