Camera Activists

By William Watterson '15 / July/August 2016
July 7th, 2016

Betsy West ’73, a professor of journalism at Columbia and the moderator of “Getting Reel: Brown Women in Documentary Film,” emphasized that all four women sharing the stage with her on the Saturday of Commencement weekend were drawn to filmmaking by passion. 

They “weren’t learning how to shoot on College Hill,” she said, “but instead had a passion that drove them to pick up the camera.” All four filmmakers agreed that they were not just journalists but activists telling the stories that need to be heard.

Marcela Gaviria ’91 screened an excerpt from Chasing Heroin, her documentary about a young girl named Christina telling her story of addiction. Gaviria has been making films since 1994 for the PBS series Frontline, which has aired more than twenty of them. Gaviria’s father handed her a camera at graduation, and, although she fell in love with it, she didn’t know how to start a film career. Her opportunity came when Frontline decided to do a story on a drug lord from Gaviria’s native Colombia. She asked Frontline for “five days to prove why they should hire her.”

While concentrating in women’s studies as an undergraduate, Rory Kennedy ’91 confronted the issue of young mothers struggling with addiction. She bought a camera and made a documentary called Women of Substance. Her latest film, The Last Days of Vietnam, was nominated for an Academy Award last year and focuses on the dilemma faced by U.S. military personnel and diplomats who were trying to evacuate as many South Vietnamese as possible while trying to save themselves and their own families as the North Vietnamese approached Saigon.

Alison Klayman ’06, whose Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry showed the life of an artist taking a stand, studied history at Brown. But it was her passion for women’s activism that led to a Starr Fellowship, which allowed her to create her first documentary, about women’s activism at Brown. Later, her work in journalism and film took her to China and eventually Ai Weiwei, her first major success. 

Debbie Lum ’91 said that a semiotics class at Brown steered her into film. She dreamed of making documentaries that told the stories of underrepresented communities and found work as a film editor in New York City. She drew uncomfortable laughs at the forum when she described her filmmaking adventure with Seeking Asian Female, which tells the story of Steven, an aging white man with “yellow fever”: an obsession with marrying an Asian woman.

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July/August 2016