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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.

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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.

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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

The *actual* reasons people choose to work at startups

(EDITORIAL) Startups have a lot going for them, environment, communication, visible growth. So it is easy to see why they are so popular now

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Startups are perpetually viewed as the quintessential millennial paradise with all of the accompanying perks: flexible hours, in-house table tennis, and long holidays. With this reputation so massively ingrained in popular perception of startups, is it foolish to think that their employees actually care about the work that startup companies accomplish?

Well, yes and no.

The average startup has a few benefits that traditional business models can’t touch. These benefits often include things like open communication, a relaxed social hierarchy, and proximity to the startup’s mission. That last one is especially important: While larger businesses keep several degrees of separation between their employees and their end goals, startups put the stakes out in the open, allowing employees to find personal motivation to succeed.

When an employee can find themself personally fulfilled by their work, that work reaps many of the benefits of the employee’s dedication, which in turn helps the startup propagate. Many aspiring startup employees know this and are eager to “find themselves” through their work.

Nevertheless, the allure of your average startup doesn’t always come from the opportunity to work on “something that matters.”

Tiffany Philippou touches on this concept by pointing out that “People come to work for you because they need money to live… [s]tartups actually offer pretty decent salaries these days.”

It’s true that many employees in their early to late twenties will likely take any available job, so assuming that your startup’s 25-and-under employee base is as committed to finding new uses for plastic as you are may be a bit naïve—indeed, this is a notion that holds true for any business, regardless of size or persuasion.

However, startup experience can color a young employee’s perception of their own self-worth, thus allowing them to pursue more personally tailored employment opportunities down the road—and that’s not a bad legacy to have.

Additionally, startups often offer—and even encourage—a level of personal connection and interactivity that employees simply won’t find in larger, more established workplaces. That isn’t symptomatic of startups being too laid-back or operating under loosely defined parameters; instead, it’s a clue that work environments which facilitate personalities rather than rote productivity may stand to get more out of their employees.

Finally, your average startup has a limited number of spots, each of which has a clearly defined role and a possibility for massive growth. An employee of a startup doesn’t typically have to question their purpose in the company—it’s laid out for them; who are we to question their dedication to fulfilling it?

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Opinion Editorials

People saying “I love you” at work casually – yay or nay?

(EDITORIAL) Is saying “I love you” in the workplace acceptable in the current harassment and lawsuit climate? Let’s take a look at the factors.

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Anyone who works in “The Office” knows sometimes there is a failure to communicate. Per email conversation, context can get lost in translation.

So, why then, in the age of the Me Too Movement, are coworkers saying: I Love You?

I’m guessing it’s thanks to our digital lifestyle?

No, I’m not a Boomer. Thank you very much. That’s a different editorial. But, I’ve been working since way back in the day. A time when we wore tennis shoes with nylons. Wait, that’s still a thing?

Alas, I digress.

If we consider the culture of work, particularly in the case of some start-ups, it’s not uncommon for there to be beer in the workplace, casual dress – meaning you have clothes on – and possibly a more youthful expectation around communication.

So, f*ck yeah, dude, I love you!

With the use of workflow apps like Slack, where people can text you – while on the toilet, no less. I mean, who hasn’t told a colleague, “OMG! You are a f@cking ?” after dealing with a challenging situation/customer/boss/client and that colleague comes to the rescue.

Just me? Oops.

Maybe it started back with the I Love You Man commercial, which also became the title of a bromance.

If the bros can have their bromance, then why can’t we all say those three words in the workplace?

I’m not gonna spoil the party and say never. I’m just going to suggest some things are better left unsaid.

First, words are powerful.

Because this is the era of Me Too, it’s easy for there to be misinterpretation. What if a woman says it to a male colleague. A boss says to a much junior employee.

Can you say harassment?

One of my former managers didn’t even like me saying her name. I can’t imagine what she’d do if I said: “I love you.”

But, here’s a real reason. People are happy with us one day and not the next.

Keeping it chill and professional is important. For example, I once called my co-worker – and very good friend – a nasty Spanish word and it almost resulted in a knife fight. What I learned is one day you are joking around and your friend isn’t.

Second, a laissez-faire attitude toward communication can become second nature. You can’t be accidentally telling your client, you love them, now can you? I mean, beyond being authentic, those words mean a lot to some people, just tossing them about shows a real lack of judgment and can result in an extremely negative response.

Which leads me to my last point.

“Et, tu Cheryl”

One company I worked at hired Gallup to do a survey of staff. One of the questions was about having a work BFF, which is important in the workplace. Often we have our work husband or wife or sister, even. We all need someone we can lean on.

In the workplace, depending on the culture and environment, it may be a good place to keep it 100 or, if too toxic, a better place to fake it. Even people who seem to be on your side might be just waiting to pounce.

Get too close, say the wrong thing and Cheryl gets your office with the window and the red stapler too.

All I’m saying is keep it real, but maybe not too real.

Oh, and btw, I <3 U.

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Opinion Editorials

Audi paves the way for how to thoughtfully reduce a workforce

(BUSINESS NEWS) Audi has a new electric car plan that will eliminate 9,500 employees…but in a shocking twist, we’re not even mad. WATT’s going on here?

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Audi E-tron

12 billion motivational posters/yoga tops/specialty ziploc bags can’t all be wrong: Positive change always comes with loss.

For German Audi workers, the company shifting gears to focus on manufacturing electric vehicles will see employee losses to the tune of 7.5k people being Audi of a job there. In the next five years, another 2,000 jobs are expected to get the axe as well.

So they should be panicking, right? Audi workers should mask up and be out in the streets?

Well, considering the general state of the world, yes. But if we’re isolating to just this change, no!

See, Audi’s not actually shoving people out of the door to make room for younger, sexier, more fuel-efficient staff. The jobs they’re cutting are going to be cut due to employees leaving on their own for different pastures and retirement. As in, no one’s getting laid off through 2029.

Now there’s an electric slide I can get behind!

Audi’s top brass, in an Ohm-My-God twist (see what I did there), actually sat down with worker reps and talked this move out. This kinder, gentler, distinctly NON-assy arangement will save the company over 6.6 billion dollars over the next decade, and all of that cash is going to boogie-woogie-woogie into their ‘lightning car development’ piggy banks.

Yay for them!

And yay for us.

See, Germany has a (recent) history of not being horrible to their employees. It’s why Walmart’s attempt to claw its way into Deutschland went up in so much smoke. And that history is accompanied by a reputation for stunningly positive change for everyone from white tie to black apron.

With a brand as giant, trusted, and drooled over as Audi is managing to conduct massively profitable business without schwantzing anyone over, everyone here in the US has a shining example to point to and follow when making massive company moves.

Notably, Tesla, America’s favorite electric car company is almost cartoonishly anti-union, anti-worker, and anti-running dress rehearsals on expectation/glass shattering exhibitions. The prevailing thought is that it’s a necessity to be some kind of moustache twirling villain to get ahead because so many businesses insist upon it.

But that chestnut cracks here.

No more ‘Businesses exist to make money’ excuses. No more ‘You have to be ruthless to get ahead’ BS. Those selective-sociopathy inducing phrases never made any sense to begin with, but now, we’ve got a shining example of towering projected #GAINZ for a company doing right by its people without a single head rolling on the factory floors or a single decimal point moved left in the ledgers.

Ya done good, Audi.

Here’s hoping more businesses stateside follow in your tire tracks.

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