INTERVIEW: Scotty Iseri, creator of kids’ web/app series ‘The Digits’

Creator and Executive Producer, Scotty Iseri

Biography:

Scotty Iseri is a theatre and new media artist based out of Portland, Oregon. His work includes the popular all-ages web series “Scotty Got An Office Job”, the live touring act “The Big Rock Show” and the Paper Hat Game. He was the writer and director behind “Merry Holidays, Please Hold”, a branded series billed “The Worldʼs First Internet Christmas Special”.

Scotty has won numerous awards for his writing, musical composition, and sound design, was an inaugural mentee for the Center For Asian American Mediaʼs Fellowship and was a finalist for the Public Radio Maker’s Quest 2.0 grant. He has years of experience in children’s theatre, has produced for Chicago Public Radio and was a teacher in Chicago’s After School matters.

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Her Film:  You wear three big hats on this series: director, writer, producer.  What has your experience been like balancing these three roles, especially in light of the fact the series is interactive and you’re dealing with various technologies for distribution and exhibition?

Scotty Iseri:  I do feel very lucky to be working with an amazing group of artists that really bring the world to life. But I must admit, it’s been a great deal of work. Luckily I love it.

The addition of interactivity requires a new approach to the production.  For “The Digits,” it’s more than shooting a film and adding prompts.  We wanted the story to holistically change and level as the viewer watches.

Juggling these technologies in storytelling is a whole new world.  The traditional roles don’t 100% apply.  Our actors created Facebook profiles for their characters which interact with our fans, so they’re also creating a universe, too.  Our developer, Battery Powered Games, is also a key member of the creative team.

“Pavi” (Sara Castilleja) and Scotty discuss direction and technique

The hardest part is finding the balance. The writer will write something crazy like, “The Digits crash land on an alien planet made of acid-spitting bacon”.  The director will say “how do i realize acid-spitting bacon?” and the producer will say “where do you think we’re going to find budget money for acid-spitting bacon?”  Since I am all three, striking a balance with only myself is a challenge indeed. Normally you’d have this creative back and forth between those three roles, which i definitely miss.

Her Film:  Can you describe the challenges you encountered when trying to raise funds for this series? 

Scotty Iseri:  We function like a startup [and] I think the startup community (especially on the finance side) is more open to ideas that break the mold.  Silicon Valley thrives on innovation, while the entertainment industry thrives on tradition. The latter usually waits until something is popular enough to enjoy a mass audience before sticking its toe in the water.  The two don’t necessarily always mix.

I took The Digits idea around to the traditional entertainment industry.  I was told “we can give you money for a television pilot that may just sit on a shelf and never be seen, but we’re not sure what to do with this interactive business. ”  I think the traditional entertainment industry is in something of a free fall in terms of its business model and so going the startup route was the best way to create something really cool.

There are some fantastic examples of others in this new storytelling field.  Fourth Wall Studios, and the Lizzie Bennett Diaries are two examples of people taking the entrepreneurial spirit into the entertainment industry and making cool things happen.

Her Film:  Entertainment professionals who create series or films, necessarily, have to act like entrepreneurs when doing so, but the word “entrepreneur” seems to be largely absent from discussions about entertainment, although it’s prevalent when talking about tech companies and start-ups.  Can you address this issue and how your work may be influenced by actively embracing the idea of entrepreneurship?

Scotty Iseri:  It’s an exciting time to make things.  No one necessarily has the “right’ answer when it comes to a next-generation filmmaking model, but you must, must must, be entrepreneurial about it.

If you think about it economically, it’s all about scarcity.  10 years ago, the scarcity was in distribution and money.  It was expensive to rent cameras and film, and more expensive to jockey for time on the limited bandwidth of broadcast.  Today the scarcity is attention–getting audiences to notice what you’re putting out.

Scotty Iseri with his favorite puppet “Andrew”

Her Film:  What is your relationship with the Center for Asian American Media and how does it relate to “The Digits”?

Scotty Iseri:  “The Digits” wouldn’t exist without CAAM.  I’m of Japanese descent and was very lucky to be invited into their new voices fellowship.  I think it was very forward-thinking on CAAM’s part to include a new media fellow among a group of fantastic screenwriters, directors and producers.

