Co-Creative Documentary

City Harvest Documentary: A Collaboration with Digital Editing Students

In 2005, filmmaker Deb Rudman released a film documenting Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s (PHS) City Harvest program.

Through this program, inmates of the Philadelphia Prison System receive training in gardening and basic landscaping along with valuable life-skills. 250,000 seedlings are then transplanted and grown in 140 urban farms and gardens throughout the city, as well as in the prison’s onsite garden.

In 2015, Deb decided to begin shooting new material to commemorate 10 years of growth and to illustrate the remarkable expansion of the City Harvest program throughout Philadelphia, growth that is an inspiring testament to the power of city-wide, nonprofit collaborations; social service support; educational programming and entrepreneurial support.

As part of the Termite TV Collective alongside Debbie, I wanted to support the effort to edit this bounty of material that Debbie was collecting of City Harvest’s expansion. I integrated the project into my Digital Editing course at Georgia State University. Students in the course worked alone or in small teams as assistant editors to log and organize all the material. We held in-depth conversations about the themes of the film; relevant background contexts; and structural options. From these conversations, students developed insightful rough cuts of scenes to which Debbie gave feedback in video chats and Google docs.

One student from this class, Petra Goettel, was then brought on to work over summer 2019 to finish the edits. Petra’s contributions took the film from a collection of tightly-edited scenes to a full film with beginning, middle, and end; thematic throughlines; smooth transitions; and emotionally engaging content.

We are editing this film now and aim for release in January 2020. All participating students will be credited as Assistant Editors.

Co-Creative Documentary

Abuelito Fue Bracero

An ongoing collaboration with immigrant rights organizer in Stockton, California, Luis Magaña, to preserve the stories of Bracero farmworkers in the San Joaquin Delta region while investigating the ways in which Bracero histories inform today’s policies and experiences of immigration.

In 2013, I was living in San Francisco and obsessed with an astounding mural which honored the lives of people who risked or lost their lives crossing the US-Mexico border. In San Francisco’s gluttonous building boom, this mural was being covered brick-by-brick day after day, (re) erasing the stories that the mural had helped bring to light.

My research into the provenance of the mural led me to the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and the youth advocacy group, 67 Sueños (67 Dreams). Together we wanted to preserve the spirit of the mural if not the mural itself, to publicly honor a history of emigration from Central America and Mexico to the US and some of the struggle contained therein.

Our team, which included my filmmaking partner, Andrew Bateman, partnered with Luis Magaña in 2013 on a California Humanities “Community Stories” grant to record video oral histories with Bracero farmworkers living in and near Stockton, California, a port city about 70 miles east of Oakland and deep in the fertile lands of the Central Valley.

Our oral history project resulted in several outcomes. Firstly, the Bracero oral histories were so successfully executed that Luis screens these short films in classroom and community events as a way of demonstrating. Secondly, the youth activist-participants of 67 Sueños received training in media production as they served as production apprentices. The youth also took what they were learning from the oral histories and partnered with a muralist to create a traveling mural, “Abuelito Fue Bracero” (Grandpa was a Bracero) that illustrates Bracero histories and contributions.

“Abuelito Fue Bracero” (Grandpa was a Bracero) Mural produced by 67 Sueños in partnership with Tom Grey Eyes + Pancho Pescador

Between 2013 and 2016, we continued to work with Luis to extend the work and values that undergird the mural: preserving farmworker histories both as a means of honoring the contributions of people whose sacrifices have contributed to the standard of living in this country; while also opening space for dialogue about ways these histories inform, influence and help us make sense of our current moment. This kind of historical context can help to dispel the myth of meritocracy, framing current economic struggles within the broader landscape of US-Mexico relations.

An example of a documentary piece that emerged from our ongoing collaboration follows:

Co-Creative Documentary Non-Profit

Gentrification in Allentown: Collaboration between Documentary Class & Community Partners

Documentary (DOC) 150: Introduction to Documentary Storymaking is the first course in the five-course consortial LVAIC Documentary Minor. In the Fall 2018 section of the course, 16 students enrolled from the three institutions in the consortium: Muhlenberg College, Lehigh University, and Lafayette College.

