CSWE Film Festival Series: Finding Refuge

by Maya Navon

refugee placard

Finding Refuge emerged from an extremely challenging yet life-changing college course. When the three filmmakers entered the course “Producing Films for Social Change,” we had no idea that we were about to begin an emotionally charged, fast-paced, and eye-opening period of our lives. In September 2012, we did not know how to use a camera, edit a clip, or even write a treatment.  Over the course of 3.5 months, we learned each and every aspect of creating a film, from the research stage to post-production, and emerged with a 20-minute piece that we were proud to share.

The idea for Finding Refuge stemmed from a class discussion about the topic of refugees. Armed with this very broad topic, we preceded to contact various refugee organizations. After weeks of trying to find just the right niche in this realm, we finally made a breakthrough with the connection to Natasha Soolkin, director of the New American Center in Lynn, MA. We knew that we wanted to focus on refugee resettlement in the United States; particularly, the various challenges and triumphs newly resettled refugees face when they arrive in the United States. However, we also knew that this topic would have no impact without a personal story. We needed a refugee to share his or her experiences, and it would be no small feat to find someone. Luckily, Natasha had just the person for us who would bring a voice to this issue: Mani.

Once we connected with Mani, the documentary finally took shape. We spent countless hours interviewing Mani and his family, touring his home and office, and getting a glimpse into his new American life. We also spoke to a wide variety of experts and workers in the field of refugee resettlement to gain a broader understanding of the journey from a place of turmoil to a new life in the United States. In a few months we had our final product: a piece shedding light on refugee resettlement through the story of one courageous, hard-working, and resilient man.

Our connection with Mani extended far beyond filmmaker and subject. He touched our lives with his story and made us realize the true meaning of strength. After spending 17 years in a refugee camp, Mani managed to keep his spirit and his thirst for success alive. The perpetual smile on his face reminded us to always stay positive, even in the face of hardship.


Transgression: Transgender and Undocumented

by Daniel Rotman

Team Transgression

While working with Immigration Equality, I discovered the stories of numerous transgender clients battling for asylum in the United States. Transgression’s formation began in summer 2011. I had a fellowship funded by the Traub-Dicker Fellowship at Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy with Immigration Equality, an organization that provides legal assistance and advocacy for LGBT individuals. At the culmination of the fellowship, I needed to write a lengthy thesis about a policy issue he encountered at Immigration Equality.  When I returned to Harvard at the end of the fellowship, I had an idea: create a documentary to showcase the plight of transgender detainees as a more effective and powerful educational piece. With the permission of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, he proceeded with planning for the documentary.

I entered a competition at Harvard Law School’s Documentary Studio Lab, which funds amateur documentary projects. Harvard Law had recently launched the campus-wide competition to encourage amateur documentary filmmakers to film a short documentary on a policy issue. Transgression was chosen as one of the finalists and received funding support and permission to use the Lab’s film equipment to create the documentary. I approached his close friend and colleague, Morgan Hargrave, to join the team as a writer/co-director. Harvard Law Studio connected me with Morgan, T. J. Barber an experienced editor completing his freshman year at Harvard, and Toni Marzal a writer completing a master’s program at Harvard Law School. The team received the support of Immigration Equality to focus the documentary on one of its clients, Norma, and the crew filmed in New York for one week. Post-production took 2 months as the crew managed full-time school schedules.

Due to the sensitivity of the subject matter, it was difficult to maintain a balance of capturing the full scope and depth of the story while respecting Norma’s pain as she recalled her experience. It was surprising to see Norma’s openness and fearlessness in telling her story, despite her difficult memories. Team Transgression tried to exercise caution with regard to revealing anything that would jeopardize Norma’s immigration status. Fortunately, there was little that the team needed to avoid including in the film. The film is in English, but Norma’s first words are in Spanish.


