Interview with Every Mother's Son filmmakers, Kelly Anderson and Tami Gold
What generally inspires you as a documentary filmmaker?
Kelly Anderson: Originally I was interested in using media to express political points of view that weren¹t articulated in the mainstream media. To that effect, I am interested in putting the voices of our characters in Every Mother's Son forward, and I hope the film can contribute to the debate about policing and to having the film be part of the process of change.
After 15 years of making documentaries, though, my interest in the creative process of documentary-making has grown, and become equally as important to me as the "message." The process is so engaging and so challenging to both sides of my brain, the analytical and intuitive.
I love the fact that you never quite know what you are going to find. People never cease to amaze me, and inspire me, and the experience of throwing myself into someone else¹s world and to communicate their experience and point of view is a big responsibility and also very rewarding.
Tami Gold: I came to documentary filmmaking through painting, and I was introduced at a young age to the Cuban documentarian, Santiago Alvarez. I learned the documentary could be a public canvas, a way to speak to hundreds if not thousands of people at one time.
I¹m inspired by the ever-present nature of people¹s ability to fight injustice, no matter what the odds are. There¹s this little spark that some people have, and I¹m attracted to the spark, and I want to focus the camera on them.
There are two ways to approach documentary. In one, the idea generates within yourself. The other way, people approach you and you¹re working with an already existing concept. Either way, you have to feel passionate about the work or it won¹t materialize.
When and how did you decide to undertake this project?
Tami Gold: I often feel like topics choose me. What happened with Every Mother's Son is that police killings were on my mind because they were so much a part of our environment in the city, and the discourse in the media was so polarized, that when Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times in his own vestibule, I felt I had to get out there with a camera and talk to people, even for my own sanity, to find my own bearings. The camera gives me the ability to talk to people that I wouldn¹t otherwise be able to approach with any level of comfort. It was like the topic chose me.
Kelly Anderson: I was concerned about the high level of visibility of the topic, and the challenge was to find a unique angle on something that had had a lot of media coverage already. Then, we found that filming the story of the mothers was a way in that was different. We decided to focus on their enormous transition from people undergoing a terrible experience to people determined to speak out for changes in policing. We decided to look at what it was in them that pushed them to do that.
Every Mother's Son - Tami Gold (R) and Kelly Anderson (L) producers and directors. Photo: Kirk Condyles
Tami Gold: We both felt that it wasn¹t enough to make a documentary about police brutality alone. We wanted it to deal with these issues but also to have a human component, and to have an aspect of hope. The three mothers in Every Mother's Son Kadiatou Diallo, Iris Baez and Doris Busch-Boskey, have found a resilience in themselves that is remarkable and can provide inspiration to others.
What were your goals in making Every Mother's Son? What would you like a viewer to understand after seeing the film?
Tami Gold: For a while, we wanted to do a series called "Policing in a Democracy," which looked at the history of policing in the United States and asked whether policing can be done with justice with the kind of political and economic system that we have here in the US. It became such a monumental project that we decided to focus on a narrower topic that would still allow us to get at the important questions.
Kelly Anderson: Tami and I are always attracted to stories that explore large societal and political questions through the intimate personal experiences of people affected by them. Policing was such a dense topic, with so much history, that we decided that focusing on New York City during the Giuliani years, and on the stories of three mothers (though they were part of a larger movement), would allow us to get at the big issues through a very personal lens.
After seeing the film, I¹d like the viewer to understand that police brutality is a problem that extends far beyond individual "bad cops," and that many of the problems facing us, particularly in the cities, are systemic in that they have to do with policies that put police officers in situations where abuses are likely to take place.
And I¹d like to have Americans who don¹t live in poor urban areas to have a sense of what people in those communities experience from the police on a daily basis, because I think it would be shocking for them to see how unequal policing is in terms of its effect on citizens.
Tami Gold: I¹d like viewers to feel motivated to take very specific action where they live in terms of the creation of independent citizen review boards that have teeth, the creation of independent prosecutor positions where they don¹t exist and the building of coalitions with organizations that are fighting to reform policing in America.
What were some of the difficulties and challenges you experienced in making this film? When filming, how do you hold your emotions back when you see injustice or suffering?
Kelly Anderson: There was so much going on in the city that it was difficult to balance the individual stories of our characters with the collective story of what was happening at that time. There were so many killings between 1994 and 2000 that it was difficult to find this balance in the narrative. We didn¹t want to lose our characters, but they were part of a large movement of family members and we didn¹t want to lose the sense of that collective either.
Every Mother's Son - Puerto Rican Rights rally demanding justice in the police killing of Anthony Baez on Dec 22, 1994. Held on Martin Luther King Day. Photo: Kirk Condyles
Tami Gold: I really wanted to see the police officers involved in our cases appear in the film. After years of trying, it became evident that they were not going to cooperate. Short of that, I wanted any cops, and we spent a long time going to any event where police would be, so that we could get their perspective into the film. We went to everything from police solidarity rallies around contract negotiations to a retirement party for a police officer in a Queens bar. We wanted to put a human face on the police, and to understand them as workers in a system that is so flawed. But ultimately it didn¹t work to include cops that weren¹t part of the specific stories we were telling, and it was a very difficult thing to let go of.
Kelly Anderson: We really didn¹t want to make a didactic film about how bad the police are. We wanted to really explore what is a complicated reality with a lot of nuances and contradictions. I think we succeeded, but in different ways than we thought we would.
Tami Gold: In terms of difficult emotional or political situations, we listen profoundly and make very little judgment about what people are saying. Sometimes it¹s appropriate to cry with someone.
Kelly Anderson: Documentary filmmaking is not that different from life in general. There are difficult moments, and you try and have empathy and be open.
Did your initial theories or feelings towards the subject change during filming? If so, how or in what ways? How do you incorporate (or ignore) those changes into the filmmaking experience?
Kelly Anderson: I became aware of how the justice system doesn¹t work when it comes to cases involving police officers, regardless of the evidence and how clear-cut the situations seem. Though we did not intend to include so many of the details of the cases in the film, we decided to focus on them more when we realized that the most difficult challenges our characters faced was in trying to get justice through the legal system. A lot of the drama of the documentary actually took place in this arena.
And I also became aware of how much the problem in policing is really a legacy of the deep problems of race relations in this country.
These realizations just made me want to tell the story even more, and to move it beyond the stories of the individual women to something that could speak beyond them and beyond New York City.
Tami Gold: My feelings have not changed, but I¹ve become more aware of the magnitude of the problem, that it¹s really the unfinished work of the civil rights movement.
I realized that people have strong pre-conceived notions about policing, and that to break through those preconceptions requires a lot of details around the cases and the situation in the NYPD during the 1990s. That took up more screen time than we initially anticipated, and as a result we were able to focus less on the impact of this kind of crisis on people¹s internal and family lives.
What are you currently working on or what would you like to be working on?
Tami Gold: I am currently working on a documentary with Larry Shore entitled Ripple of Hope, which explores the impact of Senator Robert Kennedy's visit to South Africa in 1966 immediately following the ban on the African National Congress and all organized forms of resistance to Apartheid. In addition, I am working with James Ridgeway of the Village Voice on Acting Patriotic, about the Patriot Act.
Kelly Anderson: I have just completed Overcoming the Odds, a short documentary about the World Health Organization¹s groundbreaking Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (the first-ever global public health and corporate accountability treaty), which premiered at the World Social Forum in Mumbai, India, this past January. I also have a few documentary ideas in development.