Reflections on Documentary Making

By Andrea Patiño 

It’s hard to believe that ten months have passed already and that my time as a Hine Fellow has come to an end. As I reflect on the experience of working full-time producing documentary work, I can say that this has been a profoundly rewarding year, full of learning experiences, the discovery of new places, and the formation of new and invaluable relationships.

Editing was a particularly interesting phase of the project, as I had to condense over 20 hours of footage into 20 minutes of film. This is the first time that I engaged in a project this long and interacted with my subjects for months. Consequently, I got to know them very well and became quite close to some. This certainly put more pressure on me during the editing phase when I was choosing what to include and what to leave out. How did my personal relationship with them alter my view of them? What elements influenced my decisions to include certain scenes that portrayed them in particular ways, as opposed to other ones that may have given my viewers a different impression? How did my choices of using certain music at certain times affect the overall mood of the films?

These are all questions that I had contemplated in the past, but having to think about them as I produced my work was especially thought-provoking. Representing others is a complicated matter and the lines between “objectivity” and “subjectivity” are oftentimes—if not always—rather blurry. The question of objectivity while documenting has always fascinated both documentarians and viewers. The popular belief tells us that documentaries should, at all costs, portray the truth. But what does that really mean? Documentary makers have certainly moved past the question to explore this issue in more realistic ways: from films that consider intimate family stories to ones where the process of documenting is part of the film, the genre has evolved to convey that the process of documenting human experiences and relationships—both with each other and with the world around us—is equally complicated.

Although I decided to stick to a more traditional way of documentation for this particular project—partly because I was producing work that will be used by a non-profit organization—I considered all these questions very seriously during the entirety of the process. After all these months I can only say, with more conviction than ever, that the importance of documentary work is infinite, not only because documentaries are an important vehicle of information and knowledge, but also because they allow us to examine ourselves and at the communities with which we work in the process.

*You can check out all the work that I created for Raw Art Works at www.rawchiefs.org.

 

They grow up so fast

By Cameron Zohoori

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Parenthood is not something I think about much on a daily basis. I’m able to make day-to-day decisions without regard to children or other dependents. But for many of the youth at UTEC, parenting is a normal part of their lives. More of the young people I have spent time with than not are parents. Some had their first child as young as 16, and in many cases their children are now a driving force behind their presence at UTEC.

In the past several weeks, I have spent a lot of time with a group of young men from the building trades work crew here at UTEC, accompanying them in their workdays and listening to their stories. Too often the stories are of childhoods that didn’t last long enough; of parents that were not present, or didn’t provide the support necessary for their children to succeed. But a common and remarkable thread has emerged. Many of these young men are also young fathers, driven to transform their lives and give their children a future they perhaps never envisioned for themselves.

Remarking on many of these young parents, UTEC transitional coach Tom Sun says, “When you have children either it changes you completely or you’re just completely pushed away. It’s never really in between. The father that embraces their children and accepts that responsibility…that’s your foundation, that gives you that drive.” And Geoff Foster, Associate Director of Political Action, says there can be even more significant changes in outlook for young fathers. “You see it a lot when our young men have kids. There’s a transformation that happens… they see themselves as good people that don’t need to be tough. They start to become proud of that – yeah I’m making goo-goo-ga-ga noises at my baby, what? That’s not tough? Well I’m a good father. So maybe a good father doesn’t have to be tough.”

Here, then, are a few of these fathers in their own words:

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Mobility is not a right


By Andrea Patiño 

As my time as a Hine fellow ends, I have been dealing with the ever-dreaded question of what’s next? My standard response goes something like, ‘my future is very uncertain and I have no idea where I will be in four months.’ When I explain that my US work permit ends in July and that I absolutely have to leave the country by September, most people often seem rather surprised. The conversation usually continues with them asking me if my permit can get extended, and I explain that yes, but that it is very complicated.

For years now, dealing with visas and permits has been a source of great frustration. It is always complicated, expensive and time consuming and it seems unfair that my nationality is such a limiting factor when it comes to my mobility and choices of where to live and work.

