Judith Helfand and “Making Change, Making Movies”
On March 19, 2003, in the hours before President George Bush launched an invasion of Iraq, filmmaker Judith Helfand, the Center for Social Media’s spring visiting filmmaker as part of the DC Environmental Film Festival, gave a lecture on her strategies to make her films make a difference. Her presentation was transcribed by Michelle Manassah; copyediting by Rebecca Johnson.
Hi. Thanks for coming tonight. I’m Pat Aufderheide. This is the Center for Social Media presentation with Judith Helfand. Judith Helfand is somebody I’ve admired for a very long time, and who never fails to be a marvelous presence in my life. She’s a filmmaker conscious of the power of the medium, experimenting creatively with the medium, and also somebody who is engaged with real people in real communities and real organizations making real social change.
When we put together our social action showcase this year, which is part of the Environmental Film Festival, we decided to have a special event where one of the filmmakers really goes into some depth about how they make that connection between media and communities–how in fact they really make media make a difference. The very first person that I thought of to invite to do that workshop was Judith Helfand. And I’m really, really thrilled that her schedule allowed her to come. She’s permanently on the road these days with the many activities associated with Blue Vinyl, her latest film, which was a Sundance award winner. And we have her for the next couple of hours so I’m not going to waste any more of your time and I’m going to turn this over to Judith. Thank you very much for joining us tonight.
Well, I’m really, really thrilled to be here with you all. It feels like a very weird, auspicious time [on the verge of the invasion of Iraq], as if when we walk out of this room the world may be very different. So I feel so privileged to be able to mark a little history with you all. And I’m not sure that what I have to say is exactly worthy of the threshold we might walk out into. But I’ll try my best.
It’s an honor and a privilege for me to go backward in time to look at my work and think about all the people that I got to work with to make the three films that I’m going to be talking about today. I just want to say it’s a privilege to be at the center because of Pat Aufderheide and her colleagues. [This is the] first time that a lot of these ideas–making media that makes a difference–are being [recognized by] the academy as something that’s really worthwhile, and whenever that happens, it heightens the work for everyone and raises the bar. So thank you Pat. And Pat does this as an academic and as an activist-journalist, which I think is done in the same way that I’m an activist filmmaker. And she’s a marvel, and she’s charming, and we adore her. So thank you.
I’m going to try to mark each one of these films with a sense of guiding principles and ideas about fundraising and things that I think are concrete principles that I learned along the way. So my guiding principle for making films and for making change–because you don’t have to make films to make change –is that there has to be a relationship at the center. Whether it’s the center of your narrative or your story or your film, or it’s the driving force of an organizing campaign. Whether it’s between a mother and a daughter, like me and my mom in A Healthy Baby Girl, or between an industry and a consumer, like the vinyl industry and myself in Blue Vinyl, or the very, very brave and courageous Southern textile workers and the Southern textile industry in the Uprising of ’34.
At the core there always has to be a relationship at stake. There has to be a real reason to make the movie. It’s very hard. It takes a long time. It takes a huge amount of resources, both monetarily and emotionally. And it means lots of people need to make a huge commitment. It’s not a fly-by-night thing. The process has to really be worth something. I think that’s why people really like watching movies, because they know that at the core of the film there’s a relationship at stake and I would say that there’s a heart at risk of being broken. And I would say that is what happens in most of the films that I’ve worked on, is that we were able find that core heart that was at risk of being broken, and we were committed to fixing it.
And this relationship has to be something that is real, insistent, dynamic and personal. So if I’m making a big movie about the vinyl industry, there still has to be something that’s human, and personal, and heart wrenching. And I think if you have that, and if you follow that, if that leads your story, whether you’re a filmmaker or an organizer, I think you will have the tools that you need to actually make a difference and to make it worthwhile for you to wake up in the morning and commit yourself to that project.
So that has been what has animated the films and the campaigns that I’ve dedicated both my filmmaking and my organizing efforts to. It’s been incredibly satisfying both personally and professionally, and the clips that I’ll show you today, and the organizing ideas that I’ll share with you will relate to this idea: There has to be heart at the core in multiple ways.