The students ranged from sophomores to seniors. Some were serious students of media production with plans to complete the Minor in Documentary Storymaking, while others are housed in distant disciplines and are hoping for a fun, (maybe easy) creative elective.

I designed DOC 150 to build on my interests in decolonizing documentary practices and on an earlier community-based documentary production class designed by Aggie, which included a partnership with Allentown nonprofit, Pennsylvanians Organized to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild (POWER) Lehigh Valley (then POWER Northeast).

This year, I partnered DOC 150 with community nonprofit, the Allentown Coalition for Economic Dignity (ACED), a subcommittee of POWER Lehigh Valley. A storytelling partnership with DOC 150 was a mission-fit for ACED. As an organization of researchers, organizers, and educators, ACED aims to ensure that the steps taken to address community development are representative of community desires. ACED does this by creating opportunities for community dialogue, soliciting community input, and delivering that input to city officials to push for strategies and solutions that will serve the community and will address rather than exacerbate racial and economic inequities (ACED, n.d.).

The course’s partnership with ACED was made stronger through the support of a Mellon Community Engagement grant from Muhlenberg College, which allowed for the hiring of a teaching assistant, Drew Swedberg, and classroom support from Assessment and Outreach Librarian at Muhlenberg College, Jess Denke. Jess and Drew are also lead organizers of ACED and thus served as powerful bridges between community and classroom.

Over the course of the semester, DOC 150 became a space through which students could enact documentary principles toward supporting ACED’s work to lift up community voices and inform policy decisions. Students dove into this work with great enthusiasm, even though half the class lived as far away as Easton. We started the semester studying critical pedagogy, documentary histories, documentary authority, and documentary risks. We discussed the differences between a charity and justice framework and analyzed the differences between storytelling that reinforces the myth of the individual and storytelling that instead draws our attention to systems and structures that shape the individual. We guided students in thinking about their own “location” (Coles, 1997) relative to the issues and to the communities with which they would be engaging.

Their first assignments asked students to document each other to practice listening, interviewing, and making story selections. We watched these short, edited profiles as a class so that students could experience and reflect upon how it feels to have one’s story in someone else’s hands and available to the public. Next, students worked in small teams to produce short profiles of a person, organization, or issue that demonstrated the ways in which issues of development were intersecting with their own lives. For example, students made pieces about a nonprofit at which they had volunteered and about the ways that their own universities were gobbling up neighborhoods in expansion efforts. In this way, we were hoping to disrupt the facile documentary impulse to “make a film on/about the ‘others’” (Minh-ha, 1991, p. 60) and, instead, to foster in students a sense of themselves as cohabitants of the same ecosystem with regards to the issues even if affected by the issues differentially.

With a foundation in questions of vulnerability and responsibility, we moved into studying those specific issues facing Allentown’s urban core. In addition to readings, screenings, and conversations with community representatives, students engaged with the issues by way of a video editing exercise. The class’s teaching assistant, Drew, had shot several interviews with community members and organizers in Allentown reflecting on how the City’s development efforts were affecting long-term residents. Students were tasked with editing together interviews with visual material (what is customarily called “BRoll”) into a two to three minute short video that could have a beginning, middle, and end; engage audiences with the issues; and add to the dialogue without reinforcing myths or stereotypes. Students worked in small groups of two or three, each team editing from the same collection of recorded video material. We watched all the edits as a class to understand how the same video can be shaped differently in different hands. Drew and I then selected one version that most successfully met the project criteria to open a public forum hosted by ACED at the public library.

Acclimating to the issues and community perspectives by way of pre-existing / already-shot video material allowed us to work out some of the student’s questions or confusions in the safe space of the classroom, before entering into the community. In editing these interviews, students inquired into the highest priorities for ACED, data and informational contexts for further framing the issues, and relationships between images, interviews, narrative structure, and audience. In one conversation, for example, we wondered what information to include in the videos if the primary audience for the short films were City officials versus community members, two constituencies with different needs and perspectives. Due to the inquiry-based model of classroom discussions and the diligence with which students worked, the winning video that screened at the ACED public event was inspiring and generated robust community dialogue. This helped to reinforce our relationship with ACED, securing their confidence in the students’ thoughtfulness and sensitivity.