The time with CAAM allowed me to have some structure and support in building not just the technological idea, but also the story universe.

Her Film:  The main character of the show is “Pavi,” the lead singer (and a female).  With the bias, and stereotype, that girls and women are not capable in mathematics, this is very refreshing to see.  How did you decide which character, and which gender, should take the lead?  

Scotty Iseri:  Every day I see girls and women that defy this stereotype, but I also know how important it can be to have a good role model.  There’s a lot of research and conversation happening about ways to interest girls in science and technology careers and I think one of the ways to do that is to give them a role model.

Sally Ride, may she rest in peace,  inspired many women to aim for the stars, but so did Nichelle Nichols (Lt Uhura on Star Trek).  Fictional characters can be incredibly inspiring.  It allows you to “see yourself” in a fantastic situation.  Even master storyteller LeVar Burton was inspired by a strong female lead. He said in a keynote speech this year that “By the virtue of Nichelle Nichols sitting on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, I knew that there was going to be a place for me in that imagined future (of science fiction) and I felt incredibly excited by that possibility.”

Children are great imitators, so the goal was to give them someone fun to imitate.

But, for all the high minded ideals behind the creation of the character, she’s a blast to write and Sara (Castilleja) really brings her to life.  I wanted her to be capable, and strong, but also funny and flawed…In other words, a person and not a “female character.”  Does that make sense?

Although, to be fair, our first appisode does not pass the Bechdel Test (though we correct this in the web series).

“The Digits” characters

Her Film:  “The Digits” seems to be a great example of “edutainment.”  Can you talk a bit about the process of working to create a show that both entertains and educates?

Scotty Iseri:  The project was really inspired by watching my nieces and nephews play with interactive technology.  They are naturals.  They take to it immediately and begin experimenting:  Can I click this?  What happens if I do this?  This is science in its rawest form; Hypothesize, experiment, examine results, change.

I think edutainment gets a bad rap.  For people of my generation, the only reason they know their state capitals is from the Animaniacs song.

I also think kids love to learn.  They love the empowerment of knowing something they didn’t know before, and they love to show it off.  “Guess what?” is my favorite question because I know it’s going to lead somewhere new and exciting.

Her Film:  Were kids involved in the creation process or have you tested the show with kids?  I ask because I read the description of the show to my 11 year old nephew and he thought it sounded cool (his words).

Scotty Iseri:  Your nephew is right.  I think it’s a universal truth that Rock and Roll is cool.  Robots are cool.  Spaceships are cool.  Our focus really wasn’t on creating a world “for kids”, but to harness good storytelling for a new medium.  We’ve been testing the “appisode” with kids of all ages and it’s going really well.  As i said, kids are natives to this technology.  They expect their stories to play with them.

“Pavi” with beloved band-mate “Ray Ray” at her side

I do think people “create-down” for kids.  In truth, kids are the savviest and best audience in the world.  They are willing to go with you on your storytelling journey, but the minute you break your own rules, they’re the first to call foul.  They’re exacting and they’ll ask you more questions about the story you’re telling than you probably ever could think of.

Tell your nephew if he’d like to ask the Digits a question they’ll answer it in a future episode! Audience participation is key to “The Digits”!

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To learn more about this filmmaker and his work, please check out these links:

Facebook:  /WeAreTheDigits
YouTube: /FUNDAWatch
Website: watchthedigits.com
Twitter:  @wearethedigits
All-ages webseries: scottygotanofficejob.com

(Photos courtesy of S. Iseri)

‘Wadjda’ by Haifaa Al Mansour, first film made by Saudi woman and first film made in the KSA

Wadjda is a new film by Haifaa Al Mansour, the first Saudi woman filmmaker.  She is writer and director of the film.  To add to the enormous responsibility of representation she now carries, the film is also the first to be filmed completely inside Saudi Arabia.  While movie theaters are illegal in the country, producers have stated they plan to distribute it through “DVDs and TV channels” (Telegraph). You can watch two clips of the film below.

I’ve been excited about this film since I read about earlier this week, and am looking forward to seeing it (somehow, some day).  It screened at this year’s Venice International Film Festival, and has received quite a bit of press.  Check out the links below for more articles on Al Mansour, plus this week’s Her.Stories post.

