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How Documentary Films In Communities Of Faith Can Transform Lives

As a movie and a movement lover who will be toggling between the Oscars this Sunday night and news of this nation’s tumultuous times, I wonder what it would look like if the power of film was maximized to equip communities of faith to advance justice.

I’m a documentary filmmaker. I have seen the power of documentary film to transform lives. I am also an organizer for justice in communities of faith. I have seen the power of communities of faith to transform lives. What I yearn to see is the full power of documentary films in communities of faith to transform lives.

My dad was a civil rights preacher.

My church is a sanctuary church, a part of our 21st Century underground railroad.

In this country, there are millions of progressive people of faith and tens of thousands of institutions living with the mandate to heal and repair the world. But all too often, communities of faith can’t or don’t see the struggles for justice of people and places they have not and may never come to know.

Documentary films can provide windows into these worlds.

And yes. In this day of Black Panther, the case should be made for using all kinds of film and media as organizing tools in communities of faith, but I want to lift up the particular value of documentary to provide windows into worlds folks need to see.

Recently, I have witnessed three examples that give me clues as to what powerful integration of film into faith-rooted organizing can look like.

Example 1: Doc Film Helping People of Faith to Advance Economic Justice

Last summer I was at a two-day teach-in and rally for the Poor People’s Campaign. 50 years ago, the activist community of which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a member was leading a campaign to liberate poor people in this nation, a campaign led by poor people. Today, a community of activists all across the country has taken up the mantle of that campaign and will be participating in 40 days of civil disobedience between Mother’s Day and Summer Solstice of this year .

At that state-based teach-in I attended, the facilitators shared clips from Orlando Bagwell’s Citizen King to remind us that grassroots movements led by poor people, all kinds of people, and people of faith have shaped this nation’s history.

These clips transported those gathered in the room – poor and working class activists, organizers and leaders of faith – into fellowship with those who came before us on whose shoulders we perch. Our imaginations were kindled to see what is possible as well as to grapple with the mistakes of movement that has come before us. The window into the civil rights struggle that Citizen King provided restored our hope, reminded us that times have been bad before, but still we have risen to the challenge, and fired us up for the campaign ahead.

Example 2: Doc Film Helping People of Faith to Advance Immigrant Justice

Around the same time, I attended a daylong civil disobedience workshop for leaders of faith and moral courage who wanted to put their bodies on the line and bring their communities and congregations into the movement for immigrant justice in the age of Trump.

The training was facilitated by leaders from the campaign to unseat Joe Arpaio in Phoenix, Arizona, renegade sheriff who was directing his police force to go after immigrants in ways that were outside the law.

In order to bring the gathered faith leaders into the culture and practice of that campaign, the facilitators opened the session with a clip from Daniel Devivo and Valeria Fernández’s documentary film Two Americans. It catapulted us into that movement moment, thousands of miles away and a year or so ago.

Again, the window through which we could witness the challenges and triumphs of the work made us believe we could win and showed us ways others have done so, leaders of faith offering up their moral authority in the community on behalf of most impacted people whose leadership they flanked. (The picture above is a still from Two Americans representing the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, a local Phoenix pastor committing civil disobedience. Rev. Frederick-Gray is now the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association.)

Example 3: Doc Film Helping People of Faith to Advance LGBTQ Justice

I have learned some lessons in my own work at the intersection of faith-rooted justice work and documentary filmmaking. The last film I directed, Love Free or Die, told the story of the church putting its life on the line for LGBTQ justice, following Gene Robinson, the first openly gay person to be elected bishop in the high church traditions of Christendom, and the movement he was a part of that changed policy and culture in church and state in the U.S. and abroad.

We folded our national TV broadcast and 400 community screenings of the film into a strategy to advance the marriage equality work of 2012 – in particular the campaigns in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington.

At Auburn, where I work, we had participated in research for the previous two years on how to move conflicted Christian voters to support LGBTQ equality because they were Christian and not in spite of it.

During the year of our screenings, we used that research to equip those who attended the 400 screenings to engage their conflicted Christian friends and family in conversation to help them vote on the right side of history. We also worked with the state campaigns, in partnership with national LGBTQ justice organizations, to train leaders of faith to make the moral case for equality in public and in the press.

In all four states in which we did this work, marriage equality was won – not the ultimate battle for LGBTQ people in this country, but a step in the right direction. In the two states that conducted exit polls to determine what swung the vote, the Christian messaging and messengers were named as one of the top determinants.

I can’t specify what role our movie screenings, friends and family plan, and research and message training played in those victories, but I did see deep relationship between media makers, communities of faith, and movement workers, and that, in and of itself, was an advance in my own practice of engagement with communities of faith around a documentary film.

