In Conversation with Melissa Young

We are just three weeks away from USF’s Human Rights Film Festival, an annual event in the Presentation Theater that brings filmmakers from all over the world. Creators will be on our campus to display their films, chat over a Q&A and bring our attention to serious global issues like human trafficking, censorship and climate change.

The Foghorn got to interview Melissa Young, a co-director who is showing her film “DON’T GIVE UP YOUR VOICE” at the upcoming festival. We spoke with her about the Argentinian resistance to President Mauricio Marci, her passion as a filmmaker and what has inspired her along the way.

What made you pursue filmmaking?

With a background in Latin American Studies, I was deeply disturbed by U.S. policy in Nicaragua in 1985. Working as a carpenter, I helped organize the Seattle to Nicaragua Construction Brigade to build a school in rural Nicaragua. While there, we filmed with brigade members and Nicaraguans in the community. Since my Spanish was strong, I was recruited to help edit a short, educational video [called], “Vamos a Hacer un País” [“Let’s Make a Country”].

What is your drive behind making films?

Seeing the impact of a video report that featured positive stories from regular people convinced me to begin working with my partner/collaborator Mark Dworkin to create more. We work with a non-profit production company, Moving Images, whose [goal] is, “video in the public interest.”  Our films focus on social justice and the environment. Based on my activist experience, I know that films don’t change the world; people do. But the right film can be a significant tool in advancing a campaign.

How did you come up with the idea for your film?

For “DON’T GIVE UP YOUR VOICE,” we were visiting close friends in Argentina and saw the creative resistance to their right-wing President Macri who was elected a year before Trump. We have learned a lot from people south of the U.S. border and we thought these stories — from worker-run businesses, street demonstrations, theater groups — might inspire people here.

What roadblocks did you face when you were starting out, particularly with this film?

Our good friends in Buenos Aires assisted us to make contacts, arrange interviews, find out about street events. Distribution, getting the film seen, is always a challenge. Sometimes people say, why should we be concerned about South America? But what we are experiencing in this country and in so many countries around the world is increasing inequality, [with] more and more wealth in the hands of a few.   

Can you tell us about the greatest moment in your film career thus far?

What I enjoy the most as a documentary filmmaker is the opportunity to meet and learn from people I might not otherwise know. Our documentaries have won quite a number of film festival awards, but what I find most rewarding is sharing a film with the people most involved with work on that topic.

We were thrilled and honored as foreigners, and particularly from the U.S., to receive an invitation to screen our first Argentina film, “ARGENTINA — HOPE IN HARD TIMES,” in documentary and human rights fests in Buenos Aires. In 2012, we had a gala premiere of “SHIFT CHANGE,” our latest film that aired nationally on PBS at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland with hundreds of attendees, including many who had worked on the film. Previous to that, we screened “HOW CAN I KEEP ON SINGING?”, a historical film about settler and indigenous women in [Washington] state with those who helped make it in the region where we filmed, and the poet whose stories were featured in the film.

Do you have any advice for other young filmmakers out there?

Follow your heart. If you see the value and are committed to making a film, others may [see the value] too.  Start small, something you can self-fund or with help from friends and family, and about a topic or concern or person that you know well. Share your work in progress with focus groups before the final edit to make sure your message[s] are coming across.

You can view Melissa Young and Mark Dworkin’s film “DON’T GIVE UP YOUR VOICE” at USF’s Human Rights Film Festival at noon on March 23 at the Presentation Theater. The rest of the films will be shown March 21-23. The film’s trailer can be viewed here.

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