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Antonio is a young man originally from El Salvador, who came to the United States as an eleven-year old. He spent his childhood with his grandparents, after his mom left for the US to join his dad in their search for better opportunities. At age eleven, Antonio’s parents arranged for him to cross all three borders (from El Salvador to Guatemala, to Mexico, to the US) along with two of his teenage cousins. Like anyone else with whom I start a conversation these days, Antonio is curious about what I’m going to do once I complete my fellowship. I explain my situation to him and unlike anyone else, he responds: why don’t you stay in the US and become one of us? Even though he is no longer undocumented, that is what he is referring to. Why don’t I allow my permit to expire and simply live under the radar like many of the people I have recently met? After all, he adds, you have a college degree and would be better off than many of us.

No one had ever posed that question to me, and although it is certainly not an option, the mere suggestion gets me thinking. There are many practical reasons for which I could never overstay my visa—an immigration violation is taken very seriously in this country and would either mean that I’d have to stay in the US forever (which would entail not seeing my family in Colombia), or if I were to eventually leave, that I wouldn’t be able to come back to the US in a very, very long time. Practicalities aside, Antonio’s question is very smart and ultimately touches upon deeper issues.

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For many of the immigrants who come to the US illegally, there are virtually no ways to come to this country otherwise. While in theory anyone has the ability to apply for a visa, few people realize that the process is much more complicated than simply asking for permission to move to a different country. One needs all sorts of documents that prove financial solvency and resources to pay for application fees. Trying to look for better opportunities is not a good enough reason to migrate.

This year I have met countless immigrants and refugees who have come to the US fleeing poverty, violence and political instability. Some of them have had to do so dangerously by crossing desserts and borders or seeking political asylum in neighboring countries, before they can relocate in the US. My conversations with them always make me reconsider the idea of mobility and the ways in which it is determined mostly by our nationalities, but also by our socioeconomic backgrounds. Even though my reasons for leaving Colombia are very different and I certainly don’t mean to compare the two, there is a common element to both situations: mobility is not a right that we are all given.

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Forgotten Homes

By Cameron Zohoori

Mao Kang is a streetworker at UTEC. On a day-to-day basis, his work consists of reaching out to young people across Lowell, responding to violent incidents, and “planting seeds of peace” in the city’s youth. But Mao’s specialty is homeless outreach. Having been homeless himself for many years in his youth, he feels a special connection to the homeless of Lowell, and an awareness of the stigma attached to it. “What are the images that come to mind when you hear the word homeless? I ask a lot of people. They say, ah, some guy, the bum kicking a can, drug addict, long overcoat, have nothing better to do, beggar. You know, I say, that could be all of it. But you don’t know the rest.”

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Young people can be particularly vulnerable to homelessness, as city shelters require parental consent for underage residents. “But if they’re 18 and older, they’ve got their own choices. Sometimes they’re on substance. And if you’re not clean you definitely can’t stay. So where you gonna go?”

“Our motto is, we never give up on anyone. Sometimes you have to call up your family like, honey, I’m going to be a little bit late. I don’t know what time, but I got some young person that got no place to stay. So there’s nothing I can do.”

Mao’s commitment to chipping away at the problem of homelessness in Lowell goes beyond the youth who come to UTEC for assistance. He frequently visits shelters and other hotspots around the city, checking in with previous acquaintances young and old, offering basic hygiene products and food supplies, and making new connections. For some, home is found in semi-permanent collections of tents near rivers, woods, and bridges around Lowell. These tent cities, many of which have been or will soon be removed, have been home to some residents for many years. Now many sites lie abandoned, the residents having left ahead of city efforts to clear them out. A walk through these partially abandoned homes reveals images both sad and uplifting, everyday and sublime: a trampoline with a gorgeous river view; partially charred family photos; pet rabbits in orderly hutches, with an extra constructed for donation to the animal shelter; and ingenious repurposing, recycling, and reusing.

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Tito.

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Kong.

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The Vow

By Cameron Zohoori

Riqie Wainaina works in the Workforce Development Program at UTEC, spending most of his days in the mattress recycling crew. He travels to a warehouse in Lawrence, MA each day with the rest of the crew, under the supervision of two UTEC staff. There they dismantle and prepare discarded mattresses for recycling, part of UTEC’s push for sustainability in social, economic, and environmental practices. He has been at UTEC for several months, and has quickly gone from being homeless and unemployed to being a leader within the center. Here are a few glimpses of his current work, with excerpts of his story as told in his own words:

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I think I had more fun growing up in Kenya, where the fun thing to do is to play soccer out in the streets or go to a farm to pick fruits in the trees, not just like sit around and be watching TV. I really want people to see the better side of Africa. It’s not all about like, “Oh we’re poor, we need something to do.” Everywhere has their pros and cons. Every person has their pros and their cons.