Key to movement work, to faith traditions, and to documentary film is right relationship – creating a practice and a world in which the full humanity of all is honored and the conditions needed for all to flourish exist.

May we filmmakers explore new and better ways to be in right relationship with communities of faith. May we share our stories of success and failure with one another, so that together we create a practice from which other filmmakers can learn as they engage communities of faith.

For justice to be won, faith communities and filmmakers need each other – to imagine the world as it should be and to bring it into being.


A version of these remarks was offered this past week at GoodPitch Local in Dallas in the company of filmmakers, organizers and funders committed to maximizing the power of media for positive social change. The Auburn team is profoundly grateful for the invitation to be a part of this transformative model of movement building.

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These Fierce Films from Sundance Give Us Hope in the Face of the Terrible State of the Union

The State of the Union is dreadful. Are there any signs of hope in this era in which the Death-eaters have taken over the Ministry of Magic?

Just back from the Sundance Film Festival, I am struck by the string of great David-and-Goliath documentary films I saw there.

Taking on the NYPD: Crime + Punishment tells the story of twelve cops of color, a private investigator, a kid incarcerated for a crime he did not commit, and a mother who will not give up until her son is sprung. Together, they expose the widespread corruption within the New York Police Department, which has been pushing cops on the streets to fulfill quotas of arrests, to “get their numbers up” with extra credit for felonies, rather than focus on keeping the peace.

Taking on money in politicsDark Money reveals how big money is buying elections, focusing on a series of races in Montana for state senator and the governorship. An out-of-work reporter, a retiree lawyer, and a team of other everyday folk chart a path through deception and denial and discover evidence that leads to the conviction of the state Senate Majority Leader for breaking campaign finance law and to a renewed effort in the state of Montana for ethical elections.

Taking on corporations poisoning our waterThe Devil We Know investigates the history of the DuPont Corporation dumping chemicals into the Ohio River, promising that what was dumped poses no threat to humans, even as an entire herd of cattle is found suddenly dead near the waste dump site. In the one-company town of Parkersburg, West Virginia, too many children are born deformed. Seven deadly diseases are suddenly legion. And a handful of local red-state residents break from the company culture to take down the corporation.

Taking on warThe Oslo Diaries tells the little-known story of secret meetings that took place in Norway between representatives of the Israeli state and the Palestinian people. A handful of brave souls are sent secretly to meetings that, if they were to be discovered, might lead to the death of all involved and the undoing of all they hold dear. This small group of enemies attempts to broker the impossible peace that has eluded so many. In the process, they bond and through this unlikely bonding, Israel and Palestine come as close as they have to date to a two-state solution and to the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Now you might say: Yeah, but look what happened next. Hard-right Israelis assassinated Yitzhak Rabin or perhaps, as it is says in the movie, assassinated the possibility for peace.

But that’s not how I see it. Call me Pollyanna but I marveled at the bridge these political underlings almost built to peace in the Middle East. Sure it failed, but we would be foolish not to see the victory, or at least a possible path to victory, in the story. And possibility is precious right now.

And then there’s Akicita: The Battle of Standing Rock in which indigenous activists refuse to allow the Dakota Access Pipeline to cut through sacred Lakotan lands and threaten the life-giving waters of the Cannonball River. Do they win? Yes. Is the pipeline built? Yes. So what’s the win?, you might ask.

Well, in Akicita: The Battle of Standing Rock we see the birth of a new generation of activists willing to risk everything – I mean, everything – to decolonize their land, their bodies, their lives. 25 of those activists were at Sundance (weird, right?) and they named the frontlines on which they are currently laying down their lives – Bears Ear, British Columbia, the Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota and Wisconsin. They are not defeated. They are in movement.

In this gross time, in which we are led by gross leaders that bring out the grossest impulses in the Americans who support them, we need to have an imagination for winning, an imagination for taking down Goliath. We also need an imagination for the world as it should be. Watching the Israeli and Palestinian officials sharing ripe fruit and cigarettes together, seeing the fired journalist who has created his own online news source in the age of corporate-controlled media break the story that breaks the back of evil, witnessing the activist bring DuPont to it’s knees – the activist who was born with half a nose because his mother was faithful to the company that refused to recognize the sacrifice she made for their profit, I recover or discover the imagination I need to topple this evil empire in power.

Watching the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock where indigenous people from tribes as far afield as Iceland and New Zealand convene along with a next generation of activists certain that first nations people must lead us out of the hell colonization created, watching the dance, hearing the music, beholding the best in our human nature blocking corporation and state in the face of all violence, mace and mayhem, I recognized that we can do this.

We can do this.

Imagine that.