For their final projects, students worked in teams of four to pursue stories of relevance to ACED’s efforts. Story possibilities were gathered by Drew, who surveyed community leaders for ideas. Four stories were produced: a profile of an intentional, mixed-income housing community; a profile of ACED itself; a profile of young bikers who enact their freedom and vision for the city through city-wide rides; and a profile of a community activist who aims to protect the social fabric of neighborhoods she has known nearly all her life. Students were guided throughout every step of their process. They did preliminary interviews without cameras in order to gather information and start forming relationships of trust with people who would be featured in their documentaries. They wrote reflections after each conversation or shoot and the course instructors would comment on their reflections and questions. Students also practiced being accountable to each other in that they were responsible for evaluating team members’ participation and contributions.

Due to a grant from the Lehigh Valley Engaged Humanities Consortium (LVEHC), we were able to support a public forum at the end of the fall 2018 semester to include a screening of student works. The December 13th event included a viewing of the four student films, spoken word poetry, step performances, and community testimonials and political action. After each performance or screening, an ACED organizer would introduce an issue or effort, point the audience to a place in the room where they could take an action—sign a petition, register their personal perspective, send a postcard to City Council, etc. It was an evening that brought together a wide array of perspectives, leveraged those perspectives into action, and met ACED’s mission of complicating the stories told about development. City officials, members of the Allentown Police Department, organizers, educators, and Muhlenberg College faculty and staff attended the event, forging coalition and inviting new stakeholders into ACED’s mission to lift up community voices and push Allentown towards development efforts that are dialogical rather than destructive. The films produced through this collaboration will be available for viewing on the newly released LVEHC Digital Archive.

Co-Creative Documentary

Us in Pieces: from 7Sides (on Cyrus Cylinder)

In 2013, London’s Iran Heritage Foundation (IHF), in partnership with the British Museum, launched the first-ever US tour of the Cylinder of Cyrus the Great. This cylinder is a clay tablet inscribed with cuneiform in which King Cyrus the Great in 539 BC celebrated his victory over Nabonidus to take control over Babylon. Inscribing a tablet with a victory statement was a common practice at the time, something like an inaugural address, but what set Cyrus’s tablet apart from rulers before him was that he promised a more benevolent rule in which people would be free to worship as they pleased.

Throughout the 20th century, the Cylinder has held a contested space in the Iranian self-narrative, located somewhere between the “first human rights charter” and a nationalistic relic. The executive director of IHF at that time, Haleh Anvari, had a bold idea to bring the Cylinder out of its venerable and academic museum context and to use the tour as a way of shining a light on the vast experiences and perspectives of the Iranian diaspora, as reflected in the Cylinder. 

Haleh Anvari commissioned one filmmaker in each of the cities on the Cylinder’s tour to make a short film responding to the cylinder as artifact and loaded cultural symbol. I was chosen as the filmmaker for the San Francisco tour stop. 

For my part, I wanted to explore the cylinder as serving dual purposes in developing certain national and/or pesronal mythologies.

While making this film, I was preoccupied by two images. One of which I discovered while browsing through the unique community library and public experiment, the Prelinger Library. The library is primarily a collection of 19th and 20th century historical ephemera, periodicals, maps, and books much of which is in the public domain. The library specializes in material that is not commonly found in other public libraries.

In the words of artist Taraneh Hemami: the archives represent an alternative to the official narrative. And here at Prelinger, I discovered a series of books published by Ketab Corporation which held a remarkable moment in history.

In 1979 at the height of revolution & one month before the king of Iran fell, activist students stormed the US embassy to expose US intervention in Iranian affairs. Those working in the embassy tried to protect the classified documents housed there by shredding everything. 

You can see a scene of this recreated in the 2012 US produced film, ARGO, directed by Ben Affleck of all people.