The first film that I’m going to talk about is the Uprising of ’34, which I had the incredible honor of working on with George Stoney, who is a very venerated, beloved, brilliant, smart, documentary filmmaker who started working in the 1930s with the Farm Securities Association and is still teaching full time at New York University. And essentially, I went to NYU to study with him.
A tiny, tiny little story–about when I was 15 years old. International Documentary magazine has a playback section where they have filmmakers talk about their favorite movies, and I did one. And I don’t know if it’s my favorite movie, but it’s the most important movie for me. It’s called The Weavers Wasn’t That a Time. It’s a really great film about the singing group the Weavers. And I was watching this when I was 15 years old on Merrick, Long Island–you’ll see the home, you’ll meet my mother [in A Healthy Baby Girl]–and I was watching it with my mom on Channel 13, PBS. Pete Seeger was on TV, and he was holding the banjo and he was talking about dangerous singing–what it means to sing dangerous songs. Not because they are dangerous but because the act of singing songs in support of social movements is a courageous way of singing and it’s actually making dangerous music. So he started talking about that and I was just so taken by this guy.
I looked at my mom and I said, “Mommy, that’s what I want to do when I grow up.” And she looked at me, and you’ll think it’s funnier when you meet her in the movie. She said, “What, you want to play the banjo?” I said, “No, I want to do that.” And she looked at me like, You’ll never make a living playing the banjo. You don’t even play the banjo. “No I want to do that.” She said, “What do you mean that?” “I want to make that movie.” Because I realized I couldn’t necessarily be Pete Seeger, but I could maybe be the person who got to talk to him. And the idea of being in the center of that and getting to have a relationship with history and go back and forth in this intergenerational way was so thrilling to me. So my mother said to me, “Oh, that’s a documentary, honey.” And I said, “Well that’s what I want to do when I grow up.” She actually looked relieved that I was going to make my living doing that, and not playing the banjo.
But little did I know. I mean I didn’t watch the credits in those days. I wasn’t a maven. I didn’t know who made that movie. I wound up going to NYU many years later because I was determined to study film and make documentaries. And when I told them that, they said, “Oh well you’re going to have to go study with George Stoney.” Well, it turns out George Stoney made that movie with his student. His student directed it and George produced it with him. And the idea was like wow, I landed here. He wasn’t even in that film.. Well, it turned out that 11 years to the date around that [time] I had that discussion with my mom, I was making a movie with George Stoney, making The Uprising of ’34, which is beautiful in a way. It’s full circle. And a couple of years ago, I got to teach his students when he was on sabbatical. So it’s that circularity and that serendipity and the idea that you could both be strategic and open for serendipity, is definitely the under-thing that animates the work that I’ve been able to do.
So I’m going to show you a clip from The Uprising of ’34. It’s about the hidden labor history of the general textile strike of 1934. I’d like to think George would have called me anyway, but the reason I got this job at least when I did was that I called him up to tell him I had just been diagnosed with cancer caused by DES exposure, which is a synthetic estrogen–a hormone- mimicking chemical that my mom took when she was pregnant with me. Millions and millions of women took this drug in order to prevent miscarriage. It turned out to be not the wonder-drug it was marketed as. It turned out to be carcinogenetic, ineffective, an endocrine disrupter, and really harmful to the children who were exposed in utero. Because it’s a very fragile time being in utero, and when you’re exposed to carcinogenetic, hormone-mimicking chemicals that really screw around, literally, with the development your reproductive organs, you’re going to have a tough time. If not when you’re born, certainly later on when you need them. In my case, I didn’t really get to use them; I had them ripped out of me. But I had this cancer, and I had to have this surgery.
So I called up George Stoney to tell him that, along with everyone else I loved in the world, and he said, “Well ah, Judith do you think you’ll be better by June 1st?” I said, “Well, my surgery is March 13. I don’t know George.” He said, “What are you going to do this summer?” I said, “Well I thought I’d heal over the summer. I’m going to be come really thin,” which I didn’t. “I’m going to learn yoga.” “I’m going to you know, stay on a beach and like really heal.” None of which I did. And he said, “You’ll never heal that way. You come with me. I’m working on this film called The Uprising of ’34. I’m having trouble opening up these textile workers. So when you get better, you’ll work with me. You can be the associate producer.” So that’s what happened. I was lucky enough to go into the hospital knowing that I’d come out and work with George Stoney.