PS: I have linked the film titles to the filmmakers’ websites who made them. Write to them. Ask them how you can bring these films to your communities. Who knows how they will respond, but if you are like me, you need to see Goliath go down right about now.

PPS: And if you need help, write Sarah Masters at She runs the new Hartley Media Impact Initiative at Auburn, committed to getting the best media to all you leaders of faith and moral courage to help you stand for justice.

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5 Life-Changers from SXSW and 1 from Sundance

By Macky Alston

Just back from Texas. The weather was as cold and weird there as it was in my snow-swept hometown of New York when I returned. Clearly, the world is coming to an end. Before it does, I have some gifts for you – some that may even help you prevent the looming apocalypse.

  1. The Work: Every once in a blue moon, you see a film that changes the way you understand life. The Work, a documentary that follows a four-day group therapy session at Folsom Prison attended by men on the inside and the outside of the prison walls, changed my understanding of what it means to be a man, what it means to be human, and revealed the full humanity of incarcerated people in all their giftedness in a way that I have never seen before on film (including my own that I made for PBS back in 2007). I don’t want to talk about it anymore. See the movie. Then please – we have to talk. To put it plainly, this is one of the best films I have ever seen and if we get it out into the world, I think it can save a lot of lives.
  2. Van Jones: In a room of at least 1000 people, mostly privates in this moment’s #LoveArmy, Van read to us, his base, the riot act. He said that, while Trump is worse than he could ever have predicted – much worse, he has come to discover as he has traveled the country for his new show #TheMessyTruth that the people who voted for Trump are, for the most part, humans who are hurting. We on the left, according to Van, ignore their hollering at the peril of our movements, but also at the peril of our integrity as people who say we care about humans who hurt. Here is a ten-minute bit of his talk, but watch for its release in April in its full glory. To my mind, no one mixes humor, kitchen-table talk, political analysis, cultural critique, and love of all God’s unruly children better than Van. Maybe I am wrong, but when he does his thing, I feel it. The room was silent except for abrupt eruptions of laughter as people stared the uncomfortable truth of themselves in the face until the sermon was over, at which point Van received the only standing ovation I saw at SXSW and it was loud and it was long.
  3. Design Thinking, courageous conversations and the $1,000,000 prize for good: Design thinking is all the rage. At Auburn, where I work, it has changed the way we gather leaders of faith and moral courage to imagine how we can actually heal and repair the world. Two winsome young employees of IDEO, a consulting company that helps organizations integrate design thinking into their work, gave a talk at SXSW on how to have conversations with diverse groups of people, including folks in serious disagreement, in the face of today’s wicked challenges. What was the answer? Proceed with respect. Be curious.Tell stories. I know, it’s not rocket science, but you have to admit it isn’t that easy either. We at Auburn are testing different methodologies right now to help people build relationship across all kinds of difference. If you know of a “courageous conversations” workshop or framework that you would bet your life on, write me. I’ll give you ten bucks and do my darnedest to bring it to scale. If your budget requires a little more than that for the ways you hope to change the world, the IDEO duo is offering a $1,000,000 prize for the brightest idea to make the world a better place. I say we all go for it. Knowing the folks I have met in the multifaith movements for justice, we have no shortage of life-saving programs and who couldn’t use a cool million to take it up a notch.
  4. The Red Bull Amaphiko Academy: And so, to invest the million dollars you just received from IDEO in scaling your big idea, you might consider the Red Bull Amaphiko Academy, an annual academy for social entrepreneurs from all over the world supported by Ashoka and Red Bull, yes – that high octane fuel that may kill you, but will get you through the night. For the first time, they are gathering changemakers in the U.S. this year – August 11-20th in Baltimore. Deadline to apply is April 30th. Can you imagine what it would be like to hang out with the biggest dreamers on earth drinking Red Bull for 9 days straight? Come on. We got to see that, right?
  5. Pulaski: Now you want to feel something? Need a little cry? Watch this for 6 minutes. This Andrew Bird video is one stop on the campaign Jason Rzepka and his organization Everytown created to reduce gun violence in America. I loved the panel on which the video’s director Natalie Morales, Amy Schumer’s co-writer Daniel Powell, and others discussed how big entertainment can partner with social change agents to address some of the most intractable problems of our time. It is time to capture the public imagination, wake us all up to the need to save lives and save our democracy, and its collaborations like these with the artists and activists of our time that give me hope.

There was more. The intimate documentary portrait of Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastic community. The laugh-out-loud panel on the Secret Life of Muslims. The innovative visual storytelling at Huffington Post that’s changing the way we read the news. The way livestreaming is changing the way we watch the news.