From Al Mansour’s “Director’s Statement”:

I come from a small town in Saudi Arabia where there are many girls like Wadjda who have big dreams, strong characters and so much potential. These girls can, and will, reshape and redefine our nation. It was important for me to work with an all-Saudi cast, to tell this story with authentic, local voices.  (Read more.)

Have you see the film?  It’s a Saudi Arabia-Germany production, with most of the crew being German, but Al Mansour still had to deal with the exigencies of directing as a woman in Saudi Arabia where gender separation is required.  Without being able to direct the male cast or work with the male crew face to face, what did she do?  Worked from a van and used a walkie talkie.

Wadjda screened at La Biennale on August 31 and September 1.  Visit the film’s page on the festival’s website.

Watch an interview with Al Mansour at the Doha Film Institute’s website.

Read a review of Wadjda in Variety.

Watch clips from the film:

 

Her.Stories: First Saudi woman filmmaker, Julie Dash’s ‘Tupelo ’77’, Detropia, Mollywood, Telluride, Baghdad, TIFF, Abortion Rights Trilogy

Woman beats the odds to make first Saudi film
at Arab Times

First Saudi Female Director, Haifaa Al Mansour and her Film ‘Wadjda’ in Venice (with video interview)
at Euro News

Julie Dash’s 1970s-Set Drama ‘Tupelo 77’ Gets A Boost – Selected For International Financing Forum
at Shadow and Act

What Can Detroit Teach the Nation? Heidi Ewing on Detropia
at the Huffington Post
(Read Lotus’s recent review of DETROPIA.)

Filmmaker Dorothy Fadiman’s Taking The Abortion Rights Trilogy on the Road
at OpEd News

‘Battle of the Sexes’ docu portrays women’s fight for equal pay in sports
at the Chicago Tribune

Amma Asante’s ‘Belle’ Moving Full Speed Ahead, Adds To Cast, Shooting Start Date Set
at Shadow and Act

The rising matriarchs of Mollywood (Malayalam film industry)
at DNA India

New Zealand Film Commission Shorts Films Announcement
at Wellywood Woman

First Look Pic, Official Synopsis For South African Thriller ‘Layla Fourie’ Starring Brit Rayna Campbell
at Shadow and Act

3-time Oscar-winner Thelma Schoonmaker wins 2nd Gucci award for women in film for ‘Hugo’
at The Washington Post

TIFF 2012: Female filmmakers in Toronto spotlight
at the Toronto Star

Women Filmmakers Ready to Rock Toronto
at the Huffington Post

TIFF Programer dishes on film roles for women, George Clooney and saying no at CityTV
at CityTV

Baghdad International Film Festival Selections + Arab Women Filmmakers Competition
at Baghdadfilmfest.com

La Femme Telluride
at Awards Daily

Venice: ‘Fill The Void’ Looks At Hasidic Community (film by Rama Burshtein)
at the Huffington Post

Review: “Detropia” (2012)

The woes of Detroit are emblematic of the collapse of the U.S. manufacturing base. Is the Midwestern icon actually a canary in the American coal mine? DETROPIA is a cinematic tapestry of a city and its people who refuse to leave the building, even as the flames are rising.

A Film by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady

“Detropia” is a documentary by Oscar-nominated filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp, 12th and Delaware, The Boys of Baraka).  The film showcases the bleak and hard times Detroit has gone through.  The film follows three main Detroiters:  Crystal Starr is a video blogger and also works at a local café; Tommy Stephens is a retired school teacher who now owns the Raven Lounge; and George McGregor is the President of the Local 22 United Auto Workers Union.  Through these Detroiters you get a glimpse of what life is like in Detroit and what might be the future of the D and America.

Throughout the film you are given facts about Detroit and the United States.  People are leaving Detroit at an alarming rate.  What once was the fastest growing city in the world has now seen over 100,000 abandoned homes and empty lots in the past 10 years.  The film has an appropriately dark and depressing tone to give everyone a wake-up call to what our country is in for.  This isn’t an isolated incident.  All over the country we have seen people losing their jobs and homes every day.  Tommy Stephens gave a great analogy about helping your neighbor if their house is on fire.  If you don’t help them then the fire is coming to you.  Detroit suffered and didn’t get the help it needed and now that downward spiral is headed to the rest of the nation.  The Mayor wanted to try and start a “Detroit Works Project” to move people from sparsely populated neighborhoods to more densely populated neighborhoods.  Detroiters were outraged and didn’t think that this would make any difference.   Even though there have been many people leaving Detroit there has been an increase of adults under the age of 35 moving into downtown Detroit.  The housing is so affordable that it makes it easy for people, especially artists, to purchase a home in the downtown area.