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I came to the States almost two years ago. April 2010, to be exact. I won a green card lottery. They say it’s like one in a million chance for you to win. I was that one in a million. And when I got here I was dazed by the new life, the new change of culture.

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I was living with my aunt. I started becoming Americanized, started talking slang, hanging with the “cool” people. I ended up joining the wrong crew and started selling drugs. That’s when my life started taking a downward trend. I think I got swallowed in that life; I didn’t see anything better than money. I had this friend; his name was James. And he wouldn’t twist it around. He was always like, “You’re either gonna end up in jail, or you’re gonna end up dead.”

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I heard the gunshots going off six times. It was the craziest moment of my life. James just fell on the ground. He passed right in my arms. It’s so much to take that you don’t even feel it; you don’t know what to feel. And at that moment, I took that vow: I will never go back to that life.

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Then my aunt got sick and she couldn’t work anymore, and a few months down the line she passed away. I got evicted from the house cause I couldn’t pay the bill anymore. I went to a homeless shelter for two months. I had lost complete hope. You don’t even see yourself as a person anymore.

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One of my friends at the shelter was like, “Hey, you know this place UTEC? They help you out if you need a GED, they give you work skills and stuff like that.” So one day I decided, let me go and check it out. Ever since the first day I stepped in the doors of UTEC, it’s been life-changing.

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Having a family you can depend on any time you need them, any time that you just need somebody to talk to… as soon as you come into UTEC they’re there for you. I think that’s pretty amazing.

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Before I came to UTEC I felt like I had nobody to support me, or support my dreams. But for now, I think if I just set my mind right and concentrate on what I’m doing, I think I have enough support from everybody to achieve my goals.

Jose

By Andrea Patiño

Every now and then Jose talks to me about his grandmother. Sometimes he shows me photos of her or tells me about the times when she has made an appearance in his dreams. The other day for instance, he told me how the night before, his grandma had cut her long hair and gave it to him. He wasn’t really sure what the dream meant, he said.

Jose and his grandma never met in person, and yet they developed a really close and profound bond. He used to talk to her over the phone every so often and was only able to see her a couple of times on a computer screen. She lived in Guatemala, where Jose’s mother was born. At seventeen and pregnant, Jose’s mom crossed the border into the United States and was never able to go back to her home country, and thus was unable to see her mother ever again. Jose’s grandma died before anyone in the family could go back to Guatemala.

Stories of immigrants and refugees are everywhere in Lynn. With about 30% of its population being foreign-born, the city is incredibly diverse. It is reported that about 60 languages are spoken in the city’s public schools among students from all corners of the world. Some immigrant communities arrived decades ago, after the promising opportunities that a blooming place like Lynn had to offer. With the industrial decline and many factories closing, unemployment rose and the city became depressed, which continues to be true to this day. Nonetheless, immigrants continued to arrive.

Lynn has also become a hub for refugees. About 260 people from Bhutan, Burma, Congo, Eritrea, Iran, Somalia and Iraq among other countries came to the city in the second semester of 2012 fleeing from wars and political instability in their home countries. Another 600 are expected to arrive in the first semester of 2013.

I’ve had the chance to talk to a lot of people whose lives, like Jose’s, have been impacted by immigration and mobility in one way or the other. There is Antonio, for instance, who now owns a thriving restaurant in Lynn and who, as an 11-year-old crossed the border into the US to be able to meet his mom for the first time, after she had left him as a baby in her search for better opportunities. Or Amal, who came to Massachusetts a few years ago after witnessing the murder of her husband and two of her kids in the violent war in Iraq. The stories are endless and each one is unique and important, not only for those who have had to move, but also for those whose communities have profoundly changed as more and more immigrants arrive.

In the midst of very important debates about immigration in the US, personal stories—of memories, separation and families—are fundamental to remind us that immigration is not only about numbers, economies and politics, but also, and perhaps more importantly, about our common humanity.

RAW Chiefs

By Andrea Patiño

As the winter slowly advances, the days seem to be getting colder and colder. Every day however, the sun is setting a little bit later and there is one more minute of light each afternoon. In spite of the cold, the Boston skies continue to be some of the most stunning I’ve ever seen. The light peaks in beautiful ways through the snowy branches and the sunsets are always astounding.