CSWE Film Festival Series: Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking (DMST) Documentary “Behind Closed Doors”

Behind Closed Doors: Voices From the Inside is a feature-length documentary on domestic minor sex-trafficking (DMST), produced by master’s-level graduate students enrolled in the summer 2011 Advanced Policy class in the Department of Social Work at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). Each course in the UTSA Social Work Program has a master competency assignment; the competency assignment for the Advanced Policy course is to develop and implement a social welfare policy campaign that involves at least one community partner (in this case, a large and quasi-public community mental health services agency). Students choose the campaign topic (DMST), the type of campaign to be used (public awareness), the target group(s) addressed by the campaign (general community), and the methodology used to carry out the campaign (video documentary). DMST was selected as the topic for the campaign for the following reasons:

  • the locale of Interstate I-10, which crosses Texas, is a major conduit for DMST, and runs through San Antonio;
  • the need to dispel myths about DMST among members of the general community;
  • the desire to contribute to the work of a San Antonio senior state senator who has worked tirelessly on passing legislation aimed at preventing and eradicating DMST;
  • and the availability of a key informant with direct access to current and former victims of DMST.

Although members of the class enthusiastically undertook the documentary production, no one (including the course instructor) had any experience in creating such a product. The students tapped social networks to locate a videographer willing to work pro-bono with class members to produce the documentary. A young untested videographer with a limited portfolio, but a passion for social justice, lent his time and talent to help make the documentary. The informant provided access to current and former victims of DMST, all of whom were interviewed, but only some agreed to be included in the documentary.

Several nights a week (and occasionally on a weekend), students accompanied the informant into parts of the community where DMST could be found. The class instructor used his contacts to secure interviews with individuals and organizations in the community who were engaged in a variety of efforts to prevent and eradicate DMST. Approximately 100 hours of video footage were shot. Ensuring the privacy rights of the current and former victims of DMST who agreed to be in the documentary and protecting them from retaliation by their traffickers were just a couple of challenges associated with making the documentary.

The students also faced the daunting task of completing the project in such a short time. It was extremely difficult to hear the stories of teenage girls; some of whom were trafficked since as young as 8-years-old or their parents forced the girls into lives as a sex slaves (familial trafficking). Equally difficult were the stories of adult DMST survivors who bore long-lasting emotional scars of being trafficked and whose lives were filled with violent relationships, drug addiction, homelessness, and incarceration. It is noteworthy that one interviewee agreed to appear in the documentary and was found dead in a motel room under suspicious circumstances before the film’s release, and this film is dedicated to her memory.

On several occasions, the students were confronted with the possibility of physical harm because they were outsiders in certain areas of the community, and they attempted to speak with people considered off-limits. It is important to note that student safety was of paramount importance, and students were never allowed to enter situations that clearly compromised their security. This work is relevant for social work instructors because it provides a transformational learning experience that the classroom lacks. Students set the learning agenda for the class, so the instructor ensures a safe space for enacting that agenda, and students are afforded the opportunity to gain knowledge about policy advocacy through a compelling real-life experience.

Join Us for a live Twitter Chat on August 22, 2013 at 8PM EST using the hashtag #SWunited with guest Robert Ambrosino to discuss his Sex Trafficking documentary nominated for the CSWE Virtual Film Festival.


Image courtesy of University of Texas at San Antonio.

CSWE Virtual Film Festival Series: The LGBT Community “Insights to Strength”

by Deona Hooper, MSW

Service Woman abused by a Fellow Soldier

This week’s film maker being highlighted is Jen Ackerman who created a documentary on the challenges and barriers that members of the LGBT community face in being open about their sexuality. Her film “Insights to Strength” has been nominated in the Council for Social Work Education (CSWE) Virtual Film Festival 2013. Jen was able to capture some heart wrenching stories in her documentary. One interviewee was a service woman in our armed forces, and she recounts how a fellow soldier who suspected that she was a lesbian forced her to commit sex acts in lieu of turning her in for being gay in the military which could result in charges under military law.

Someone’s sexuality should not be a predisposition to abuse and predatory behavior. By ignoring and protecting those who prey on the LGBT community and other vulnerable populations, we involuntarily become complicit actors.  I had an opportunity to interview Jen about this project and why it was important for her to tell these stories from the LGBT community, and here is our discussion.

SWH: Tell us a bit about the background of the film maker(s) who worked on this project. 

