Filmmaker Stephanie Wang-Breal discusses the making of the film, Tough Love.
POV: Can you give us a thumbnail synopsis of what the film is about?
Stephanie Wang-Breal: Tough Love takes you into the child welfare system has you had mentioned, through the parents' experience. We follow a mother, a young Bangladeshi mother in New York City. Her name is Hasnah Siddique, Hannah Siddique and her experience as she tries to get her two kids back home and as she tries to make sure that her unborn child, she's seven months pregnant at the time that we start filming, is not, does not enter foster care as well.
And then across the coast we got to Seattle where we follow Patrick Brown, a single white father, as he tries to prove to the courts that he deserves a second chance to be a father to his young daughter, his young three year-old daughter, Natalya.
POV: In selecting Hannah and Patrick as people to follow, were there other people you were also looking at, at the same time?
Stephanie Wang-Breal: One of the most challenging things about making a film about parents who have open child welfare cases — you don't know how it's going to end. One day you think everything is going very well, and then the next day something happens in their life that is so unpredictable that makes them re-think whether or not they want to be part of this project, because they made a mistake, or they you know, had a car accident. Just some life thing happened to them. So you know, I had many parents that I was filming because I didn't know where their stories were going to go and who was going to actually let me continue filming them throughout the entirety of their case. And it wasn't, as much as I would like to say that I chose Patrick and Hannah, they also allowed me to continue filming them through their ups and their downs. And continued throughout the project. So at the end it was them who really gave me the access that I needed to go through to the end and really give people real lens into what the life of a case looks like, which is what I really wanted to do.
POV: And how long did you follow the two stories?
Stephanie Wang-Breal: I followed Hannah's story for three years, and I followed Patrick's story for two and a half years.
POV: Can you talk about why [you chose] New York and Seattle? How did you identify particular people to follow within those two cities.
Stephanie Wang-Breal: So it had to happen in New York cause this is where I'm based, and this is where I could just constantly just continue developing and researching this project. And what was great was I was able to find a home at the Child Welfare Organizing Project in East Harlem, New York, where they have a weekly parent support group, every Wednesday, from 11:30 to 1:00 where parents can come who have an open case and get advice from other parents who have had previous cases with the system and who've successfully reunited their families. And that's where I met Hasnah Siddique for the very first time. So that's New York. And then through the Child Welfare Organizing Project I also met a social worker from Seattle who was visiting. So she told me, why don't you come to see what it's like in Seattle, it's very different, but it could be interesting. And I decided to take her up on that offer and when I went over there she introduced me to all these judges who then told me, when I told them about this project and what I'm trying to do, they told me they'd be very happy to help me get the necessary permits to film in their courtrooms, which I had never heard of, you know when I was trying to film in New York City. I tried to get access to courts. I tried to get access to lawyers. I tried to get access to social workers. And everyone was very risk averse.
POV: Can you talk a little bit about the access that you secured in Seattle versus the access that you were not able to secure in New York?
Stephanie Wang-Breal: I didn't even need to send more than one or two emails to these judges and I had meetings with them. I sat down with them, told them about what I'm trying to do, and they were very excited about it. In fact, Judge Clark, who in the film told me at the very beginning, I have nothing to hide, bring your cameras into my courtroom. I'd gladly love to share with the world what's going on with these families, you know. And I think that whole mentality was so different than everyone that I tried to work with in New York, trying to get access. You know months of emails, back and forth. And then finally at the end, the answer was no. I finally, once I got access to the Seattle, then the ACS commissioner agreed to do a sit-down interview with me, cause I told him, look at what I'm going to be showing in Seattle.
POV: They weren't easy on Patrick and some of the challenges he was facing. But they weren't entirely dismissive of him either. There was a relationship there and they were trying to advance him through the process rather than just setting up roadblocks and hurdles.
Stephanie Wang-Breal: Yeah. One parent in New York City who saw the film who writes for Rise Magazine, after she saw the — she was crying at the end of the film. She said, you know, I can't believe the judge told Patrick that she's so proud of him. She said, my judge never said that to me. All my judge did was tell me what I was doing wrong and how I needed to do better. You know she was like, that just made me so sad and happy at the same time. She said, if I would have just heard one positive thing from my judge that would have changed so much of my outlook on myself. Cause you know parents come into the courtroom defeated. They know they've messed up. They know they've put a lot at stake and they're jeopardizing a lot of things for their kids. And that they got themselves into this mess. That's what they feel like when they're standing in front of the judge.
POV: In your previous film Wo Ai Ni Mommy and again in this film, you are meeting people at very vulnerable transition points in their lives. And that's an incredibly fraught place for someone to give you access. How do you approach people, how do you explain what it is that you are interested in doing. What kind of investment do you make to win their trust?
Stephanie Wang-Breal: I mean one, one great thing about having Wo Ai Ni Mommy was it became my calling card, not just for the parents, but also for foster care agencies and social workers, so they could see what kind of work and what kind of style my films are, and I really do try to not just make an exploitative piece about families, but really become part of a family when I make my films.
POV: I'm curious, as a mother of two young children, watching Patrick and Philly and what they've gone through, has this changed your perspective on parenthood or informed it in some way?
Stephanie Wang-Breal: You're constantly reflecting upon how lucky you are, that you're a certain color, that you come from a certain class, that you have been raised in a certain environment and how just I take for granted so many things that me and my family are just...have, we just are given. We're not being judged constantly. And when we are being judged, I can just imagine what that judgment must feel like when you're coming from a different neighborhood or when you're a different color. The majority of child welfare cases are blacks and Latinos in America. And I filmed many African American families but they did not want me coming into their home. And I totally respected their decision. And I ended up with a Bangladeshi woman and a single white father. So they don't represent the majority of the cases in America, but I do think that they were able to offer a window into the system that people were... people might not have expected I think.
