Four weeks after the earthquake struck Port-au-Prince, Haitian-American filmmaker, Michèle Stephenson traveled to the heart of Haiti to document the stories of the survivors, in their own words. Commissioned by the National Black Programming Consortium, the project became Haiti: One Day, One Destiny, and a 20-minute version aired on PBS World on the one-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake that hit January 12, 2010.
Stephenson, a 2009 NATPE Diversity fellow and partner at the Rada Film Group, reflects back on her experience in the NATPE program in 2009, and how that intensive program helped prepare her for the scope of Haiti: One Day, One Destiny, and her film-producing career. The film has grown into a multi-media platform that continues to chronicle, support and advocate for the rebuilding of Haiti while she continues to produce other award-winning work.
“[The NATPE] program provided me with a bigger experience around the commercial television world, since I had worked mostly in non-profits and the independent documentary world,” the Brooklyn-based filmmaker explained.
“It reaffirmed the real importance of networking with my peers and mentors. It made me really hone in on skills, like writing pitches that are precise, and telling the story in a brief amount of time” Stephenson furthered. “I came from a world of grant proposals and foundation work. In the case of working in the world of media—specifically commercial television—the story has to be much more concise with a definite hook that you can easily pitch.
“Lastly, it was about the passion. All of the people that I met who were our program mentors had this investment in a vision and spark of passion in the work that they were doing. It reignited my own passion to tell stories for television.”
After NATPE, Stephenson dove into completing several different projects, some of which were already in the production phase during her NATPE experience. Faces of Change is the story of five activists from five countries on five different continents who passionately work and struggle to change the world around them. The activists tell their unique and personal stories of discrimination and as noted by Stephenson, “have moved audiences with their patience and perseverance.” The project debuted on PBS in the spring of 2008.
Slaying Goliath, an intimate and emotionally provocative documentary about amateur youth basketball earned Stephenson a 2008 Grand Jury Prize at the American Black Film Festival in Los Angeles. It examines 10 days in the life of a boy’s fifth grade AAU basketball club from Harlem, New York. It follows the children, their parents and coaches—including Stephenson and her own son—as they travel to and compete for the AAU National Championship in Cocoa Beach, Florida. Slaying Goliath exposes the tension-filled divergent demands of parenting and winning in youth amateur sports.
American Promise, a coming of age story that spans 13 years in the lives of two African American boys and their educational journey, earned Michèle a Special Jury Prize at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and the Reva and David Logan Grand Jury Prize at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.“It really addresses the issue of black male achievement in education, and what it takes to invest in their success. It’s actually a personal documentary where we turn the camera on ourselves,” Stephenson said. “We shot for over 13 years, so this was something that was going on while I was a NATPE fellow. As a longitudinal documentary, the film also provides a variety of lessons learned for my own growth as a documentary filmmaker.” Ms. Stephenson speaks to the importance of developing trust with her characters and crew, the importance of integrity and authenticity of her subject’s voice. Stephenson gives a soft smile that speaks to her patience, “This has meant that for film to work cinematically, we dedicated almost three years to the post-production of the film.
“There is so much to say and so many artistic vehicles with which to express ourselves with this story that we have decided to take on a multi-platform approach that goes beyond the film experience.” The American Promise filmmakers have designed a mobile application for parents; an interactive installation to provoke dialogue between African-American boys and educators, a book for parents, soon to be published by Random House and a teacher-training module designed in conjunction with Teaching Tolerance, a division of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “We have a whole campaign that we are developing around it, including community screenings with specific grassroots partners, where we will be talking to students and parents. Hopefully that will raise awareness and play a part in making a difference for black male achievement in education today.” American Promiseis scheduled for a national theatrical release in October 2013 and a national television broadcast in 2014 on the critically acclaimed PBS series, POV | American Documentary.
Making a difference is the common theme and clear intent of Stephenson’s work. Her international experience as a human rights attorney heavily influences her work and her ability to tackle stories on communities of color with courage and depth. Stephenson readily admits there are still plenty of challenges independent filmmakers must navigate in getting green-lighted projects that reflect the diversity of people of color. “It’s all about convincing people who make decisions about what can be broadcast, especially when it comes to more complex stories or stories that don’t fit within the standard that has been set in terms of what Black and Latino families are about,” said Stephenson. “That’s a difficult pitch, but it’s a necessary process. The solution is to avoid simplifying and assimilating Black characters. We should always create characters that are vulnerable, authentic and complicated in their actions and decision-making. My main message is to not give up and to persevere with those stories.
Whether on television, twitter or online, viewers who become fans of Michele Stephenson can continue to look forward to more compelling visual stories that provoke thought about the complex multicultural world in which we live.