While the center remains closed and programming has shifted online, the Film/Video Studio residency program has made its own transition to a different way of working with many of the artists and filmmakers who were on our spring schedule.
When I look back to those early days of the shutdown, I remember a little bit of chaos and great deal of uncertainty, but I also remember an almost immediate agreement within our department (which includes editors Paul Hill and Alexis McCrimmon) that we could continue supporting artists by working with them remotely. At least, we would try. We (very gently) piled all the computers, monitors, hard drives, and cables into the back of my car and Paul and Alexis proceeded to set up studios in their respective homes.
The transition hasn’t been without hiccups or frustrations and we’re working at a much slower pace but, since the university and the Wex shut down in March, we have pretty seamlessly continued our support of artists and filmmakers who are still very eager to finish their work. As is typical in the Studio, the mix of projects is varied and includes everything from multichannel installations to experimental documentaries made by artists living in Columbus, Yellow Springs, Oakland, New York, and Pittsburgh.
One project that was originally scheduled to wrap post production in early March is A PLACE TO BREATHE, a documentary by Bay area filmmaker Michelle Grace Steinberg that explores trauma and resilience through the experiences of immigrant and refugee patients and healthcare practitioners. The film was scheduled to premiere last month at SFDocFest, but the festival was postponed and new dates and details still haven’t been released. The sense of limbo Steinberg is experiencing is shared by countless filmmakers anticipating premieres at spring and summer festivals, and it extends to filmmakers who are aiming for winter 2021 festival premieres, too. The persistent uncertainty is admittedly exhausting to navigate but, in the Studio, it’s countered by a deep sense of certainty in our mission and in the work of the artists we support.
As Michelle awaits a premiere for A Place to Breathe, she and the film's other producer, Robyn Bykofsky, have organized an event on July 25 at 7 PM EDT/4 PM PDT that will feature a conversation around some of the issues in her film as well as a screening of the trailer. In anticipation of that event, she took time to discuss the film and some of the challenges of working during this time.
You made this film from the very unique position as a healthcare practitioner at a clinic in Oakland, California, which is one of the clinics profiled in the film. Can you talk a bit about the genesis of this project? What are some of the ways that your position as a healthcare practitioner influenced your approach to the characters and the subject of the film? In turn, what were some of the challenges of balancing your role as healthcare practitioner and filmmaker?
First, thank you for doing this interview and for all of the support that the Wexner Center for the Arts has offered us on A Place to Breathe. In a precise sense, the idea for the film emerged when I came across a Public Radio International story in 2016 on the Metta Health Center, the refugee-focused branch of Lowell Community Health Center, discussing the inspiring model of culturally responsive care that they provide to immigrant communities in Massachusetts under the leadership of Sonith Peou. In a more general sense, this project was percolating in me for many years prior to that. My life and time are split equally between filmmaking and healthcare provision. As a nutritionist and herbalist at Street Level Health Project in Oakland, I have spent more than a decade providing free integrative healthcare to immigrant communities and have seen firsthand the benefits of wellness approaches that center the whole person, taking into account both one’s cultural and structural needs. Likewise, the powerful work of my colleagues, who have themselves experienced many of the same situations as our patients, and their journeys to heal themselves by supporting their communities is incredibly inspiring.
Being in the room with people choosing to share their trauma and vulnerabilities, while striving to make changes in their lives, opens up a new world to those who have the privilege of assisting in that process. The interaction is a partnership; one that creates the deepest type of empathy. It is our hope that by allowing a glimpse of this experience in A Place to Breathe, we can perhaps move the world in a more compassionate direction. Our vision for the film speaks to the transformations needed in both healthcare and immigration policy, even more resonant during this COVID-19 crisis in which the communities featured have been disproportionately impacted. But we hope that it can also grow our capacity as human beings to truly value and learn from cross-cultural interactions. To harness the creativity and power of cinema to this end felt like the perfect fit and an ideal challenge for the medium.
Our model of filmmaking involves a collaborative process in which we feel deeply accountable to those who share their stories. In this case, those people were often my patients and colleagues. This definitely increased the stakes for me personally and at times it was challenging to navigate the crossover between what had previously been two separate worlds of healthcare provision and filmmaking. Yet I think this overlap ultimately positioned us to engage extremely sensitive and complex subject matter with a deep level of respect and commitment to the impact of the filmmaking process. At least I very much hope that is the case.
One of the most striking themes of the film is the cyclical nature of care within these two communities. Individuals who participate as patients in these systems move on to pursue careers as caregivers/practitioners themselves. Everyone’s story of trauma is totally unique but their paths to healing converge and bring them together in ways that really underscore the importance of building community. Could you talk about how those cycles were fostered and share your thoughts on the importance of community in wellness, health and healing?
