Tag Archives: science

On Tour: Waynesboro, VA

3 Dec

October 26, 2017 | Oil & Water | Waynesboro, VA

It started with a fire in Atlanta. Tracy Straight’s apartment burned to the ground while she was visiting family back in her hometown of Waynesboro, Virginia. There was nothing to go back to, so she stayed.

Since that time, she got married and had a few kids and built a new life in her old community but with an unexpected new purpose. The year she moved back home she heard that the old, long defunct, Wayne Theater in the center of Main St. was to be torn down. A parking lot would replace it. This news kicked off the second fire in Tracy’s life. A burning passion to save this theater.

After 17 years and over 11 million dollars raised, the 1926 building was ready to shine again. It’s not just the theater that revitalized, the whole of Main Street benefited too. Busy restaurants and cute new shops line the street, no doubt boosted by something happening at the Wayne seven days a week.

Tracy is now the Executive Director of the Wayne and her passion hasn’t (I can’t help it…) waned. She is just as enthusiastic about the On Screen/In Person tour as she is the marionette show this week, My Fair Lady next week and the art gallery upstairs from the theater currently featuring art from Montana.

Laurel and ED of Wayne Tracy Straight

It’s this kind of community potluck of entertainment that can give a small downtown life. I wouldn’t be surprised if more people move back home to Waynesboro or any small town that gets a cultural shot in the arm like Tracy has given to her hometown.

Post provided by On Screen/In Person touring filmmaker Laurel Spellman Smith

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On Tour: Washington, DC

2 Dec

October 24, 2017 | Oil & Water | Washington, DC

It was a long, sad, exhilarating and fascinating day in D.C. I woke up at 6:32am to snag online tickets to the African American Museum knowing it would be one of the highlights of a trip to the Capital. Clicking through the time options 10am: Not available. 10:30: Not available. 11am Not Available… finally, 12:30pm 2 tickets available! I felt like I had won the lottery.

When we arrived at the gorgeous bronze laced building, I was full of anticipation. It’s really a jewel on the Mall. With the current and historical racial tension that haunts D.C., this new space on the national lawn feels sacred. The museum does not disappoint. In fact, it over-delivers. It’s so chock-a-block full of information that we only got half way through before I realized we had to run out to get to the sound-check for the Oil & Water screening.

As we raced over to the Atlas Theater, I thought about how this city was built on the backs of African American, who make up 50% of the city’s population, yet this critically important museum was debated for 100 years and only finished last year!

Atlas and new H Street Car

Just outside the Atlas on H Street there was a sign discussing the importance of the theater, a community hub in the vibrant and racially mixed neighborhood. Though it opened as a white-only establishment in the 1930’s, in the 1950’s it became a desegregated venue in a heavily segregated city. After the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, the Atlas fell into disrepair and closed like many of the businesses in the area. In 2006, the theater was renovated and reopened as part of a larger plan to revitalize the neighborhood.

I’m so glad the theater is back up and running. It’s a beautiful space and an important part of the community. But I realized from my research about the neighborhood that the tensions aren’t over. Current residents now feel the gentrified street is pushing them further and further away from the city. Conflicts arise from what type of businesses are valued on the street and by whom. Rents are going up. And the new street car is a visible sign of the changes being made to this ever-changing city.

Post provided by On Screen/In Person touring filmmaker Laurel Spellman Smith

On Tour: Wilmington, DE

1 Dec

October 22, 2017 | Oil & Water | Wilmington, DE

Laurel at the Queen

Filmmaker Laurel Spellman Smith at Queen Theater, Wilmington, DE

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been on the road with Oil & Water, we finished the film in 2014 after which we spent more than a year touring film festivals around the world. Now it’s been nearly two years since I actually watched the film. As I sat in the audience of my own film at in downtown Wilmington, a thought caught me by surprise, “wow, I was there!” It’s interesting to think that the making of this film consumed my life for 8 years but as my life has changed, those memories have become more distant. Watching the film again reminded me of what it was like to actually film those scenes: in the village, in the jungle, in the oil muck, in the heat. It all came rushing back to me, I could practically smell the damp foliage and acrid air.

