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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.

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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

Study says women need to be seen as “warm” to be considered confident

(EDITORIAL) A new study reveals that despite progress, women are still successful when they fall into a stereotype. Let’s discuss.

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About 15 years ago, I took a part-time job in a mental health clinic handling bookkeeping and billing. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I attacked the job with what I felt was confidence. For the first few days, I simply felt as if I was an imposter. I kept asking questions and pushing forward, even though I didn’t make much progress. Within just a few days, I felt the hostility of the office manager.

It got progressively worse, and I couldn’t figure out what the heck I’d done to make her so confrontational with me. I thought I was pleasant and respectful of her position, and I was getting along with the other employees. When I talked to our boss, I was told that I intimidated the office manager. HUH? Me? Intimidating? I was a complete mess at the time. I could barely put together a business casual wardrobe. My emotional health was so fragile that I rarely went anywhere new. And she found me intimidating?

Researchers have been studying how people judge others. Susan Fiske, researcher out of Princeton, found that competence and warmth are two of the dimensions used to judge others. Based on that research, Laura Guillén, Margarita Mayo, and Natalia Karelaia studied the competence and warmth at a software company with 236 engineers.  Guillén and her team collected data at two separate times about these engineers and their confidence and influence within the organization.

They found that “men are seen as confident if they are seen as competent, but women are seen as confident only if they come across as both competent and warm.

Women must be seen as warm in order to capitalize on their competence and be seen as confident and influential at work; competent men are seen as confident and influential whether they are warm or not.”

We encourage women to be confident, but based on current research, it may not be enough to close the gender gap in the workplace. A woman must be seen as helpful and dedicated to others to have the same influence as a man. As a woman, it’s easy to be seen as the #bossbitch when you have to make tough decisions. Those same decisions, when made by a man might be considered just “business as normal.”

I guess the lesson is that women still have to work twice as hard as men just to be seen as equals. I know that I have to work on empathy when I’m in an office environment. That office manager isn’t the only person who has thought I’m intimidating. I’ve heard it from it others, but you know what?  As a self-employed writer, I’d rather be seen as undeterred and daunting than submissive and meek.

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Opinion Editorials

“Starting a business is easy,” said only one guy ever

(OPNION EDITORIAL) Between following rules, finding funding, and gathering research, no business succeeds without lifting a finger.

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While browsing business articles this week, I came across this one, “Top 10 Business Ideas You Can Start for Free With Barely Lifting a Finger.” These types of articles make me mad. I can’t think of many successful freelancers or entrepreneurs who don’t put in hours of blood, sweat and tears to get a business going.

The author of the article is Murray Newlands, a “VIP Contributor.” Essentially, he’s a freelancer because he also contributes to Forbes, HuffPro and others. He’s the founder of ChattyPeople.com, which is important, because it’s the first business idea he promotes in the article.

But when I pull up his other articles on Entrepreneur.com, I see others like “How to Get Famous and Make Money on YouTube,” “Win Like A Targaryen: 10 Businesses You Can Start for Free,” and “10 Ventures Young Entrepreneurs Can Start for Cheap or Free.”

I seriously cannot believe that Entrepreneur.com keeps paying for the same ideas over and over.

The business ideas that are suggested are pretty varied. One suggestion is to offer online classes. I wonder if Newlands considered how long it takes to put together a worthy curriculum and how much effort goes into marketing said course.

Then, you have to work out the bugs, because users will have problems. How do you keep someone from stealing your work? What happens when you have a dispute?

Newlands suggests that you could start a blog. It’s pretty competitive these days. The most successful bloggers are ones that really work on their blog, every day. The bloggers have a brand, offer relevant content and are ethical in how they get traffic.

Think it’s easy? Better try again.

I could go on. Every idea he puts up there is a decent idea, but if he thinks it will increase your bottom line without a lot of hard work and effort, he’s delusional.

Today’s entrepreneurs need a plan. They need to work that plan, rethink it and keep working. They have to worry about liability, marketing and keeping up with technologies.

