Through June 12th, Brooklyn Film Festival celebrates the borough’s community of independent documentary filmmakers. The festival’s theme for 2016 is ‘Experiment,’ which BFF defines as, “…reinventing ourselves, allowing the unknown, and paying attention to the youngest storytellers.”
Be sure not to miss the BFF Exchange, where Aubrey Gallegos, Community Engagement and Education Director at POV, will be a panelist for the Documentary Film Pitch Session. The BFF Exchange brings Brooklyn’s filmmakers together for a day of panels, pitch sessions and networking – Exchange projects have gone on to premiere at the BFF, as well as HotDocs, SXSW and Tribeca.
In this interview with BFF’s Feature Length Documentary Programmer Julie Bridgham, she discusses the social impact of documentary film, what drew her to documentary film as a medium, and what we can look forward to at this year’s festival.
POV: Before becoming a documentary filmmaker, you were working at a human rights organization. What led you to change course? Do your experiences before becoming a filmmaker impact your approach?
Julie Bridgham: I have always been interested in the impact storytelling can have on understanding someone’s truth and point of view. I worked for a human rights organization in Bolivia in the 90’s, focusing on human rights issues of coca grows and I encountered numerous incredibly powerful stories in the process. I had always loved film, and I realized that telling these stories through film could provide a broader impact than just a report or article alone, and that film allows you to savor the nuances of someone’s life and can provide a greater insight into understanding them. We all have our own different points of view, and I love how in film we are able to enter into someone’s world that can have a completely different perspective on the same issue. We may not agree with it, but through film we have the possibility to understand someone else’s perspective better.
POV: What do you believe is the role of documentary film in creating social change?
Julie Bridgham: Through documentary film, we can help build empathy or understanding on a different subject matter, or individual that we may not have previously understood. If we can begin to understand one another and feel a connection, we begin to care. Once you care about something, you are inspired and motivated into action. That is where documentary film can have a significant impact in raising social consciousness and inspire social activism.
POV: Your current project focuses on women migrant workers from Nepal. What inspires you to investigate that subject through documentary film?
Bridgham: I am currently directing a film looking at risks and safe practices for Nepali women that are planning to migrate to the Gulf countries to work as domestic workers. There are increasing numbers of women that are leaving Nepal every year to find work abroad, and this film is being made for the women themselves who are planning to migrate. I am inspired to tell the story through film because it’s an incredible tool for these women to be able to see fellow Nepali women who have already gone through this experience and to learn from their experiences. Their stories become both real and relatable through the medium of film, and we are able to reach a much wider audience of women through film than we would through another medium.
POV: In another interview about The Sari Soldiers, you talked about the importance of giving women a platform and voice through your film. What effect do you hope your work will have by centering women’s experiences?
Bridgham: I think it is so important that we continue to get stories told that represent voices that are not being told in the mainstream press or in traditional programming which often tends to be limited in the points of views and perspectives represented. Women’s stories are too often placed within narrow confines of how women are represented, and it is critically important that this narrative continue to expand and be redefined to encompass the multitude of women’s experiences that exist.
In my film, The Sari Soldiers, I wanted to tell the story of women who were at the forefront of a civil war in a very patriarchal society and yet shaping their society in transformative ways. I wanted to reveal the complexities that conflict has on women, and how women can be incredible agents of change in revolution and public society, but sometimes in ways very unique from men’s experiences. In the film, two of the women that became incredibly powerful in their communities and in Nepal, Devi Sunwar and Krishna Shah, were mothers that were driven to take bold action when their children were adversely affected by the civil war, and they felt a strong duty to step up and become leaders in their communities. The other women featured were a Maoist rebel leader and an Army officer (on opposing sides of the war), a human rights lawyer, and a student political activist. When we showed the film throughout the country, both men and women were able to acknowledge that women really had an important role in changing the dynamic of the country. Young women said, “Thank you for showing that women can be powerful.” These women are not anomalies, but these stories are not being highlighted enough, and the dialogue needs to continue.
POV: You have created several documentaries which expose social issues in Nepal. How did you initially become interested in Nepal, and what continues to draw you to Nepal as a subject matter?
Bridgham: My elementary school principal lived in Nepal for many years, and frequently shared her stories with us (the students), and it planted the seed of interest in my mind from an early age. I first traveled there in the 90s and then lived there off and on for many years (from 2000-2007) where I had the chance to direct and produce several short films for organizations and the feature The Sari Soldiers which took three years to make. It’s such a complex country on so many levels—both in terms of its ethnic and cultural heritage, its political history, its geographic complexities—the country is continuing to evolve, and yet I think there is so much about Nepal that reveals so many deeper layers of the challenges going on in the world on a micro level. So much is happening right now in Nepal. Unfortunately, Nepal still tends to be known internationally through Mt. Everest, and the reality is that is a very small part of the country. Having lived there for many years and with many close friends there, it really feels like a second home.
POV: The BFF website states that one of its goals is to “draw worldwide attention to Brooklyn as a center for cinema.” What do you think Brooklyn has to offer as a space for advancing public interest in films?
Bridgham: Brooklyn is an epicenter of so many different cultures and is a diverse community that I think translates to the arts as well. It is home to a very strong and vibrant filmmaking community, and I think because of this, has an incredibly rich cinematic connection. I think Brooklyn is able to offer an opportunity for people to see films that represent where film is heading in the years to come, and is home to a community that is experimenting with new forms of storytelling and a more diverse set of viewpoints.
POV: What film are you most proud to have programmed in the festival this year?
Bridgham: I am proud to be screening The If Project—I think it’s a film that can create a tremendous impact in terms of how we understand women’s incarceration issues in our country. The film provides a very moving perspective of several women’s experiences in prison, the role a detective has taken to play a transformative role in these women’s lives, and a unique program that has these women writing about the experiences in their life that lead them to where they are today. The impact of having someone say, “I care about who you are, your story matters, and I want to hear your story,” can never be underestimated.
See the full schedule and purchase tickets for the Brooklyn Film Festival at brooklynfilmfestival.org.