Laurel filming David

Co-director Laurel Spellman Smith filming David Poritz in Ecuador

As the credits rolled my focus snapped back to my chair in The Queen theater – sitting with a small crowd of Delaware residents I was reminded of just how far I had come. Not just across the country to show this film, but in my initial thoughts about tackling this contentious subject, in a country I had never visited, with a prosumer camera and my film partner, Francine, who also had doubts. But the thing is, we did it. And now, 11 years since we took that initial step off the plane in Quito, Ecuador only to board another flight and then an 8-hour canoe trip to the deep Amazonian rainforest… the story hasn’t become less relevant. In fact, it continues to resonate with communities all over the world. And that’s a pretty amazing feeling.

Post provided by On Screen/In Person touring filmmaker Laurel Spellman Smith

On Tour: Blue Bell, PA

1 Dec

October 19, 2017 | Oil & Water | Blue Bell, PA

Oil & Water — Before Hollywood, there was Pennsylvania

Stars were made in Montgomery County. In the early years of movie making, Betzwood Film Studios on the banks of Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill River, was the world’s largest, most advanced film studio.

I learned this surprising history from Brent Woods, senior director of cultural affairs at Montgomery County Community College, in Blue Bell, PA. Woods is deeply engaged in building an audience for the arts, and his enthusiasm for this community and its role in film history is infectious.

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Today the college is home to the world’s largest known archive of Betzwood movie studio artifacts, thanks to resident expert and history professor emeritus Joseph Eckhardt. According to Eckhardt’s website, https://mc3betzwood.wordpress.com, Betzwood was a sprawling 350-acre complex where more than 100 films were produced and circulated worldwide. It was built by Siegmund Lubin, a German-Jewish immigrant, who by 1912 was America’s first movie mogul. Lubin is credited with being the first to mass market films, and he employed up to 1,000 people who churned out five to six million feet of film at the studio each week. Among the footage Betzwood created was this train wreck, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-SV46oJR8o&feature=youtu.be, which Lubin used in five of his films. Click on it, it’s really a train wreck.

As I toured the campus on my final stop on the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation tour, it was easy to imagine stars emerging from this community today. I observed students composing music, recording a radio show, and pitching projects in a classroom that looked more like an executive suite. I saw several dozen camera bags loaded with gear for students to make films, as well as a television studio and state-of-the-art editing suites. Students at Montgomery County Community College are learning in an exceptional environment. I’m excited for them, and perhaps even a little envious.

I’d like to thank Jerry Collom for inviting me to meet with students in his advanced video production class, as well as Matt Porter for the department tour, and Iain Campbell for the care he took in ensuring a perfect screening. Thanks especially to Brent Woods for taking the time to give me a window into the community’s future, as well as fascinating past. I couldn’t have asked for a lovelier way to end the tour.

Post provided by On Screen/In Person touring filmmaker Francine Strickwerda

On Tour: Reading, PA

1 Dec

October 18, 2017 | Oil & Water | Reading, PA

Oil & Water — Learning in Reading, PA

The student looked at me like I was full of bull.  “Money makes the monkey dance,” he said, shaking his head. “The world will never change.”

I felt his anger and frustration, and I knew I needed to do better. Reactions vary to the story of the Cofan people’s struggle to survive the onslaught of oil development and devastating pollution in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Some viewers are hopeful and inspired by Oil & Water’s main characters, Hugo and David, while others are angry and overwhelmed, almost to the point of tears. Still some are cynical; the story reinforces everything they already believe about the way the world works; that the little guys always get squished.

I often say to my young son, “The world’s not fair, let’s make it better.” When I’m touring with the film, I sing pretty much the same tune, only I ask audiences to try to hold back the weight of all the world’s problems, and focus on just one. “Find something you care about, and just do one thing,” I hear myself saying again this past week, this time to students at Reading Area Community College. “If everyone pitched in and did one thing, things could be different. Change does happen.”