And I tell you all of that, because people don’t necessarily just make movies. They have a life. And sometimes their life intersects with that which they’re seeing and it totally informs their work. Sometimes it’s a person and sometimes they make the films about themselves. And it’s incredibly personal. I would venture to say that almost all documentaries are pretty personal. Sometimes you see the text, sometimes it’s subtext. Sometimes you see the filmmaker in the movie, and sometimes you don’t. But for me, making The Uprising of ’34 was a pivotal political awakening, because I realized some really, really important things. Primarily, that there is a deep link between worker health and safety and consumer health and safety. And despite the fact that we live far away from each other, or that someone like me who grew up in Merrick, Long Island and not near the means of major production, and I’ve never worked in a factory nor probably will I ever work in a factory, I would have never seen my damages through the eyes of the worker. I never would have made that connection. So by healing from my cancer caused by pharmaceuticals and a very affluent industry, at the same time I was documenting the impact of a very powerful industry–the textile industry–on the lives of their workers, was a very radicalizing thing. And it absolutely has informed every other thing I have done.
So the idea was we were going to go and interview all of these Southern textile workers. Many of them had been in a major strike–the strike of 1934–which was a really amazing moment, because Southern textile workers had never organized into unions at the pace, in the rapid way that they had between 1933 and 1934. And it was a big surprise to everybody, but people were organizing all over the country. I just don’t think that people anticipated that Southern textile workers would, because in people’s minds they were stupid, they were illiterate, they would work for nothing, they kowtowed to the industry. So not that many paid organizers were even there. Despite that, half a million of them organized into these extraordinary little local unions. And so we were documenting that organizing, but also the strike. We were going from mill town to mill town in five states: North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina. And in lots of interesting, different ways we were finding these workers. And it took many years. We did it over and over for about three or four summers until we actually got it quite right. So the pieces that you’ll see come from many different years of shooting.
Initially we started making a film about a big strike. And that was what we were going to do. When we started sharing the work with young textile workers, we started to realize if we only made a film about a strike, we would be doing a huge disservice to the young textile workers who themselves were trying to organize. Or when we met with young organizers, or old organizers for that matter, who were really trying to deal with equity issues in the South and we showed them raw footage and rough material that we were gathering, and we talked about what is the image and the mythology that’s connected to Southern textile workers, and how does that relate to anybody’s ability and willingness to either join a union or just join an organizing initiative. There were all these sorts of myths or stereotypes that everybody had to get over. What we realized was that if we wanted to make a film that would be in service of the needs of organizers who were working very, very hard and in difficult territory to organize on workers’ health and safety, either in the union model or the non-union model, we couldn’t just make a movie that was about a strike. That would be a huge disservice to them. And so via showing a lot of this raw footage and showing a lot of materials that we gathered–letters, documents, all sorts of things–we started to understand what movie we really needed to make. It was a much more complex movie than just making a movie about a strike. Now had we made the movie about the strike and shown it to everybody when it was done, we never would have known this. And it was this workshopping mentality and process that really enabled us to make the right movie at the right time.
So what I’m going to show you is a piece that I think reflects what it means–if you’re making a film about labor history and you’re about to make a film that’s just about a strike and you find out, if we only make it about the strike we’re in a lot of trouble, it’s never going to quite work. So the piece I’m going to show you is some of the lessons learned. And I’m going to end it at a point that was an extraordinary organizing lesson for all of us, and has been a lesson that has animated every other film that I make. This is in a section when they’re talking about mill village culture, which happens right before we get to the story of this film.
[BREAK–FILM CLIP – The Uprising of ’34, about the mill owners’ rationing the toilet paper in the bathrooms and a woman worker putting up a corn cob and a sign: “Use this cob or lose your job.”]
