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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.

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Taylor is a Staff Writer at The American Genius and has a bachelor's degree in communication studies from Illinois State University. She is currently pursuing freelance writing and hopes to one day write for film and television.

Opinion Editorials

How to encourage your childrens’ entrepreneurship

(EDITORIAL) To encourage entrepreneurship for our children, we focus on providing them with direct evidence that they can do and be anything they want (excepting the six year old, who currently wants to be a cat).

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When I walk in the door most days, the routine’s predictable. Drop my briefcase, check the mail, and by this point I’ve received an invitation to go to my daughters’ store. What’s for sale invariably changes from day-to-day — sometimes it’s a pet store, or a bespoke clothier, or a coffee shop — but I’m always amazed at the level of thinking about multiple aspects of business ownership that they put into their play.

For example, I’m typically offered coupons and combination deals on whatever my purchases might be, which means that we get to have rich conversations about the purpose of such incentives and how they affect both customer perception of their brand and their profit margin.

Now, as they’re both under ten years old, many of these conversations don’t cause their games to stop for an introductory economics lesson, but I want them to keep these discussions in mind as their play expands. The world in which they’re growing up is a very different place from that which their parents did, and the possibilities they can embrace literally did not exist a generation ago.

So, too, the challenges that they’ll face. While the number of career fields and the jobs within them that are fully accessible to women are growing exponentially, the globalization of the economy and the shift towards a gig workforce means that they’ll have to compete against not only the remnants of outdated gender expectations, but also considerably larger numbers of people to do so, and with less stability in their career paths once they arrive.

To encourage the entrepreneurial spirit within our girls we, like many parents, focus on providing them with direct evidence that they can do and be anything they want (excepting the six year old, who currently wants to be a cat).

It’s been well said that what one can see, one can be. A 2012 MIT report found that in Indian villages where women held positions of responsibility and authority in local government, levels of aspiration and access to education rose by 25 percent and 4 percent, respectively. The amount of hours they had to devote to completing domestic chores dropped by nearly 25 percent.

It’s important to us to have our daughters see successful women in all walks of life to let them know that they are limited only in their passions and imagination, and should never settle for anything that they don’t want.

It’s also important for us to show them examples of young entrepreneurship whenever possible as well. In a 2015 analysis of Federal Reserve Bank data, the Wall Street Journal found that the percentage of adults under the age of 30 who had ownership stakes in private companies had fallen 70 per cent over the past 24 years. This illustrates the myth of the swashbuckling 20-something entrepreneur, along with the underlying challenges to business ownership.

By being realists about the challenges as well as idealistic about the possibilities, we want to keep alive the spirit that makes them excited to open a combination fish store and haberdashery in their playroom today, with the anticipation of changing the world through their professional passions tomorrow.

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Opinion Editorials

20 bullsh*t buzzwords that should be banned from tech forever

(OPINION) As the language of tech ebbs and flows, there are linguistic potholes so over-used, so annoying, they make you want to scream. Here’s 20 of the worst offenders.

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There’s specific lingo in any industry. Buzzwords, if you will. Get a group of friends who work together for beers after clocking out, and chances are you’ll get lost quickly once they start trading war stories – outsiders beware.

But, there’s one community who puts even nurses (marry a nurse, and you’ll learn what prophylaxis means) to shame with insider speak and bullshit buzzwords: the tech community.

Tech folks are like business and marketing people but mutated. There’s so much free-flowing jargon that goes unchecked and evolves a la Origin of The Species within days. The words and phrases become gospel and, before you know it, people are sharing these nonsense phrases that become the industry norm, leaving anyone on the outside scratching their heads, trying to decipher the tech code.

But, as the language of tech ebbs and flows, there are linguistic potholes so over-used, so annoying, they make you want to scream. There are words used so out of context that make you want to turn them into a snarky meme and pass it around the office because you’re a jerk like that. (Well, I’m at least a jerk like that.)

These are some of those words.

The words that need to die a horrible, 24 hour, “what does it all mean” death.

Words that should be locked away in a prison so vile Charles Manson would be like, “Nah, bro. I’m good.”

Please don’t use these words in your marketing, pitch meetings, or just ever. They suck.Click To Tweet

Strap in and lock it down, here we go:

1. Sync
Can’t we just say “everyone knows what’s going on” instead of sync? This is one of those metaphors alluding to tech as melded with the products and culture, serving as interchangeable. We’re people, not iPhones to be plugged into our laptops. We don’t need to sync. We can meet up.

2. Robust
Robust is coffee, a strong tea you imported from India. It’s not a tech software experience. A can of Folgers can claim to be robust, your project tool cannot share this claim.

3. Pain point
Are we still using this one? A pain point is an elbow that’s got an owie, not what a customer thinks sucks.

4. Delight
I’m delighted to eat an excellent meal or get an unexpected call from an old friend. I’m delighted to leave work early to have drinks. I’m not delighted to use enterprise software. Sure, it makes my day easier. Does it offer a view of heaven when I can use self-service? I think not.

5. Disrupt
One of the godzillas of Jargon Mountain. I get that this worked in context a few years ago. But, now? You’re not “the Uber of…” and you’re not “disrupting” anything.

You built a parking app, Pat. You didn’t change the world.

If you dethrone Facebook, you’ve disrupted the world. ‘Til then, keep your pants on. Your algorithm for the best pizza place in town ain’t changing the block, let alone the face of communication.

6. Game changer & Change agent
Does anyone buy into this one? Was the game changed? This goes in the bin with “Disrupt.”

7. Bleeding Edge
Some jerk in some office decided “the cutting edge” wasn’t enough. It wasn’t hyper progressive enough, so they labeled their work the “bleeding edge”.