And I think that’s mostly true. But then I notice a few students looking at me, shaking their heads in disbelief. I feel pangs of regret, and I realize that the answer about how to live in these challenging times is not the same for everyone.

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The “Frogs” of Reading-based Bullfrog Films

I know that the reality for some is more like Hugo Lucitante’s in the film, just trying to survive. They’re working jobs and going to school, and raising families.  Some are recent immigrants or refugees, or are themselves from poor, marginalized or underrepresented communities. To these people, I would like to say, I see how hard you are working and that you want a better future. Keep questioning and working to be problem-solving community members. And like Hugo does, keep going. Pay attention to what’s happening in the world. Take that learning and use it to dream, vote, and speak up for yourselves and others. And thank you for the conversation, your words make an impact.

Those of us who can do more, should. We can vote with our wallets and choose to buy, or not, based on our values. We can join with environmental organizations in our own communities, and demand that corporate and government leaders behave responsibly. Visit www.cofan.org to learn more about Hugo’s tribe and how to help or support David Poritz’s efforts at www.equitableorigin.org.  Spread the word about www.oilandwaterdocumentary.com, and host a screening with friends or a community group. Rent Oil & Water at www.bullfrogfilms.com, and while you’re there, check out the other 700 documentaries on the site.

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The film director with Dr. Linda Lewis Riccardi’s ethics class

Thanks to Bullfrog Films’ Winifred Scherrer, John Hoskyns-Abrahall, and Alex Hoskyns-Abrahall, who came to the Miller Center for the Arts screening, and brought friends. They distribute my films Oil & Water and Busting Out and have my back as a documentary filmmaker. Bullfrog is the leading American publisher of independently-produced environmental and social justice films, and I am grateful for their mission, humor, friendship and support. I visited the “Frogs” at their Reading, PA offices, in handsomely converted farm buildings with solar panels that help fuel their work. We talked film, politics, and laughed a lot.

Others whom I learned from on this tour include Miller Center for the Arts’ Natalie Babb and Cathleen Stephen, the best hosts a filmmaker could hope for. As well as Reading Area Community College ethics professor, Dr. Linda Lewis Riccardi, and environmental science adjunct professor Bob Hoskins, who invited me to meet their classes. Bob moderated the post-screening Q&A, and his ability to jump in and explain science and social issues was a godsend. I was delighted to spend time with them and their vibrant community of passionate, thoughtful people, and glad for the reminder to meet people where they are.

Post provided by On Screen/In Person touring filmmaker Francine Strickwerda

On Tour: Bloomsburg, PA

21 Nov

October 16, 2017 | Oil & Water | Bloomsburg, PA

The Road to Bloomsburg

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The Road to Bloomsburg, PA is both beautiful and blighted, with breathtaking views of rivers and forests, as well as vivid reminders of an energy industry that is dead, dying, or fraught.

The route winds through Schuylkill County to Ashland, a crumbling coal town that announces itself from a sign on the chain-link fence surrounding a football field. The “Ashland Black Diamonds” won the Pennsylvania state high school football champions back in 1935. I was struck by the sight, as Oil & Water features footage of a similar athletic field in a poor Ecuadorian oil town, only there the sign on the fence says “Bienvenido” (welcome), with a smiling oil drop mascot.

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Grayish buildings and weathered banners bearing the photos of war veterans line the full length of the main road through town. Ashland’s glory days ended with the Great Depression and the coal mine was closed. Just north of Ashland lies Centralia, an abandoned and polluted town where an underground mine fire has burned since 1962.

From there, the road winds through lushly forest hills to Bloomsburg on the banks of the Susquehanna River. Bloomsburg is an oasis made up of tidy homes and businesses in a valley that looks up the hill to stately Bloomsburg University. Here I was welcomed by Civic Engagement Coordinator Tim Pelton. Tim is the affable former editor of a leading scuba diving magazine, who has stories to tell about working with Jacque Cousteau as well as film crews from the James Bond franchise. Before the screening we chatted about the state of the journalism profession (I’m a former newspaper reporter) and the other environmental films he brings to the university.