One of the toughest things to face is the fact that over 50,000 factories have closed in the United States, and this has resulted in a loss of over 6 million jobs.  George talks about how America used to manufacture everything.  We even built planes here during World War II.  Unfortunately, most of the jobs have been outsourced overseas to cut costs.  He also talks about how the middle class was born in Detroit.  People used to flock to the city to get a job.  Now people are down and out and have turned to other avenues for income such as collecting scrap metal to sell.

Some facts about Detroit:

  • The jobless rate for Detroiters is estimated to be 30%.  Most of the positive effect of the government bailout of the auto industry has been focused in other parts of Michigan.
  • Facing a $12 billion deficit, Detroit narrowly averted bankruptcy in April 2012 by going into a consent agreement, or a power sharing deal with the state.
  • In May 2012, Detroit announced it would shut off half its streetlights due to budget woes.
  • In June 2012, 169 firefighters were laid off.
  • In 1930, Detroit was the fastest-growing city in the world. (The Guardian)
  • Detroit’s population decreased by more than 25% in the last decade. (The New York Times)
  • The median Detroit home price in 2011 was about $54,000 — more than $100,000 less than the rest of the country.

I was impressed with the overall sense that Detroiters have hope for the future.  Many are extremely loyal to their city and refuse to leave.  The automakers have started to make a profit again and there seems to be more good news around the corner.  Detroiters can be an inspiration to fellow Americans in the sense that even though times are tough you have to keep your head up and have hope for a better tomorrow.

Detropia releases in New York at the IFC Center on Friday, September 7.  For screenings in New York and across the country, please click here.

To learn more about Detropia, visit the official website.

You can visit Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s production company at Loki Films.

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Lotus Wollschlager is the official Her Film movie reviewer.  Find her bio on the HF.Reviews page.

Writer’s Block? Maybe you need a PUSHER

(Cross-posted with permission from Chick Flick.)

So Shanbone and I have been to some writing groups and those stories could be their own blog. (I’ll leave that task to Shannon; her memory is way better than mine. Why doesn’t her brain react to Diet Coke and age like mine does? Scientists: please weigh in.) We are in a group that Shannon started of her own spirited volition, and for which she deserves some serious credit – cos it’s a useful, successful, fun, genuine, productive, challenging, tasty (people bring food, y’all) and enjoyable writing group (haha, I wrote ‘enjoyable writing group’ and meant it) replete with the coolest chicks I’ve come across in my expansive lady search. Bitches Who Write should run a country!

So it got me thinking: What makes a great writing group?

WORK CAUSES WORK.
The first thing you need for a great writing group is a PUSHER. The PUSHER is the organizer. She pushes the drug. The drug is satisfaction of work. The high is completion. If you don’t have a good pusher, you’ve got no group and you ain’t getting high. Shannon’s a perfect pusher because she’s passionate about women writing together and making each other better. How do you find her? If you’ve got a vagina (or just want one – like really have made the effort), then join our group (shannon.bowen@gmail.com).

YOU NEED A PROMPT.
Get out of your head. Ask someone to direct you. You can’t do everything yourself: Writer, director, producer, editor, actor, critic and consumer. Ask for a prompt. Be challenged. You have no ideas? You have no stories? ASK FOR ONE, THEN WRITE ABOUT IT.
(I can’t come up with shit. OK, not true. I come up with some half-cocked joke or idea or recall a random story from my past that might work written down, but honestly, IT’S THIN IN THERE. But I do know when I’m inspired or just give myself the space and time and make the effort, I can come up with something worth reading. I think. Who knows. Judge me.)