These shredded documents, it is said, were then pieced back together by carpet weavers or young people and published for the world to understand how the US was interfering in Iranian affairs.

I was intrigued by this image and others like it of reassembled, re-constructed State Department documents. I was interested in the factual history here, the machinations of the US authorities to steer the revolution toward something amenable to US interests. But I was also intrigued by the image as visual metaphor, an invitation to read between the lines

And I saw here some visual symmetry between these paper shards stitched into cohesive sentences of political machinery, and the Cylinder itself. See the parallels below.

Two incomplete documents stitched into complete (or seemingly complete) narratives. You can see the symmetry really well if you flip the cylinder image vertically.

So this was my departure point. How do these two “artifacts” speak to one another? What resonances are there between these two moments: the moment in which the students of 1979 discovered themselves and their country through the probing eyes of the US state, and this current moment in which our community is being asked to see ourselves through the Cylinder, held up as a symbol of the best in Iranian values. What are the various narratives that impose themselves on the Iranian nation-state, by what political or sociopolitical interests are these narratives motivated, and how do they ultimately shape how we see ourselves as political subjects? These are the questions behind the film that I contributed to 7Sides.

The 7Sides film is more than a collection. It is one film spoken through 7 different voices. It’s a film whose language is best understood as a whole. The collection in whole is thought-provoking, sometimes elegiac, sometimes scathingly critical and always necessary conversation led by leading scholar-artists in the Iranian American community. 


“How to Tell a True Immigrant Story” at Visible Evidence XXVI

On Friday July 27, 2019, I presented on the process of making “How to Tell A True Immigrant Story” on a panel with Mandy Rose, Director of UWE Bristol’s Digital Cultures Research Centre and Co-Director of i-Docs; Liz Miller, Professor at Concordia University and Director of The Shore Line Project; and Katherin Machalek, Creative Director at New Media Advocacy Project.

Our presentation is here.



Purchase Inheritance for your library or institution here.

Inheritance (2012, 27min) is an autobiographical journey that began from the question: what personal or interpersonal wounds do we bear as political subjects? Through conversations and observations in my childhood home, I guide the viewer through an excavation of the detritus that settled around (or cushioned?) our splintering family as we navigated the uneven terrains of Revolution, divorce, and eventually, self-imposed exile.

The film’s inquiries unfold through a collage of images, forms, voices and eras. Archival images of the polls in which millions of Iranians voted for an Islamic Republic pipe in through a television set in the U.S., thirty years later. Images of an absent father swirl amidst fragments of historical memory. The quotidian clangings of the kitchen collide against the shrieks of a political system in turmoil.

Inheritance embraces the personal as political and attempts to unearth that path through which the dissolution of the nation-state imposed itself upon the devastation of the domestic state.

Inheritance could not be possible without a rich lineage of women’s autobiographical storytelling which actively creates space for new stories and new modes of expression to emerge, stories and modes that have otherwise been occluded in the historical records. While making Inheritance, I was influenced by the films of Rea Tajiri, Mona Hatoum, and Chantal Akerman, filmmakers who infused their works with self as a means of outlining the contours of political subjectivity.

Though Inheritance appears rather personal, it is actually a film concerned with structures of power and how these structures affect people’s lives. This is a concern that undergirds all my work.


La Casa de Mamá Icha

I am the co-producer of this feature-length documentary which will have its US national release in October 2021.

This beautiful film is directed by Oscar Molina as part of a transmedia project called Mi Casa My Home which centers its attention on stories of migrants who, from within their host country and financed by their remittances, construct their dream homes in their country of origin. Many of these houses stand incomplete, some derelict, and many stand uninhabited for years, large-scale containers of the deferred dream of returning and a visual testament to an illusory economic viability. The film is currently in post-production. Please see here for more information about completion timelines and exhibitions.


World Premiere of “How to Tell a True Immigrant Story” at Locarno Film Festival

We are thrilled to announce that “How to Tell a True Immigrant Story” will have its world premiere in competition at Locarno Film Festival in August.

