Rated R for Rebellious


Twenty students, two teachers and four sisters worked for one whole school year to make a half-hour documentary, Four Sisters for Peace. The project began with a friend telling me about these four feisty sisters who are also Catholic nuns–Rita, Brigid, Kate and Jane McDonald. They are activists who work for all kinds of good causes.

When I asked Brigid if she thought there might be a good film to make together, she deadpanned, “A film about us will be rated R.” She paused. An R-rated film about nuns? I was curious. “Rated R for rebellious,” she laughed, and I was hooked.

As an artist in the schools, I set out to look for the right school for such a film and found Susie Oppenheim’s class of sixth to eighth graders at Southside Family School in Minneapolis. Its mission is to educate students to be engaged citizens. This is a school with The Student Association for the Advancement of Children as People (The SAACP!). The school’s theme is “Kids Make History” and that is exactly what we did.

I love to teach people how to make video the same way I did, learning by making and doing. On a fundamental level, we learned how to make video. The school bought an eMac computer and a digital camera to support the project. Every student did at least one edit and some camera work. We worked together. Every student who wanted to narrate did. We studied and talked and wondered. We collected pictures and stories and questions.

We also did a lot of things that rarely happen in a public school. We invited nuns to come and talk to us about antiwar activities, civil disobedience and religious life. We went to places they work, like Peace House, a shelter for homeless people. We all climbed aboard the school’s bus and went to rallies for different causes.

While we were learning how to make a video, we were also studying the lives of these four women. We were engaging the form and content of a documentary.

In the film, Kate McDonald states, “When a person is out in the public making a statement, whether you are holding a sign or whether we’re saying something, we are trying to educate and raise the awareness of other people of some of the ills that are going on that are really serious and are going to affect people’s lives. We hope that they will say, ‘Oh, I never thought of that.’ “

This strikes me as a good description of what making a documentary can do, too. The word “documentary” has roots in the Latin word for teach, docere. We wanted to make people think.

We know media work. Our system masscasts commercials because experience shows when a lot of people receive a message, many act on it. Still, at the micro-level of our small and beautiful projects, it is difficult to document the effects media cause.

To assess the impact, I turn to the students and the sisters. Their excitement and the impact are tangible. Southside student Sang Pham said, “The sisters believe we can change the world. I like that. It’s cool.”

De’Sean Dwyer states, “We made this history of four sisters who work for peace. We made this history so you can see that you can make history too.”

Tristan Brown wrote after the premiere: “We liked working on this film. One reason is that we learned how to use video equipment. But the main thing we learned is that young and old can work together for peace, justice and change.”

Certain students, like Libby Sweet, have gone on to make more videos. Her Billionaires for Bush piece was featured in a film festival at Walker Art Center.

The students have not only learned the skills to become media literate, but have also become more engaged citizens.

How about the sisters’ perspectives? Sister Brigid reports, “Three students at one college decided after seeing the film to get arrested at a protest over the depleted uranium issue. At another, one young man decided not to join the army as he had been planning to.”

At a showing of the film in a nursing home, in the beginning a man interrupted the show in progress, complaining about the politics they were about to see. When it was over, Jane drew the fellow into the dialogue, to find out what he was thinking. She was amazed to hear him say, “Well, sister, I’d have been your opposition in the sixties. I am a Vietnam vet. I used to think war is OK. But now I think this Iraq war is all wrong. I am with you on this one.”

Kate says she was glad to learn the pastor of a church where they do work with immigrants saw the film and told her, “I still don’t agree with many of your actions, like getting arrested, but I understand now why you are doing what you are doing.” If a film can get people to talk, it is working small wonders.

A golden thread connecting these stories as the subjects of the film are appearing with it. They use it as a tool to show people a lot in a little time, then discuss it with the audience. The medium is one part of the message.
“Films can change things, but they never do it alone,” says George Stoney, the subject of a video study I’m working on now. “I’m often amused and sometimes annoyed by the old people in the documentary field who when they reach their eminence say, ‘Ah, films can never change anything. Look at Harvest of Shame. Twenty years later you can still make the same film so it’s no good.’ Of course, they don’t know how social change happens. Films need to be part of a whole social movement. They educate people to take action, stimulate people to have faith in other people, serve as examples. They are vehicles. They don’t change things in themselves, of course not.”

That is what making this film and sharing it have done. It has educated people to take action, stimulated individuals to have faith in others and served as an example. It is even engaging some young citizens to become media rebels with good causes.

Mike Hazard, widely known as “Media Mike,” is an artist-in-residence at The Center for International Education. He teaches people of all ages how to make poetic videos. He is working now on a film called Radical Equals, which explores the lessons and values of George Stoney. For more, zoom to Hazard’s “Web site”:http://www.thecie.org.