So that was a joke. It plays really well in the South. “Use this cob and save your job.” That was actually a really radical act. Now how many of you think that Mrs. Rainwater Watley was a leader in the strike considering she had the guts to put up a big sign that said: “Use this cob and save your job?” But in fact, that wasn’t the case. She was incredibly anti-union. We interviewed her three times in the course of like two and a half years. And every time we would go back to this little town where all the strikers were rounded up and put in like a jail that looked like a semi-concentration camp behind barbed wire and stuff and were held for like 10 days in Georgia. So this was in Noonan, Georgia. And every time we went to Noonan, Georgia, we were looking for the people who had been rounded up during the strike, because we had this amazing archival footage. Of course, you use this footage–it brings you to a town, you find the story of the town or you try to, and you animate the footage in some way, and then you start meeting all sorts of people. So we met her a number of times, and every single time we met her she would tell us the same story. This joke, and in fact the telling of this joke, is a composite of three interviews where she tells the same exact story. And this was her story. And no matter which direction she would go in, she would always end up with this story, which was really, really, really interesting. So I thought that she would have wound up being a very radical activist, because she had the guts to do this very radical act; and that wasn’t the case. But she used humor as a way to say: “You are treating me in a completely inhuman way, it is totally inappropriate, and you can’t tell me how much toilet paper I can use. You don’t have that level of control over me. And if anyone in our mill is going to allow you to have that control over them, you’re crazy and we have to do something about it.” But there was no way for her to do anything about it, because she would have been fired. So she had to use this alternative approach. Historically humor, you know, jokes, practical jokes are really interesting ways of waging protest when you don’t really have the means to do that.
What was great about that story was that we were going into communities that 60 years later, as you can imagine, were either anti-union or pro-union. Or there were people there who had been pro-union and had been a big part of this big strike, and had gotten in a lot of trouble and had either not told their children about it, it was completely silenced, or they had left town and never came back because they were blacklisted. So that set the tone for workers’ rights and how people think about workers’ rights in many of these communities, whether you work in textiles or you work in any other industry. And so, when we were testing this material and we realized, wow, we can put this joke in here, we learned a couple of things. We learned we can’t make a film that’s about which side are you on despite the fact that this film is seemingly about which side are you on. That if we did that it would be a huge disservice to the people who really need to start to open a discussion about workers’ rights and worker health and safety.
And so we wound up realizing that this laughter could serve the very radical organizers that we were committed to making this film for. And it was radical because everybody laughed, whether they were pro-union, whether they were anti-union, whether they were black, whether they were white, everybody laughed and everybody recognized one thing in their laughter–they recognized how absolutely absurd and how inhuman it was for some guy to be counting the toilet paper. And in that moment of absurdity, they were all unified. And for us to realize–it’s a very serious movie, I could count the number of times there’s a joke, probably three–but they were put in very strategic places and we tested this over and over and over in every community we went to, to get a sense of what we would need to do to put in this movie so we could dispel the traditional way of looking at this history. The other thing we learned, aside from learning humor is a radical agent, both in the text of the film and in the text of somebody’s life, is that it enlarges the idea, in this case, in this story, of how people can protest, how they can test authority, that just joining the union is not the only way to do it. And it actually made someone like her a very legitimate part of labor history. And someone like her was never even considered even part of labor history. The people who were pro-union would never see Mrs. Watley as someone who is part of labor history because she never joined a union. And she would never even have thought that the term labor history included someone like her.
So by including her and lots of other people who were just part of this mill village experience, we enlarged the definition of labor history and they all came to the movies to see this. And by having them all in this place, we would have these very strategic community screenings well in advance of the film being on television, when it was just about a fine cut. We tested to see who we should be inviting and how should they come and how should we set up the invitation and whose names are on it, and how do we make it safe for people to look at very unsafe material. It was because of these kinds of moments that enabled all of us to do that, even though the atmosphere was contested. So that was a huge lesson learned.
The next section I want to show is completely different from this, and it is about the strike. And it’s probably the most painful moment, lots of hearts got broken in this section of the movie and in life. Then I’m going to show you a five-minute piece that was done when the movie was done that shows the impact of the movie in one community, and how in our case we feel incredibly proud that we were able to make some concrete change in a community that generally doesn’t address these kinds of issues 60 or 70 years later.