Jen: This film was developed and completed as part of a documentary workshop I signed up for at the University of Central Florida. At the time, I was in the University’s Social Work program but still wanted to explore film. During the same period of time that I joined this workshop, I also decided to do an undergraduate research thesis. Originally my plan was to have the documentary and the thesis compliment each other. I wanted to keep the same subjects and themes. However, in the end, my thesis focused more on social work students and their comfort level with gay and lesbian families, while my documentary became a profile of the strengths perspective through the lens of LGBT community members in Orlando and Tampa, Florida.

Through the development/ planning stages all the way to the shooting and editing, I worked on this film a majority of the time alone. I received much guidance from classmates and of course the workshop instructor, Dr. Lisa Mills. But this project was a chance for me to learn everything by doing and that was what I did. On a couple of interviews I had a friend or my brother help with audio, but that was the extent of others working on the film, at least on the production side. The art in the film was done by a high school friend of mine who worked with me to create the vision in my mind. The art piece took about four days to complete and it was filmed in my apartment with black sheets hanging from the walls. And there is of course, the men and women I interviewed for the film. They are the heart of this project!   The background of finding the interviewees for the film is best explained by the snowball effect. I asked a few people and they recommended others and it spread. At the end of filming I completed around twenty interviews and had over twenty hours of footage.

SWH: What attracted you to the CSWE Virtual Film Festival, and what are your thoughts on your film possible influencing the education of future social workers and current practitioners in providing services to vulnerable populations?

Jen: I was attracted to the CSWE Virtual Film Festival because I strongly believe in the promotion of the film medium as a tool for learning and education. The power of film is illustrated time and time again when a person watches a film and that film makes them think about something they otherwise wouldn’t have. I loved the idea of a social work film festival because I feel so many of the core values in social work need to be highlighted and praised. I always knew I wanted to make films but when I found myself in film classes I felt something was missing. I was not learning how to create change. When I finished my first social work class it was very clear to me that the foundation I wanted for my films was based in social work theory and practice. Now that I have finished my BSW, I am not the same person and I no longer see the world the way I did previously.

There is something very special and very strong about the way social workers think and function. I find it to be revolutionary and brave. I respect all social workers and it is an honor to think that my short film could possibly influence a social worker. I am excited by the thought of my film influencing the education of future social workers and current practitioners. It is vital that we never stop learning, especially in our changing society. The LGBT community is a currently on a roller coaster of progress with hills and valleys all over our country and the world. If my film can open a few minds or at the very least start a few conversations I accomplished my goal. I only wanted to show others that the strengths perceptive can always be present, even in a place of unfortunate circumstance.  People can survive and it is beautiful. I also hope that this film shows social workers that there is room for art, even in our field. The beauty surrounding even ugly situations should be acknowledged. The art in my film in subjective. The face can be different for anyone watching, but what is important is that it is there and its’ presence cannot be ignored.

SWH: What would you like to accomplish with your film making, and what advice would you give to aspiring film makers who want to tell other’s stories?

Jen: I hope to continue creating films with social work themes. I want to give others a view of social work that they have not been exposed to before. It is important to me that society understands the remarkable men and women who become social workers. The advice I would give to aspiring filmmakers is to not be afraid. I think it easy to be intimidated in the film field or realm. But the thing is, everyone has a valid story and when it comes to making films it is about being uncomfortable and learning. There is so much about filmmaking that I do not know yet, however I decided not to let that stop me from continuing in this field. When you think you have a story, tell it and get it out there in a way is has not been told before!

Join us for a Live Twitter chat on August 15, 2013 at 8PM EST using the hashtag #SWunited to discuss the barriers and challenges of the LGBT community with Jen Ackerman as our guest.

View “Insights to Strengths”:


CSWE Virtual Film Festival Series: Exploring Interracial Adoptions in “A Season for Dancing”

Welcoming Party for MeseretFamilies such as Brad Pitt and Angelia Jolie has really thrusted interracial adoptions into the forefront of public discussion. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, interracial adoptions or another similar term transracial adoptions occurs when placing a child of one race or culture with the adoptive parents of another race or culture.

I had the opportunity to interview Moges Tafesse the film director of “A Season for Dancing” which documents a father’s journey in helping his adopted child connect with his heritage. “A Season for Dancing” has been nominated as one of the finalist in the Council for Social Work Education (CSWE) Virtual Film Festival. Moges describes the film as journey “toward personal healing, the restoration of relationships with family and childhood friends, the redemption of his cultural identity, and his first steps toward achieving his dreams for the future.”