If this phrase were any more douchey, it would have a neck beard and a fedora and argue the tenants of socialism on IRC with strangers while sipping Mountain Dew.

8. Dog food
Who came up with this? When did a beta test get labeled as “dog food” I’m still lost on how this one became the industry standard. “We’re eating our own dog food.” This doesn’t even make a lick of sense, people. Just say we’re testing something. It’s a lot easier.

9. Alignment
What happened to just saying you agree? I thought alignment was for tires, not for working. I’ll give you parallel, but alignment? Not buying it.

10. Pivot
Pivot is just a fancy, non-finger point-y way of saying change. And typically, that change is reacting to something not going the company’s way. “Pivoting” means reacting to bad news or undesired outcome and making everyone involved feel smarter about the process.

11. Revolutionary
Unless you’ve built software that cures cancer, does something better than Elon Musk, or gets you laid faster than Tinder, you’re not revolutionary. You’re an element of evolution in a steadily progressing world.

12. Internet of Things
I still don’t even know what the hell this means. Really. It’s one of those phrases people use and pretend to know but really don’t.

13. Bandwidth
I thought bandwidth was Internet stuff, not how busy you are at work. Can’t we say, “if you’re not too busy,” instead of, “if you have the bandwidth,”..?? These are people, not routers.

14. Low-hanging fruit
You mean the easy work? “Easy win” even applies here. But the whole gardening metaphor is tired. It’s ok to say, “Do the easy work first” in a meeting. Hiding behind a metaphorical phrase doesn’t make the work any less important.

15. Deliverables
Do we need to break everything down into words to make the process more complicated? Aren’t deliverables, just work? It’s an adjective to describe what work you’re completing… so… it’s just work. Throw in a “key, ” and you’re jargon-y as all get out.

16. Circle Back
Translation: I don’t want to continue talking about this right now, so I’m going to schedule more pointless meetings to discuss this thing I don’t understand and don’t want to talk about in a few days. Likely, scheduled on your lunch break.

17. Action item
What happened to the good ole’ “to do List”? Instead, we’ve got “action item”. You come out of a meeting with a sore ass. The boss pounds on your for the stuff you need to do. You’re up to your ears in homework, yet, it’s not work you need to do – it’s “action items, to be delivered upon.” WHAT THE HELL DOES THIS EVEN MEAN?

18. Take it offline
If there was ever painful corporate-speak, this one is a granddaddy. Instead of burning minutes in a meeting, someone will announce, “let’s take it offline.” Always happens. What about, “let’s talk about this face to face,” or “I’ll swing by your desk”, or “let’s figure this out.”

We appreciate you not annoying the rest of us with your A+B problem, but we’re not all living in the matrix. Or, at least we think we’re not.

19. Buy-in
Committing to something – a culture, an idea, a feeling. We’re equating life to a poker game and expecting everyone to get the idea, too. So lame.

20. Rockstar – Ninja – Wizard – whatever descriptive verb
This one. Holy horse crap. Can we PLEASE STOP with trying to slap a descriptive label on good work? I get it. You want to exclaim your person is a badass, and they’ve got chops. But this labeling of people in fantastical ways just sucks. When did the craft of a ninja, or the fantastical abilities of a wizard relate to code? And the rockstar thing?

Dudes, you’re not Keith Richards, you wear a startup hoodie and complain when you’re not getting free lunch at work.

Also, these names suck because they imply some male-dominance-cum-brogrammer mentality. They’re shadowy ciphers that are such machismo, it’ll barf up a steak. When a woman gets labeled a “ninja” it’s in an entirely different context, and that’s not cool. Writers have to get creative and use terms like “acrobat” or “juggler” to give off a sentiment of equal playing field, and it’s obnoxious. Just stop with these lame titles.

And there you have it. 20 bullshit buzzwords that should be banned forever and ever. Comment away, and add the jargon you loathe in the comments section. If it goes well, maybe they’ll ask me to write a part two, and we’ll make even more people mad.

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Opinion Editorials

How to crush your next remote job interview

(OPINION EDITORIAL) Working remotely is becoming more and more popular. Learn how to excel during a remote job interview.

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As the career landscape continues to change, so does the way in which we interview. With an increase in remote workers, there is also an increase in video interviews.

What immediately comes to mind for me was three years ago when I had a video interview with the fabulous COO of The American Genius. Since the company is based out of Austin, and I’m in Chicago, we had a video chat to see if I’d be a good fit for the company.

While it took some of the pressure off being able to be in my own home for the interview, there was definitely the con of…being in my own home for the interview. Fear of any noise or interruption posed as a slight distraction.

Like an in person interview, there are some pressures that go along with a video interview. The main one being that you need to sell yourself as an extremely responsible individual who can handle the freedoms and rigors of remote work.

Employers are looking for accountability in their remote workers. You must be able to execute your tasks in with a heightened amount of self-discipline.

This can be done through use of time trackers and proactive reporting. Keeping track of each task you do, and the time spent doing it, will provide something tangible for your employer. Be sure to explain during the interview that this is something you will provide to the employer.

Next, because there is a change in environment, and arguably a change in responsibility level, the questions asked during the interview may be different from your standard interview.

A few questions that may pop up to keep in mind: what hours will you be working? What is your remote experience like? Is this something you’re seeking for supplemental work, or trying to do full-time? What is your home workspace like? What tools do you use to keep yourself on task? What is your preferred method of payment?

In turn, there are some questions you should be prepared to ask, as in any other interview. For example: What would a typical day look like if we were working together in-house? Do you offer advancement opportunities? How many of your team members work remotely and how do we all stay in contact?

Working remotely can be a whole different beast in terms of proving yourself to your employer. Having yourself fully prepared for an interview can help start you off on the right foot.

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