So this section is about Honea Path. Honea Path is a small town in South Carolina. And it was during this strike that this incredibly brutal thing took place, and not only in the sense did this specific set of murders and story happen in this community, but it had this incredible echoing effect and actually–within days of this happening–this strike was put down. And this story [depicts how] every time there’s any union effort in South Carolina, elements of this story are used, even though they’re often told wrong. When they write even about, oh a new plant is opening up and they’re going to make cars and the plant is not going to be union and the plant is 30 miles from Honea Path. Now there’s no reason to cite Honea Path when you’re talking about a car plant 30 miles away in South Carolina, but it’s still like this epicenter in a lot of people’s minds. When you think about workers and you think about the chance that they might organize, Honea Path, South Carolina is almost always referenced. But I think things have changed a little bit–at least I’d like to think so since The Uprising of ’34 came out.
[BREAK–FILM CLIP – The Uprising of ’34, on violence in Honea Path, the murder of seven workers and the ensuing funeral]
So that was 1934, September 1934. And within days of this happening in Honea Path, the word spread. And what’s always amazing to me is how far people traveled to get to this funeral. And the gentleman that was speaking, the really beautiful gentleman, Earnest Moore–the reason we found him oddly enough was because we couldn’t find anybody that would actually even talk about Honea Path. I mean nobody. I mean the people in Honea Path really didn’t want to talk about this very much. And the few that we did find like that elderly couple that was sitting there, and she said that they still don’t want to talk about it until now, they don’t want to remember. I mean, it was very, very hard to find folks. And in general it was very difficult to find people that could talk about the strike. There were a bunch of leaders we could talk to, but it was very hard to find the rank and file.
So we actually put an ad in the newspaper in North Carolina with a 1-800 number. Often in a situation like this, it’s so much better to get press while you’re making the movie because then the word is out, and people will contact you. And in an anonymous way, versus you calling them up, and that’s what happened. We were in a community that was so anti-union–Estonia, North Carolina–it was actually a scary place to be on some level. George really taught me, when you’re most frightened, don’t ever let everybody else’s fear make you think that you’re doing something wrong. It’s exactly when you have to be as public as possible. It’s not always the best strategy, but in this case, it really worked. So this big article was published, and I guess people sent it all over–it was reprinted–people sent it to each other all over the South. We got phone calls from people in Florida, in California, in Arizona, on a 1-800 number in New York. They felt much safer to talk about things–not always giving me their name–and Earnest Moore was one of them. And we didn’t know when we went to go interview Earnest Moore that he’d be able to talk about Honea Path. We just found him, I found out what mill he worked at, I got all these great documents from his mill here at the National Archives, we went to go meet him, and then he could talk about this. It was just a fluke.
Anyway, days after [the murders] this strike was pretty much over, particularly in the South. I mean half a million people around the country went out on the strike, but around the South–particularly in Honea Path, South Carolina–it was done. People were absolutely devastated and sad. And the silence that happened afterward continued. So none of these murderers went to prison, they never had a real trial, and the best that the widows got–they were told they could have a job for life in the mill that basically killed their husbands and we’ll let you stay in the house–I mean you still have to pay us rent. I mean it was the devil’s bargain that most people had to pay, which meant they paid with their silence or left the community.
So it is with a great deal of pride that I can show you this piece. Because we worked with organizers from around the community, who were very, very sensitive to Honea Path, and because of that article–the 1-800 number that was attached to it–and because we did lots of these workshops training these young Southern textile workers and young organizers to be able to look at their history of protest and reclaim it. And we didn’t know what materials we should put into this movie to make it effective. We actually tested everything. We had photographs, we had raw footage, we had raw interviews, we had letters that were written by textile workers before the strike, and during the strike, and after the strike–letters that showed they were incredibly literate, not illiterate, really participants, not non-citizens. And it completely electrified these young organizers who would look at this raw footage and would say, “Oh my God, just this list of unions in North Carolina alone could help me unionize.” They were actually looking at pieces of paper from an archive that could really mean nothing, I mean would mean nothing–to most of us, I mean without the movie–they were just excited about the documents and they said I need copies of this, I need copies of the picture, I could use this. So based on that, we could back to the editing room and say, “I know you really don’t think the lists are very interesting Suzanne,”–she was our editor–“but we have to put them in the movie. And we have to have the numbers of every single local union and its name has to roll past images of these communities in one way or another because organizers need it.”