Throughout A PLACE TO BREATHE, we draw parallels between the protagonists’ stories across the two health centers and cities over the course of approximately two years. As their arcs unfold, a common thread emerges in the desire to heal their own trauma through helping their communities. The film illustrates how these pathways to wellness simultaneously lead to community and self-empowerment. Each person’s story arc falls at a different stage in the cyclical nature of the healing process including trauma (experience prior to leaving their country of origin, as well as in the U.S.), transition (both the physical journey to safety and adjustment in a new society), education (whether learning English or healthcare skills), and implementation (as they begin working in their communities). These stages constantly overlap, and rather than linear, often have a cyclical nature for both the individual and the community.
In the US, as filmmakers, we often feel pressure for storytelling to conform exclusively to the journey of the individual. However, in many societies, the experience of the individual cannot be extricated from that of the collective. Both in our last film, Beyond Recognition (2014), working with the Ohlone Indigenous community, and in A Place to Breathe, where we had the honor of working with Cambodian, Congolese, Guatemalan, Mexican, and Uruguayan protagonists, this commitment to the community as a whole is a critical part of people’s stories.
I notice the same tendency in many Western healthcare contexts, an attempt to extract the individual in a way that fails to address the healing nature of her/his/their community. This is what makes the models of both of these health centers unique. In these spaces, the role of the community health worker is key and it is imperative that these dedicated healers be recognized for the deep knowledge that they bring to health settings via their relationship with their own communities—not only as lay health workers or interpreters, but as the bearers of cultural wisdom. Likewise, it is crucial that people have opportunities to become providers—whether doctors, nurses, social workers, acupuncturists, etc.—in their own communities, where their shared experiences can create the type of connection and understanding with their patients that it is crucial to healing. They are also in a unique position to collaborate on treatment plans that value communities’ traditional healing practices. This process is profoundly reciprocal, as we see in the film, as both patient and practitioner grow through the engagement. However, it can also be uniquely challenging, as we learn through Norma Calmo and Yania Escobar, since that level of connection can sometimes trigger trauma in the healer. It is imperative that there are mechanisms of support for what practitioners experience from that side of the interaction as well. These are all considerations that we hope the film will highlight for audiences, whether the general public, medical institutions, or policy makers.
A very distinctive feature of the film is the use of animation. Each of the characters in the film share very personal stories of past trauma and you present those stories very sensitively and respectfully through animated sequences. How did you arrive at this strategy and, in turn, what was your process of working with animators?
It became clear fairly early in the editing process that we needed to designate a separate space to hold the memories of home, including many traumatic experiences that the protagonists carry with them. In part, it did not feel right to have people on camera while describing some of their most personal, painful moments as we wanted to create some privacy even as they reveal these parts of themselves. For the viewer, we also wanted to build a connection to the sights and sounds of these visceral experiences that was potentially truncated in exclusively verbal storytelling. Animation seemed to offer us the most latitude for this purpose, allowing us to develop symbolic connections and atmosphere, as well as capture the fragmented nature of memory.
This became an extremely collaborative process between myself as the primary editor, Robyn, my co-producer, and the two brilliant animators who joined us (after several rounds of trial and error with other artists, who each helped us grow our vision). An animated short film from Iran called The Tree provided some initial inspiration as we love how they split the screen to provide glimpses of multiple perspectives simultaneously. Due to our budget and timeline, it was necessary to have two artists who could work on different stories concurrently. We are so grateful for the incredible talent and patience of Héloïse Dorsan Rachet (who did the Kalambayi’s and Norma Calmo’s stories) and Anna Benner (who did Socheat Chan’s parents’ story). They had never worked together previously. Anna is based in Berlin and Héloïse is in Paris, so even pre-COVID, we were all collaborating remotely.
Together, we selected individualized color palettes and culturally relevant elements unique to each of the three stories, while they developed a joint approach to the use of symbolism and the split and black screen spaces. In addition, our composer, Elton Bradman, provided the soundscapes that brought these sections to life. This process ultimately fostered the creation of three animations that we hope respect the uniqueness of each story and culture, while sharing an aesthetic continuity that holds the universality of trauma and migrant experiences. A critical point in the process was bringing the original scripts, storyboards, and character drawings to each of the protagonists to sign off on in advance. It would have been inconceivable for us to try to depict these moments without the assurance that the individuals who experienced them felt resonance in the style and approach. That layer of accountability to those who share their stories permeates the entire documentary process for me and I would love to see more discussion of that imperative in artistic circles.