Fulbright Student Program Blog

Tag Archives: Filmmaking

Snapshots from Life on Kiribati

By Aurora Brachman, Fulbright U.S. Student to Kiribati

During my sophomore year at Pomona College I became aware of Kiribati, a small Pacific Island nation at risk of vanishing forever under rising sea levels. Scientists project that in as few as 30 years the entire country could be under water. Little did I know that Kiribati would play an important role in my life, and ultimately lead me to the Fulbright Program.

At the time, there was little information about how the 110,000 citizens of Kiribati were responding to this frightening prognosis. The media representations available were sensationalistic and objectifying, transforming Kiribati into a symbol of climate change, but failing to acknowledge the reality of the daily lives of the I-Kiribati. Despite never having never made a documentary before, I applied for and received a grant through the Pacific Basin Institute to create a documentary making the I-Kiribati and their stories the focal point.

Navigating Kiribati as an outsider is challenging. It is one of the least-developed countries in the world. Eighty percent of the population lives a subsistence lifestyle and there is severely limited access to electricity or running water. Though life will continue on the island for the next few decades, climate change is already making its mark. Some of my closest friends have had their homes destroyed by King Tides – exceptionally high tides that have become more powerful in recent years and are inundating the island, flooding homes and turning fresh water brackish. One friend lost her baby sister to dehydration from drinking water contaminated with oceanwater.

Yet what struck me most about Kiribati had nothing to do with climate change. Kiribati is vibrant in a way I didn’t know anything could be. I have never encountered a group of people that radiate love the way Kiribati people do. During my time there, I befriended a tight knit group of high school students, and they became my liaisons to their world. I was 19 at the time and so were they, and despite our vastly different life experiences, we related as most 19-year-olds do. We commiserated over our anxieties surrounding our encroaching adulthood, discussed our dreams for our futures, and shared our fears about a world paralyzed to act on climate change.

Yet when I asked my friends what they would miss most about Kiribati when they are forced to leave, and the resounding answer was, “the way we treat each other.”

After returning to Pomona, I dreamt of going back to Kiribati. I applied for and was accepted to the Fulbright Program. As someone interested in an artistic field, I didn’t know if my work would be deemed “scholarly enough” or worthy of a Fulbright – but my worries were unfounded. I strongly believe that no one who is interested in applying for Fulbright should be under the false impression that Fulbright is not for them. Fulbright is an incredible resource, and if you have a passion for something, you should absolutely apply.

In consultation with my Kiribati network, I developed a new project for my Fulbright, tentatively titled Life Between the Tides. An anthology series, Life Between the Tides is intended to be a platform of empowerment and self-representation for Kiribati and to build respect, empathy, and understanding of Kiribati people to ease their transition when they are forced to migrate from their country in the near future.

My post-production work will be supported by funding through a granting institution called “Pacific Islanders in Communications,” an organization funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). I was extremely fortunate to receive the funding as well as a commitment to digital and potential television distribution through the CPB. Life Between the Tides is projected to be released by the beginning of next year.

My time in Kiribati was one of the most challenging but rewarding experiences of my life. I treasure the lessons it taught me, and the fortitude and resilience I discovered that I never knew I had. Any challenges I face now pale in comparison to what I overcame on my Fulbright. I feel a kind of self-assuredness and self-confidence in my ability as a filmmaker, and a person, that I never had prior to this experience.

This September I will begin my MFA in Documentary Film and Video at Stanford University. I am both anxious and excited to be expanding upon my skills as a filmmaker, storyteller, and artist. In addition to refining my own abilities as a filmmaker, I want to pioneer a new form of participatory documentary filmmaking that works with disenfranchised communities to help equip them with the skills and tools to tell their own stories.

Compelling stories do not only lie at the center of the Pacific. Now, more than ever, there is a critical need for fostering greater understanding across communities through nuanced storytelling that honors the lives of its subjects. I hope to always use my position as a documentary filmmaker to uplift the narratives of those who struggle to have their voices heard.