So it was because of this incredible dialogue that we achieved over a number of years, that when this one young woman from Honea Path, North Carolina, who found us because of the 1-800 number, when she said to me at the end of an interview, “What I think I’d like to do is to erect a memorial in town in honor of these seven people who were killed and put their names there because no one ever talks about them–they have no names in this community–it’s like their no-name-ness frightens everybody, but if people could just mention who they were, and they got their just respect, I think it would make a huge difference. It would make a huge difference to me.” She said, “And I’m going to raise money and make sure the authorities say yes to this.” And I thought, Kathy, you’re going to get yourself in trouble. You can’t do this. You can’t do this. She said, “Will you help me?” And I said, “Yeah, whatever you want.” So the best thing that I could do was to turn her loose to these organizers which was a group nearby and say, Could you please help her do this?. Because if she could really erect this monument, you could potentially come in and organize into this community in a way you never have before. And you could do it all around the creation of this memorial. So I like to think that they could have done this themselves.
But, we had a special rough-cut screening in Atlanta–late–midnight–about 100, 200 people at the 75th anniversary of the Southern Regional Council, which is this really historic social justice and civil justice organization based in Georgia. The movie wasn’t out in the world yet; it was still a fine-cut. And some guy came up to me and said, “Beecham, Beecham, I’ve got a friend named Beecham. He’s in New York City. I wonder if he’s related to this guy.” He said, “I’m going to call him.” And I said, “You’re going to call him at midnight and ask him if he’s related to Beecham who murdered everybody.” And he said, “Yeah.” And so sure enough, he called up Frank Beecham and said, “Hey Frank, ever hear of a guy named Dan?” “Uh, yeah, that’s my grandfather.” “Do you know what he did?” And he said, “No, what did he do? I can’t even tell you, you’ve got to see this movie.” So turned out that Frank Beecham, Dan’s grandson, lived around the block from my office and me. We never would have met him in New York. And we brought him the rough cut of the movie and he watched it. And within months, he had decided that he was going to go back to Honea Path at Christmas, which he always did, but this year he would go an apologize to all of the descendants of the men who his grandfather had basically murdered. He sent letters to these people, and they were all terrified. They were all talking to each other: “Oh my gosh, did you get a letter from the Beechams?” And they were sure that the letter said–what do you think the letter said? You can’t be in the movie. You have to tell George Stoney and Judith Helfand that you’re not going to be in that movie. I mean those are the kinds of ideas they had. He’s going to say that I can’t be in the movie. He’s going to say that I can’t erect this memorial. He’s going to get me in trouble. I mean, he’s the grandson of Dan Beecham who killed my father. He might say I can’t be in the movie. Now, I mean, we’re not talking rational. We’re talking about what happens when you get a letter from a guy on the other side of town who’s from a very–maybe they’re not even so wealthy anymore–but we’re talking management-class. So the letter was an apology that said, “I’m really sorry, I’m coming to town, and I really like to meet you.” Now he came to town and he was such a proponent of this movie, and he was so for the creation of this memorial that he wound up going on these live radio broadcasts talking about why this memorial should be erected. And it got everybody in town buzzing, and there were all these extraordinary live chats on the radio talking about the pros and cons of bringing this history up. So anyway, the result was the memorial–they were able to raise the money. Kathy was able to raise the money to do this memorial. She had to go in front of the city fathers a number of times, and there was a big debate about where in town it should be, but ultimately it was done. And they decided to have the unveiling on Memorial Day, which was very, very fitting, in the middle of town.
[CUT – FILM CLIP–Honea Path Remembered, about the dedication of the stone memorial in a public park in Honea Path to the murdered workers]
So you can really understand the guy who’s saying some of you lost your daddies and your uncles. He’s this young executive director of a group at the time that was doing non-union organizing, not using union-model, a couple of towns away. So for them, the South Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment, for CAFE, to have been able to be the lead supporters of an event like this was an absolutely unheard of radical moment for them.