The debate over interracial adoptions has been a difficult one within our country’s history and within the social work profession. The major concerns relating to interracial adoptions have always been whether the adoptive parent would have the ability to be culturally sensitive to the perspective adoptee’s racial and cultural identity. In 1972, the National Association for Black Social Workers  raised concerns about African-American children being adopted into Caucasian homes based on circumstances where both Black and Indian children were being acquired as laborers for the home.

When I started working in child welfare, one of the first films I viewed was of Richard Cardinal who was an Indian child removed from his reservation and placed into foster care with 18 different Caucasian families. Unfortunately before his 18 birthday, Richard committed suicide, but he left behind a diary that gave valuable insights into a broken child welfare system. I believe that it is important for us to learn about Richard’s story to prevent making the same mistakes, but it is also important to look at successful models of interracial adoptions in order to learn how to educate and develop programs for perspective interracial adoptive parents.

Now, I want to share with you my Mogese Tafasse’s thoughts on “A Season for Dancing”.

SWH: Can you tell SWH Readers about your background, and your film making role?

I acquired both a MSW and PhD in Social Work and Social Development. As the director/writer of this film, I consider myself to be a socially responsible film maker in Ethiopia while running a small production firm engaged in the production of short films, documentaries, and TV programs.  Previously, I worked in a adoption organization that connects Ethiopian children with families in France, and I observed the plight of adoptees who were disconnected to their  family, culture and language. I observed children coming back to Ethiopia to see their family and culture, but they ended up desperate and aliens. During my MSW and PhD courses-Practice with Children and Families, and Action Research, I sensed the gravity of the issue of inter-country adoption and thinking  of an opportunity to make one short documentary film on adoption with the principles of action research as an approach for my documentary films-to bring a change while filming.

SWH: What attracted you to the CSWE Virtual Film Festival, and what are your thoughts on your film possible influencing the education of future social workers and current practitioners in providing services to vulnerable populations?

MT: A professor of Emeritus, Nathan Linsk, from Jane Addams college of social work at University of Illinois, Chicago, advised me to submit my documentary for CSWE. He knows my interest in media and social work. On the issues I raised on the film, I believe the film can influence social work education and practice by putting the famous social work approach-person in environment in an Ethiopian context and making it more practical and tangible.  Following a person- in- environment approach as opposed to person in problem or pathogenic approach, the film show that the psycho-social, biological and spiritual aspects to be considered during social work intervention.

The lead character before returning to Ethiopia had a negative experience. When he come back to Ethiopia he confronts all those hidden part of his life and make meaning out of it and reconnected his background, then went to his place with a healed personality.  What is interesting to me in this documentary is also after we done the research we highly participate the lead character to the level of assistant director in a way the film story match with the findings of the study.  in a sense it is participatory video that we see a challenges and solution of an adopted child form his own perspective but that is related with a prominent social work model of intervention.

SWH: What would you like to accomplish with your film making, and what advice would you give to aspiring film makers who want to tell other’s stories?

MT: Currently I am running an independent production firm, Synergy Habesha Films and Communications (www.synergyhabeshafilms.com). As a social worker studied at PhD level I am bringing my social work knowledge with media as a tool.  I have great aspiration to produce more films on diverse issues on vulnerable part of Ethiopian community particularly women and children. I have also an aspiration to make feature documentary film. Currently I am writing a script about an Ethiopian women who was sold as a slave concubine for an Atomoan Arab, who was rescued by her mate after 15 years of search (The Concubine).  My advise for others who would like to make films is to do a research on the subject matter and the approach of the film to be used to frame the subject matter. During production valuing the participants to a level that they are story tellers and the film makers is a learner/listener is also a great way to find great stories from the character. Last but not least is determination and persistence and believing in once’s contribution is very important.

Join us for a Live Twitter Chat on August 8, 2013 at 8PM EST with Film Director Moges Talfese to discuss his film and thoughts on interracial adoptions. @swhelpercom will be moderating the chat using the hashtag #swunited.

View “A Season for Dancing” below:


Exit mobile version