Photo credit: Aurora Brachman and Darren James

Interview with Fulbright Alumnus and Moonlight Producer Andrew Hevia (2015-2016, Hong Kong)

Andrew Hevia, 2015-2016, Hong Kong (Photo by Robert Scherle)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. Can you tell us about working on Moonlight, and your involvement in making the film?

In 2007, I had just graduated from the Florida State University Film School and had moved to San Francisco. By coincidence, a group of Film School alums were in town making a micro budget feature – this turned out to be Moonlight writer-director Barry Jenkins’ debut feature, Medicine for Melancholy. Because of the alumni connection, I orbited that production and helped out whenever I could. I was an extra in the opening scene for example. That’s when I learned Barry was from Miami. It felt wrong to me that he was making a movie about San Francisco instead of Miami, so I made it my goal to change that.

Then, in 2010 or 2011, Tarell Alvin McCraney gave me a copy of his unfinished play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue—the story that eventually became Moonlight. I introduced him to Barry, gave Barry a copy of the play, and told him, “This might be the thing you make in Miami.” Time passed, Barry digested it and then the veteran producer Adele Romanski got wind of it, and she and Barry got Plan B and the distributor A24 involved. I had just won my Fulbright to Hong Kong and was set to leave in September, but Barry and Adele told me to delay the grant and offered me a role as co-producer. I’d been working to get Barry back to Miami for years and this was a project I cared deeply about so it was an easy and obvious yes.

Twelve Types of Tofu and Other Hella Good Adventures

Egill Bjarnasson - 1

Egill Bjarnason, 2013-2015, Iceland, introducing his short documentary film, “Once the Ice Melts,” to a full house at the Del Mar Theatre in downtown Santa Cruz

In between a gloomy forecast on the future of capitalism and an Op-Ed about why everyone should walk barefoot, the Question of the Week in the student-run newspaper, City on a Hill Press, asked what kind of action people were taking to help the California water rationing. One undergrad no longer kept the tap running while brushing teeth. Another took shorter showers. The third took no showers at all. The fourth, pictured deadpan in a hoodie featuring the school mascot Sammy-the-Slug, was apparently “only drinking espressos because of the drought.”

UC Santa Cruz is the strange uncle in the University of California system, founded fifty years ago to embrace the “eccentric imagination.” Like all UC campuses, it is a research university. Yet the graduate population is less than 1,600, compared with some 10,500 and 12,200 graduate students at UC Berkeley and UCLA respectively. Here, redwood trees outnumber students.

360 Degrees of Ice: How My Global Perspective Expanded with Fulbright, By Zane Thimmesch-Gill, 2008-2009, Canada

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I remember the exact moment I found out that I’d received a Fulbright grant to study in Canada’s Northwest Territories. I was driving cross-country when a series of tornadoes forced me to take shelter in a ramshackle motel in Eastern Colorado. The walls of the room were hand painted, floor to ceiling, in murals of ducks flying over forested lakes.

When I logged into my email and found the acceptance letter, I literally jumped up and gave the ducks high fives. Later that night as I ate a celebratory dinner of soggy pizza from the gas station next door, I stood by the tiny window in my bathroom, watching tumbleweed lash the still grazing bison.

My memory of that night is so vivid because I had fantasized about living in the Arctic since I was a little kid. I was drawn to the remoteness, to nature in its most pristine form. I understood that climate change was having a profound effect on the Northern ecosystem, but it was still some of the most untouched land on earth.

My Fulbright project would investigate how the Inuit were adjusting, physically and culturally, to the changes brought to the region by a warming planet. Earlier ice melt and later freeze up were altering the migration patterns of the herds the Inuit relied on for sustenance. Non-perishable foods shipped in on barges during the summer had introduced high levels of salt, sugar and preservatives to their diet. From the extensive research I’d done, I’d concluded that these nutritional challenges were the largest risk factor for public and community health. I packed my parka and boots and boarded the plane; confident that I knew what I’d find when I arrived.

My final flight was on an eight seat plane that was built like a tank. We flew over the Northwest Passage and landed on a rocky strip of gravel outside a small community. I’d gotten permission from the mayor and town council to conduct research, so I was uncomfortably surprised the next day when no one would make eye contact or talk to me.