And then there’s one film I just can’t get out of my head from this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

  1. The Last Men in Aleppo documents a handful of everyday heroes who have chosen not to flee the city under siege, but instead to commit their lives to salvaging bodies, some with life still in them, some not, from the bombs dropped indiscriminately from above from God knows who and God knows where. Never again will I see faceless others when I read the news about Syria or some of these other countries whose refugees we are trying to ban from our shores. The average Joes of Last Men in Aleppo are just doing what they can to help. They are so relatable – like my Uncle Charlie, my brother-in-law John, praying to Allah as they navigate cars on fire in a sticky spot of traffic, just as I mutter prayers to deliver me from turbulence 30,000 feet up in the air or a taxi suddenly reckless.

God help us get out of the mess we are in.

Don’t you remember being told: God helps those who help themselves?

So help yourselves to these gifts. Let us use them to feel, to awaken, to create, to organize like we never have before, and to find our way together to the world for which we all long.

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The Women’s March, ACT UP, and the Life-Changing Power of Creative Resistance

That moment in The Wizard of Oz, after the tornado, when Dorothy walks out of the broken black-and-white home into the land of color “where the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true,” that is what it was like to arrive in Washington, DC for the Women’s March.

Here’s the thing: If we haven’t tasted freedom, known it in our bodies first-hand, then it is easy for us to believe that it has never, does not, and cannot exist. 

The first time I walked into a room of queer people who were proud of who they were was the third weekly Monday meeting of ACT UP at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center in 1987, 30 years ago.

When I walked into that door, I departed the black-and-white world of the closet, that death chamber that I was taught was the only place I could live, and entered the world that chooses living fabulously, even in the face of death.

The gathered largely consisted of people with a terminal diagnosis that, for years to come, our elected officials would not even admit existed. Terror like a tornado was tearing through our closeted lives. The gorgeous choice we made was to not let death have the last word.

Somehow we realized, in the words of the Movement for Black Lives, that we had to love and support one another, that we had nothing to lose but our chains, that it was our duty to fight for our freedom, and we did, with all we had – our creativity, our bodies, our voices, our resources – forging community across generation, class, culture and conviction.

ACT UP was not perfect, but weekly, as we gathered, organized, and acted up, we practiced embodying the world for which we longed, as we struggled over the years to bring it into being.

As Jay Smooth declared in the face of David Brooks’ disparaging remarks about last week’s Women’s March, this is what people fighting for their lives looks like.

Successful culture-changing tactics can only emerge from the revelation that we can thrive even in the face of death even as the tornado tears through our lives.

Without embodied knowledge that we can dance in the streets and survive, speak our truths and survive, look and love like we do and survive, then we are left isolated, living in fear that, if the world were to see us as we really are, it would be the end of us.

My colleague Lisa Anderson, in her work teaching women of color that it is their duty to God and country to thrive, recites regularly a passage from Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. It describes the clearing, a space in the woods and in the hearts of Black slaves where, in the face of death, they gathered and danced and loved themselves and one another.

In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. 

The lessons in audacity I learned as a scared young gay man 30 years ago from ACT UP taught me that life is precious. That, in community, we must show up, speak up, ‘fess up, and act up – that is, in fact, what it means to be alive, to be free.

20 years ago this week, I, one who before ACT UP thought I had no right to call myself an artist, premiered my first film at the Sundance Film Festival. It was about the cost of the secrets and lies we keep as a nation that has not reckoned with the legacy of slavery.

15 years ago I organized an illegal church wedding with my man and 250 of our nearest and dearest. The next year we adopted our first child. Three years later, we adopted our second.

When I came out, I was told that I would never be happy, that I would never have family, that if I named who I was publicly, misery, ridicule, and loneliness would be my only fate.

I had reason to believe that to be true, but somehow showing up in that ACT UP meeting that first time gave me the courage to participate in some of the most hopeful movement building of this generation.

Watch this video that my colleague, Esther, made of our bus ride to the DC March. You will meet Lisa Anderson teaching that for all to be free, you must be free, but only in a way that encourages and accommodates all others to be free as well.

In the video, you may notice two young girls sitting together on the bus. Imagine they have lived through an election season when one candidate represents the power of women and girls to lead, and the other represents the power of men to abuse women verbally and physically. Imagine this latter candidate has just been chosen by your neighbors in this nation to be first among us, the one we have been waiting for. And then imagine these girls rolling into Washington, seeing more people in one place than they ever have in their whole entire lives and these people are free.

The Women’s March gave my daughters a taste of this nation’s promise worth keeping, of God’s realm on earth, of how it is supposed to be. Now it is ours to bring that world into being – every chance we get – and for the generations to come.

This land was made for you and me.