Being an entrepreneur is rewarding, but it’s hard work. It is incredibly inappropriate and grossly negligent to encourage someone to risk everything they have and are on the premise of not lifting a finger.

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Opinion Editorials

New age stranger danger: teaching kids about AI

(OPINION EDITORIAL) The world is changing and so is technology. As tech changes so must we, in teaching kids about the dangers about AI.

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When I was younger, when my siblings and I would come home from school, we were required to nourish our minds for an hour (study, homework, read, do math practice, whatever we were feeling that day) and then we were banished from the house until dinner.

We had to go outside and create our own fun. We rode bikes to friends houses, we went “fishing” in the creek, sometimes before we left the house we’d search the couch for loose change and go to our favorite corner store and share a bag of skittles.

Our neighborhood was a safe one — it was one of those ideal 90s neighborhoods where our house was seated on the end of a cul-de-sac so there was little traffic and there were enough kids on the street to field two kickball teams.

Each parent on the street was allowed to reprimand us and there were rarely any locked doors. As a 10 year old it felt like ultimate freedom. But, with that freedom came a very important lesson in strangers and what to do if we were ever approached by one.

I’m sure stranger danger is still a thing taught by parents and schools alike but we went from don’t talk to strangers online or get in strangers’ cars to getting online to request a stranger to drive us somewhere.

With the advancement of technology has come a readiness to bring strangers in (/near / to) our homes. The most invitations coming from those personal assistants many homes can’t seem to function without.

Alexa, Google Home, Bixby or whatever assistant you may use are all essentially strangers that you are willingly bringing into your home.

Just yesterday I had a conversation with a college kid that didn’t know that the microphone on those things are always on — as such is true with the Facebook, Instagram and Facebook Messenger apps.

In a recent article from Rachel Botsman (BOTSman, hmmmm), she describes the experience her three year old had with an Alexa.

Over the course of the interactions, her daughter asks the bot a few silly questions, requests a few items to be bought, asks Alexa a few opinions, she ultimately sums up her daughter’s experience as saying, “Today, we are no longer trusting machines just to do something, but to decide what to do and when to do it. The next generation will grow up in an age where it is normal to be surrounded by autonomous agents, with or without cute names.”

I’m not a mother and I’m definitely old enough to be extremely skeptical of machines (iRobot anyone?) but the effects smart bots will undoubtedly have on future generations have me genuinely concerned. Right now it seems as harmless as asking those assistants to order more toilet paper, or to check the weather or to see which movies are screening but what will it become in the future?

A MIT experiment cited in the Botsman article 27 children, aged between three and 10, interacted with Alexa, Google Home, Julie (a chatbot) and, finally, Cozmo (a robot in the form of a toy bulldozer), which are all AI devices/ toys.

The study concluded that almost 80 per cent of the children thought that Alexa would always tell the truth.

Let me repeat that — 80 PERCENT OF THE KIDS BELIEVE THAT THE AIS, CREATED BY COMPANIES WHO WANT TO SELL PRODUCTS, WILL ALWAYS TELL THE TRUTH.

The study went on to conclude that some of the children believed they could teach the devices something useful, like how to make a paper plane, suggesting they felt a genuine, give-and-take relationship with the machines.

All of these conclusions beg the question, how can we teach kids (and some adults if we’re being honest) about security and privacy in regards to new technology? How do we teach kids about commercialism and that as innocent as they may seem, not every device was designed altruistically?

We are quickly approaching an age where the strangers we introduce our kids to aren’t the lurkers in the park with the missing dog or the candy in the van, but rather, a robot voice that can tell a joke and give you the weather and order +$70M worth of miscellaneous stuff.

So now, it’s on us. Children of our own or not, we have to start thinking about best practices when it comes to teaching children about the appropriate time to trust in a computer. If the 5 year olds with smart devices are any indicator, teaching kids to be stingy with their trust in AIs will be an uphill battle.

This story was first published here in October of 2017.

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