On a cold day like this, I met Jonathan Rodriguez, a now 21 year old who works at a sheet metal factory. He is a native of Lynn and was once part of the programs at Raw Art Works, the non-profit I have been working with for the past months. At his young age Jonathan is the father of two, not uncommon in Lynn, which has some of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the state.

A few years ago, when he was in his last years of high school, Jonathan became part of the RAW Chiefs group, an initiative crafted by RAW fifteen years ago, to give local young people a chance to work and gain leadership skills. The RAW Chiefs is composed by a group of students who are selected every year to be part of weekly leadership training sessions. Additionally, each teenager is in charge of co-leading a group of younger kids that attend other RAW programs. All RAW Chiefs are paid for their work and their participation in the program is treated seriously, just like any other staff member. They are responsible for their work and are held accountable for their actions.

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For teenagers to have a job like this—where they develop leadership skills, become mentors to younger kids and are paid for their work—in a place where opportunities are scarce, is a tremendous chance. While some of these teenagers have strong support systems at home and will likely go to college no matter what, others rely on RAW to be their home and the place where they find guidance and support. For some of them, like Jonathan, it may even be a life changing opportunity that allows them to stay off the streets and away from gangs and drugs. As Jonathan told me, being a Chief not only kept him away from these things, but also has made him a better father, a better worker and an altogether better person.

Every Thursday afternoon the current RAW Chiefs meet with three RAW staff to discuss issues relevant to their age and to create art surrounding these topics. I have been given the rare opportunity to be part of this group—rarely anyone is allowed to join, in order to maintain confidentiality and a safe and comfortable space for all of its members. Being part of the group with these young individuals, as they transition from adolescence to adulthood, has been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had since coming to Lynn. These are very resilient and inspiring young people, who are at an age of tremendous changes. During group sessions we can go from laughing at silly things to talking about very serious and personal issues. It is a real gift to be able to document this process.

When I speak to Jonathan I can tell that he carries a lot of pride for having once been part of this group. Some of the kids he mentored years ago are now Chiefs mentoring others, who will then go on to mentor even more youth. In a place like Lynn, a network of support and mentorship like this one carries a lot of meaning, because it has the potential to change lives, just like Jonathan’s.

The Greatest Profession

By Cameron Zohoori

In my time at UTEC thus far, I have seen the remarkable and diverse youth who spend their days in this center, and have begun to explore their stories. But it is not only in the young people that UTEC serves that there are untold stories, and it is not only in the ‘media’ as traditionally viewed that they should be heard. Last month, I had the opportunity to attend and observe the first ever conference of streetworkers from across the New England region. These are the people on the streets, reaching out to young people who are homeless, involved in gangs, or disconnected from resources in their community. UTEC’s streetworkers are on call 24/7, and respond to incidents of violence, visit young people all over the city. They have uniquely privileged access to the nearby jail, allowing them to continue working with youth who spend time there. In many cases streetworkers at UTEC and elsewhere come from these backgrounds themselves, having experienced gangs, drugs, or prison before turning around to counter those influences. And every day they deal with the tragedies of violence in their communities. As Michael Saunders of the Boston Center for Youth and Families said, “This is a painful job. I still have the voices of some of my kids on my answering machines who passed away. I refuse to erase their voices off my machine.”

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Having over one hundred such workers in the same room makes for some powerful energy and, of course, stories. As Teny Gross, executive director of the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence, said in addressing the participants;

“It’s the greatest profession I know. How many mothers don’t get a phone call at 2 in the morning because of what you do? How many brothers and sisters are today finishing college and are being great parents because of you? Tell me another field that does that.”

A police officer attending the conference reaffirmed this, calling the streetworker methodology “the future of what my profession is going to be doing… this is how we’re going to be addressing crime.” And yet the profession is not recognized, rewarded, or advocated for in proportion to the impact it has. The term ‘streetworker’ isn’t even universally acknowledged, with the facility hosting the conference preferring the term ‘street outreach worker’ in their signage to avoid possible negative connotations. It is only through telling these stories to a wider audience that life-changing work like this will be allowed to permeate communities in the way it should.