POV: I want to talk a little bit about the child welfare system. Once you're in that system and the child is in foster care, what's the process?
Stephanie Wang-Breal: So one thing that I've learned about, through making Tough Love, about the child welfare system, individual players really matter. The judge really matters. The lawyer really matters. The CPS worker really matters. When you have all of those three people who really care, and who really are trying to make a difference, the whole case is different.
POV: Do the parents have access to attorneys?
Stephanie Wang-Breal: Not all states do parents have access to institutional representation. In New York, Hannah was not represented by public defenders. She was represented by a court appointed attorney. Whereas her ex-boyfriend did get a public defender. So each county in New York City has one public defender agency. And if you enter the system, it's sort of just a total gamble where your dossier ends up. He got Brooklyn Family Defense Project and she got the court appointed attorney. And I really do think that the lawyer plays a huge role in whether or not a parent is successful in reunifying their families.
POV: There's a moment in Hannah's story, which I always find kind of shocking, where she and her partner Philly have been told to go to a homeless shelter.
Stephanie Wang-Breal: Hannah and Philly got the advice from the CWOP parent advocates because they had seen before that mothers who had open cases and who were pregnant had their kids taken away, their newborns taken away because their housing was insufficient.
POV: Too small?
Stephanie Wang-Breal: Too small. Cause they're already checking in on them. So CWOP advised them to go into a family homeless shelter so that they could not only have room for the baby, but also room for the other two kids so that they could get the other two kids home. The intersection of child welfare cases and homelessness is incredible throughout this country. Homelessness is a huge factor for many families in the system.
When they didn't get a spot in the shelter and the baby was still placed on a petition where ACS was going to supervise their home for six months to make sure that they're being good parents. And just by filing a petition ACS was alleging that Hannah and Philly neglected their child — their newborn baby. And that's something I didn't realize until I showed a cut of the film to some lawyers and they said, yeah, it's... Unless the commissioner calls the judge it is almost 99% likely that a newborn is going to be put under supervision. Even if that family is not neglecting the child.
POV: Once the film is finished, and then it's getting out there into the world — it's going to be on the big screen, it's going to be on television — what's your obligation as a filmmaker to continue your engagement with them as human beings and support them?
Stephanie Wang-Breal: You know for me, Patrick and Hannah gave me a lot. You know they, it's their story at the end of the day. And so I feel like I am part of their families now and that I will continue to help them in any way, shape, or form that I can in the future.
POV: Did you sit down and have private screenings with them?
Stephanie Wang-Breal: Yeah, Hannah and Philly were like that was awesome. Wow. And you know one thing that was really sad was Hannah said, you know I'm so proud of Patrick, he did such a good job. And you know it was a bittersweet moment for her, because you know he was successful and she wasn't. And Patrick was you know, I think he was a little bit flabbergasted by what happened and what we caught. And he said to me, you know you think you forget, but then you see this movie and you know, and like I know I'll never forget.
POV: You've had festival screenings with Hannah and Patrick and Philly?
Stephanie Wang-Breal: When we had our premiere at Full Frame, Hannah and Philly were there and they were really nervous that people weren't going to like them, because of their background, their story, their lives. And they're just used to people just not liking them I think. So at the end, when people, you know when they came up on stage and people gave them a standing ovation and were coming up to them afterwards, talking to them about you know, thank you for sharing this story with us. Thank you for being courageous enough to let you know, Stephanie document this story. You know they felt really, really amazing. It was really great for them. And as for Patrick, he's been a rock star. I mean because he was, his story ended differently, you know on the success note, he's been just really, really enjoying this celebration of what he's been able to accomplish.
POV: And is it getting into social work schools and law schools?
Stephanie Wang-Breal: Yes, we have been working on developing a discussion guide, video modules for lawyers, since we have all this extra footage of the courtroom, as well as video modules for social workers. We're getting invited to attend all these conferences around the United States by judges and mental health workers and lawyers to be a keynote speaker and panelist to talk about sort of what we saw and experienced while making this film. So it's very exciting.
POV: So give us an update on where Patrick, Hannah, and Philly are now.
Stephanie Wang-Breal: So Patrick is living in North Bend, Washington with Natalya. Natalya is in kindergarten. They got her into a great I think Head Start program. And he's still with his girlfriend. And they're you know doing great. He's working a lot. He doesn't have any court services to do or court orders to attend during the middle of the day, so he's been working a lot. And his business is going very well. Hannah and Philly are still living in East New York. And they're still, you know they, they still have baby, Nia. But baby Nia is now in pre-school, but they're still working on you know getting more access to their kids. The kids still live with the ex-boyfriend.
POV: So talk about the aesthetic of this film.
Stephanie Wang-Breal: For this film, one thing that I dictated from the very beginning was I did not want the kids to be filmed face on. I wanted them to be much more abstract, because I didn't know where the case was going. And so I wanted to make sure that if the case did not end successfully and that the kids were adopted or where — whatever ended up being the story, that you know this is a difficult period of time for the children as well. And so they might not want to be remembered for this. So you know it was really interesting for my cinematographer, Nadia Hallgren, she was like you know it's so funny, I've never been told not to film them, but to capture their shadows, capture their, the embraces of their hands or the mother just doing their hair in all these tight shots so that we feel this relationship that's going on, this bond, we don't have to see the children's facial expressions the entire time.
What I hope that audiences take away from Tough Love is this idea that you know we're all imperfect parents, luckily we're all not under the scope of child welfare and what that would feel and look like if you are. And what parents have to go through to show that they really love their kids but you know they're going through a few other things that they don't have perfectly under control, but they will want to get their kids home.