Film Reviews Writing

Review of Video Series, “The Fruit of Our Labour” for Reorient Mag

Originally published

July 8, 2013

A new series of short documentaries by emerging Afghan filmmakers

It starts, as many great films do, with a black screen; then, a flicker. Through snatches of light, a woman is revealed, a headscarf tied at her neck, her body leaning over a table to light a kerosene lantern. Just as light escapes the match, The Road Above emits in small and elegant portions the life of Mona, the film’s protagonist; Mona, who, through an involuntary smile tells us about the husband she’s lost to heroin, the financial straits her family struggles against, and her hopes for a stable life. Simply and softly, through intentional, cinematic language, we spend time with Mona and her enduring mother.

Their country is one we’ve seen countless times over in news reports – a dust-strewn land where women seem to bend from the onerous weight of the chador (not, of course, the onerous weight of infrastructural instability brought on by decades of invasion and war), and where wisened faces peer into cameras, prayer beads moving steadily through their fingers; a country embedded among the terms ‘war-torn’, ‘conflict’, ‘Taliban’, ‘terrorist’, ‘wounded’, ‘dead’.

This time, though, in The Road Above and the other nine short documentaries comprising the Fruit of Our Labour collection, we see Afghanistan through more nuanced eyes, in images that may strike as familiar to some Iranians and unfamiliar to most Americans. In this Afghanistan, mothers and daughters eat breakfast together. They sit cross-legged on hand-woven rugs, tear at lavash or taftoon bread, and sip from tea in tall glass mugs. They speak about the day to come – a day in which even here, in a place we are told not to expect the stirrings of life, trips to the seamstress will be made; bazaars will hum with a thousand brilliant colours; fruit vendors will mix smoothies to lure new customers; cosmetologists will line the almond eyes of young beauties, and culture, quite simply, will continue to function amidst the turmoil.

The films in The Fruit of Our Labour were produced during a five-week intensive documentary training session held in Kabul, designed and conducted by Community Supported Film, a Boston-based nonprofit training local storytellers in the documentary format. ‘The way we learn about other people’s worlds is really through our own eyes’, explains Michael Sheridan, CSFilm’s founder. ‘It became an interest of mine to figure out how to implement a program … to create compelling stories that could be used locally and internationally to help people … understand what’s going on.’

Through a partnership with the Killid Media Group, CSFilm received 80 applications for its inaugural training programme. From that pool, an ethnically diverse group of ten storytellers were selected to work together for up to ten hours a day, six days a week for five weeks, to learn the skills required to make character-driven, scene-based documentaries. The filmmakers were chosen after a rigorous application process that gauged their storytelling fluencies, their commitment to social and economic development, and their plans for employing their training towards nurturing their professional growth, in addition to forgoing traditional ethnic and gender divisions.

This commitment to diversity is crucial in a nation wherein so many different ethnic groups reside. In a recent online conversation, Jamal Aram, a translator and project coordinator for the CSFilm programme noted that one of the issues Afghanistan faces is the fact that ethnic groups are often isolated from one another, and as such, are not able to overcome historical divisions. ‘I’ve always thought,’ says Jamal, ‘there should be something, some common ground that [could bring] different ethnicities … together [to] sit around a table and really start discussing their feelings and what they think of all these situations’.

This is a new way of seeing Afghanistan – one in which the camera’s gaze does not simply reinforce power inequities, but acts as a tool through which power and politics can be debated. And recreated.

We see exactly this kind of cross-cultural conversation taking place in Death to the Camera, directed by Sayed Qasem Hossaini. Like Iranian New Wave films, Death to the Camera relies on a deceptive simplicity to broach complex topics, and explores the relationship between the artifice of filmmaking and the truth of human experience. The film takes place during the span of a day on a worksite, where a group of female day labourers scoop dirt and rocks into small bags that they then gather into wheelbarrows and push off-screen. It is the women’s last day working under their contract. Throughout the day, their anxieties about finding the next job underline every conversation. They snap at one another. They complain. They work slowly, their steps dragging them reluctantly to the completion of this last day of pay. Despite these challenges, the women are neither depicted as victims, nor as subjects of the film; they are instead active agents whose conversations are often directed expressly towards the camera. ‘I wish your filming could help us get some aid’, says one woman. Later, another asks her co-workers: ‘Have you told all your problems to the camera? Can it leave now?’