I spent most of my first month wandering along the shore of the ocean and watching the sled dogs pace restlessly. Over that time I slowly came to realize that everything I thought I knew about the Arctic was wrong. No one wanted to talk to me about my research, because the questions I was asking weren’t relevant to their lives. It was a humbling experience. I felt betrayed by the years of research I’d conducted in preparation for my project. With the ubiquity of videos, photos and written material, it was easy to feel as though I already knew the Arctic before I arrived.

Once I was able to let go of my preconceived notions, the community really opened up to me. I started to learn about all of the concerns they did have, their struggles with poverty, questions of sovereignty, justice, education, land use and tourism. As we built trust, people started to confide in me, sharing stories that had seldom passed their lips. By the time the fellowship ended, I had gained a much more nuanced and powerful understanding of how climate change and shifting global economic structures were impacting the Inuit’s public and community health.

It would have been impossible for me to develop such a complex understanding without actually living in the Arctic. That’s the power of Fulbright. I learned how to listen for what was really being said, rather than what I thought I should hear. I learned that conducting literature-based research is important, but books can never tell the whole story. The only way to really know the world is to reach across the globe and make human connections.

Since my Fulbright grant, I’ve gone on to locate funding for two large research projects, learn a new language, and secure a contract for my first book, Hiding in Plain Sight, which will be published in 2013. The skills and knowledge I developed through the grant helped me in every one of those endeavors. Fulbright applicants tend to be intelligent, confident, driven, and resilient. But the grant helps hone those abilities on a professional level.

The Fulbright Association maintains a large support network around the world. Your ties to that global community don’t end when you return to your home country. In addition to working as a Fulbright Alumni Ambassador, I’ve also been a mentor to Fulbrighters studying in my city and participated in many events put on by my local chapter. These connections have proven invaluable both personally and professionally.

So how do you get involved in this exciting opportunity? It all starts with the application. Find someone you trust to edit your essays. Tell them you want the most honest and rigorous feedback they can give. It’s important that the proposal retains the quality of your own voice, but an editor can identify where your ideas are too vague, the language too flowery and information repeated.

Second, be willing to write and rewrite the application materials until they are clear, succinct, detailed and convey your passion. For reference, I rewrote my project proposal eight times. The degree of organization and professionalism of your application materials will speak to your ability to undertake the responsibility of teaching or researching in a foreign country.

In terms of the application itself, it’s important to approach the process strategically. At the outset it may seem that you don’t have enough space to convey everything you’d like the review committee to know. Be creative in how you include information. For example, there were a few accomplishments that I couldn’t fit into my project proposal or personal narrative, so I asked my references to discuss those achievements in the letters they were writing.

The Foundation for Educational Exchange Between Canada and the United States, or Canadian Fulbright Commission, wants to work with you. My research took place in the extreme North, where there were no realistic options for field supervisors. By planning ahead and starting the conversation with the Foundation early in the process, we were able to come up with a solution that allowed me to conduct my research and have adequate supervision.

Lastly, I was initially nervous to apply to the program because I’m a female-to-male transsexual. I’d read Fulbright’s statement about celebrating and supporting diversity, but it didn’t say anything about transsexuals. Trans people still face extreme discrimination in the United States and I wasn’t sure a government organization would want me. I spent a long time agonizing over whether to apply to the program. I’m glad I did. As a Fulbright Ambassador, I now have a professional relationship with many of the people who are on the application committee. I can attest that they truly seek out and value all diversity, even if they haven’t listed every permutation in their statement. So dream big and know that you, with all that encompasses, are welcome and wanted at Fulbright.

Photo: Zane Thimmesch-Gill, 2008-2009, Canada, filming on an ice road connecting two communities on the shores of Great Slavey Lake in the Northwest Territories

Are you applying for a Fulbright grant to South Africa or in Filmmaking? Check out this video featuring Mark Nehrenz, 2010-2011, South Africa, who used documentaries to help promote volunteer opportunities throughout the country.

U.S. Fulbrighters in South Africa, Featuring Mark Nehrenz from Fulbright Program on Vimeo.