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Tim Pelton (left) and Francine Strickwerda

Tim facilitated an engaging discussion with Bloomsburg students and local community members who asked smart, heartfelt questions following the screening of Oil & Water. One audience member wanted to know what I got personally from my experience directing Oil & Water. Filmmaking allows me to explore and find meaning, especially in dark places. With Hugo and David’s story we shined a light on a terrible injustice and saw hope for the future; something we all need. Further, sharing that story in person with communities like Bloomsburg increases the impact and grows connections, and that is awesome.

While my trip to the university was too brief, Tim’s warmth and the earnest interest showed by audience members left an impression. I was buoyed by the people I met and their concern for the world around them, from their own backyard, all the way to Ecuador. As I drove away from the town, toward my next stop on the tour, I wound back past Ashland, the rivers, and the trees.

Post provided by On Screen/In Person touring filmmaker Francine Strickwerda

On Tour: Germantown, MD

21 Nov

October 15, 2017 | Oil & Water | Germantown, MD

A Gentleman (from the Amazon) and a Scholar

Once you finish a film, it takes on a life of its own. The people you spend so much time filming and learning about must go their own way. It can be hard to let the story and people go. I found this to be especially true for Oil & Water, after we spent seven years dropping into the lives of our characters for brief and intense sprints of filming in the U.S. and Ecuador.

Every so often we hear from the stars of Oil & Water, boys we watched grow into amazing men. Recently we got some news from main character Hugo Lucitante that I’ve been crowing about at every Oil & Water screening on the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation tour.

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Black Rock Arts Center

One of Hugo’s greatest personal challenges in the film was his struggle to get a college education. This is the dream of so many Americans, but an almost impossible feat for a kid from a small, endangered tribe in the remote jungles of the Ecuadorian Amazon. We saw Hugo return to Ecuador after growing up mostly in Seattle. He traveled home knowing that he was expected to help fight the oil companies, armed only with a high school diploma.  Hugo dealt with culture shock and the demands of tribal membership, and eventually, becoming a husband and father. When the pressures became too much, Hugo and his wife Sadie moved back to the U.S. for a while to sling burritos, clerk in a video store, and serve cocktails. Like so many Americans, Hugo worked more than one minimum wage job at a time, and still barely made ends meet.

Today, Hugo is more than achieving his goal. He and his wife Sadie are both studying at Brown University on full ride scholarships. They make regular trips back to the Amazon to do research projects and work on behalf of their Cofan community. But wait, it gets better. The biggest news is that when Hugo graduates with his bachelor’s degree a year from now, he’s headed into a PhD program.

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Director Francine Strickwerda with Black Rock Arts Center’s Brian Laird

Hugo has been awarded a prestigious Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship. As a fellow, Hugo is supported by a program that increases the number of PhD candidates from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. This is huge news for Hugo, and for his Cofan tribe, a people who have been under siege from the oil industry for decades, and who have fought their way back from the brink of extinction.

This past week on Mid Atlantic Arts tour, I was passing time at a flea market between screenings, when I met a group of locals who also happen to be Ecuadorian immigrants. I invited them to join me at the screening at the Black Rock Arts Center in Germantown, Maryland, and they took me up on the offer. Like me, they were profoundly moved by Hugo’s story of hope. As I share his story on the film tour, people from all walks of life just light up. And for people from Hugo’s part of the world, who deeply understand the hardships Hugo has faced, his success makes them swell with pride.

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Kim Nugent (left), Jorge Eduardo Landeta, Francine Strickwerda, Rosa Leonor Armas, and Ana Lucia Mohebbi at Black Rock Arts Center, Germantown, PA

We live in challenging times, and the depth of Hugo’s strength and resilience explored in Oil & Water show us what is possible.  We need young people like Hugo to lead us all into a better future. Congratulations Hugo. You deserve this honor, and I and so many others are so very proud of you. We can’t wait to call you “Dr. Lucitante.”

Post provided by On Screen/In Person touring filmmaker Francine Strickwerda

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