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Just as the streetworkers tell a story often not told, much of the work UTEC does is outside the traditional ‘story’ of nonprofit organizations, and even other youth centers. This is why one of the projects I am embarking upon is to capture elements of UTEC’s model that are hard to demonstrate or explain with traditional methods. I have begun to take these large scale stories I have seen around me, and explore them at the individual level. Both through specific elements of the model and intangible cultural values, I want to document how and why UTEC operates in the way it does – and to do so through the stories of the people learning and working here.

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UTEC’s Grand Opening

 

By Cameron Zohoori

I have been at the United Teen Equality Center for nearly a month and a half now, immersed in the day-to-day operations of an organization that empowers young people in Lowell, MA to transform their lives by “trading violence and poverty for social and economic success”. Working with and embracing the most disconnected youth in the community is of course no simple task, and UTEC’s model must be multifaceted and dynamic. The staff of UTEC play many roles: streetworkers reaching out to young people “where they’re at”, whether that be in gangs, in prison, on the streets, or at home; teachers who run GED and high school diploma programs; enrichment and organizing coordinators who facilitate basketball tournaments, social justice workshops, and Get Out The Vote campaigns; work crew bosses who employ youth in catering, construction, and mattress recycling companies; ‘Transitional coaches’ who manage cases on an individual basis from the first day a youth signs up at UTEC, connecting them with resources in the community, accompanying them on court dates, and simply acting as a friend and mentor. I still learn new things every day about the model that UTEC puts into action, because, in some ways, the model is to have no model. Every young person is unique; each has a different story, different challenges, and different resources and skills with which to face them.

More distinctive, and perhaps more important, than the things the staff and youth at UTEC are doing is the spirit in which those things are done. Every morning at 9am, ‘Eye of the Tiger’ plays on the center’s loudspeakers, and all staff and young people in the building gather in the gym to share answers to the “question of the day,” do icebreakers, and set the vibe for the day. The staff offices surround a drop-in lounge where ping-pong and pool tables are in use all day. The youth who join programs at UTEC are told that they will never be given up on; the staff remain supportive and judgment-free, no matter what challenges the young people face or questionable decisions they make. UTEC knows that some of the young people it caters to are suspicious of institutions, have run up against and fought institutions all their lives. It strives to be a different kind of institution, one that they can embrace and feel ownership of. Nowhere is that ownership easier to see than in the building UTEC resides in, a 173-year-old church in downtown Lowell, renovated in large part by UTEC’s youth employees, and now certified as LEED Platinum sustainable and energy efficient – the oldest such building in the country. Since its beginnings as a simple drop-in space in Lowell’s only gang-neutral neighborhood, the fundamental core of UTEC has been to be something different, providing a social and physical atmosphere that these young people don’t find elsewhere. This remains true today, though in the spirit of “thinking big” it now also means coming to school and work in a building with soy insulation, an electric car charging station, and 147 solar panels on its roof.

Embracing the “think big” philosophy, within 5 days of being at UTEC I was immersed in multiple media projects for the grand opening of the newly renovated building. Over the past month I have begun to look through all the photos and videos shot at UTEC over the past 13 years, and I created three multimedia pieces for the Grand Opening on November 13. After over 300 people, including the governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, toured the building guided by youth and staff, they sat down at dinner tables where the church pews used to reside, now outfitted with a gym floor and state-of-the-art A/V system, for an awards ceremony, entertainment, and fundraising. The ceremony opened with a 5-minute piece documenting the renovation of UTEC’s current home and introducing the teen MCs for the evening. Later, another video paid tribute to the work done by some of UTEC’s teens advocating locally and in the state capital for a bill to lower the voting age to 17 in Lowell municipal elections. Lastly I shot a very short video introducing the two young women jointly receiving the first Youth Transformation of the Year Award, featuring interviews with their friends, mentors, and the mother of one of the young women.

As I transition from the work of the last month and a half to more methodical and long-term explorations – and as UTEC explores a newly expanded space and reinvigorated self-awareness – I hope I can expand some of the slices of stories I have witnessed in the month I have been here. After hearing the two young women recounting their stories as they received the Transformation of the Year Award, Governor Deval Patrick said in his remarks: “As complicated, as awkward, as maybe even embarrassing it sometimes is; as overcoming as you feel, it’s enormously important for you to tell your stories. Your story is a powerful story.” I hope that message will resonate with the young people of UTEC, and I hope we can begin to collaborate on telling some of those stories in the months to come.

Green Building Grand Opening Countdown:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XGxABMwfqjA

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