More than just speaking to, and being aware of the camera, the women are actively negotiating their personal and cultural relationships to it. While in the US the camera tends to be trusted as a communication medium, many cultures are fiercely protective of privacy, and thus the documentary ‘eye’ can feel invasive and insidious. Social taboos, by discouraging people from revealing too much of their private lives or selves, preserve the camera’s status as a vehicle for delivering entertainment rather than truth.

In Death to the Camera, in factone of the women on the site is accused by her manager of making herself too ‘available’ to the camera and sullying her reputation. Sitting among her female coworkers, working steadily, she eyes the manager, stands up, and walks  away to confront him. Harkening the style of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, we hear the woman arguing with her manager off-screen, while we watch her co-workers on-screen, scooping dirt one moment, and attempting to turn their heads inconspicuously towards the tense conversation the next.

When the accused woman returns to her coworkers, she reiterates her frustration with her manager’s accusations. A sensitive coworker, not wanting to make the crew feel guilty for their presence, whispers: ‘Don’t say that. [The cameraman] will mind’. ‘No he won’t,’ the woman responds, ‘he knows the issues very well … he’s a filmmaker. He’s not after prostitutes and bad things’. In this conversation, we see the two women developing their own unique relationships to the camera. One sees the camera as a valued guest, and another sees it as an ally, another medium through which she can prove her case. In so doing, they carve a new space for documentary filmmaking in a society that has a relatively recent history with the form.

For the camera’s part, it does not shy away from these ‘negotiations’. It does not stop rolling, nor does it ask the women to stop referring to the camera. It allows itself to be integrated and even implicated. When the women start to discuss the inequities they face as day labourers, the conversation turns towards ethnic differences and the trouble Hazara women have in getting hired. The conversation becomes heated. We don’t see the conversation in full, but we do see that a Hazara woman has become especially affected by recalling the situation she faces. Immediately thereafter, the camera crew retreats. It’s unclear whether they were asked to leave by the women, or whether the conversation was simply becoming too tense; nonetheless, the camera’s gaze suddenly spins to the ground and haphazardly captures the feet of the crew leaving the scene.

This is more than a retreat. It is a deliberate turning of the gaze away from the women, and onto the crew. The arbitrary and contested territory between the photographer and the photographed dissolves, as does the vast expanse between those who study conflict and those who live it. The crew becomes another extension of the inter-ethnic conflict. Exasperated, they throw down their gear, and ask themselves how this conversation started in the first place. They ferociously squirt compressed air into the camera’s lens – almost as if trying to dust it for fingerprints – and debate their choices. Though they experience the conflict in different ways than some of the women themselves, they do not position themselves as objective documenters apart from the eruption, but as fellow country-persons affected by it – involved, somehow, in this ‘ecosystem’.  As the boom operator suggests, they are even in some ways complicit. ‘Actually, you started the ethnic conflict discussion’, he remarks.

This is a new way of seeing Afghanistan – one in which the camera’s gaze does not simply reinforce power inequities, but acts as a tool through which power and politics can be debated. And recreated. In the eyes and likeness of the labouring men and women who themselves are too often the terrain upon which power is played out.

Co-Creative Writing

Border Crossing and Genre Bending: A Conversation with Jesikah Maria Ross

Originally published

Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism, Vol. 41 No. 3, November/December 2013; (pp. 19-25

There may be no image better equipped to illustrate Jesikah Maria Ross’s body of work than that of a bridge. In an era of constant flux in which once-stable disciplinary borders are shifting, a bridge might be exactly the technology we need for treading unstable ground.

jesikah’s work pulls from the Challenge for Change model to bridge communities, causes, and creative approaches. Read about jesikah’s work in this thought-provoking interview below.