WRITE.
The Pusher makes you write in silence for 30 minutes. 30 MINUTES. No TV. No music. No blah blah blahing with your girlfriend. No dishwasher. No day job. No Salvation. It’s you and the page for a sweet 30 minutes. When is the last time you did that? Yoga hustlers make time to mediate for 30 minutes every day (I might be making that up). David Lynch, that friggin’ transcendentalist, he does it. Then he writes for like 4 hours. So just do 30 minutes. Everyone around you is doing it too.

SEEK & HELP.
Read it out aloud. Seek criticism. Seek ears and brains that aren’t yours. It’s not the only way you’ll get better, but it is one way. OK, NOW I’M GOING TO CONTRADICT MYSELF SO STOP READING IF YOU CAN’T HANDLE IT.

[CAVEAT: YOU BETTER FUCKING KNOW WHAT YOU NEED FROM PEOPLE. This is important and probably worth its own website or like its own internet. (That would be such an annoying internet). I’ve been to many of these meet up groups for writers and for as much help they can yield, be wary of the dreaded opinion. These groups draw from all walks and experiences and TALENT and SANITY LEVELS. Ignore the idiots. You get better and better at it. But first off, just realize that there are tons of idiots and they must be ignored or you’ll be driven crazy by an idiot. WHEN YOU HEAR A COMMENT THAT RINGS TRUE TO YOU, YOU’LL KNOW IT. Also, don’t be the idiot. When someone reads their piece, be really thoughtful and honest.]

Listen. Just as you edit your own writing, edit your comments. Don’t self-indulge. Be helpful. And if you’ve had too much to drink THEN DON’T TALK AT ALL. LISTEN.

Now, read your shit. Do it. Be brave. Be humble. And when you read, if you hear a laugh, be proud. If you wrote drama, quit writing drama.

If you don’t live in the Bay Area but need writing support, follow @JaneEspenson or @jeannevb on Twitter who are two rad screenwriter ladies who organize writing sprints.

Labor Day 2012: Women’s labor in the movies

It’s Labor Day here in the U.S., and while it’s a day that never held a particularly strong significance for me growing up (because like most kids, I was happy that it was the first day off of school after the beginning of the new school year), as an adult, I’ve come to understand it as something quite significant.  Although American Labor Day provides a day off of work for many people which is often filled with barbecues, family get-togethers, big sports games, or even powwows and other festivals, its history holds quite a profound importance, and the struggle to represent labor holds enormous benefits for most people.

American Labor Day was first celebrated in 1882 and became a national holiday in 1894, celebrated on the first Monday of September every year.  Like most countries, labor has played a major role not only in politics, but in the business world here in the U.S.  Because of organized labor action, we have the eight hour work day, the right to organize unions, on the job safety standards, and much more, including organizing actions surrounding domestic workers.  These are results of labor action – and continued labor actions – which affect the daily lives of American workers.  One of America’s most famous labor organizers is a woman by the name of Mary Harris Jones (called “Mother Jones”), an Irish-born woman who co-founded the Industrial Workers of the World, helped mineworkers to organize, and was at one time called “the most dangerous woman in America.”

We see labor everywhere – on commercials, on sitcoms (often domestic comedies which incorporate housework – washing dishes, picking up after the kids, picking kids up from school, making dinner), and on hour-long dramas (often workplace dramas, most popularly medical or law enforcement – doing surgery, dealing with a patient’s death, nabbing the bad guy, doing a stakeout).  Through film, though, there can be more of an exploration of labor and the types of labor that we provide.  It can be a theme of a film in a way that it can’t (or can, but with difficulty) be a theme of an ongoing series.

This Labor Day, I want to honor some films from my own life which I feel celebrate, explore, and represent the labor of women in its many forms.  Sometimes it’s domestic, sometimes it’s on-the-job, sometimes it’s political.  In doing this, I like to think I’m not only honoring these films as important contributions to the discussion of women’s labor, but also as important contributions by filmmakers.  (Along the lines of domestic work, my friend, Marian Evans, of the fantastic Wellywood Woman blog and podcast, has recently started a project of her own on Pinterest called “Keeping an Eye on ‘The Washing'” in which she explores how the act of doing laundry is represented in writers’ and artists’ work, and how it affects their lives.  Visit the project here.)

What are some of your favorite (or even not so favorite) films that show women’s labor?

What do you think the best women’s labor film of all-time is?

Leave a reply below!

Norma Rae (1979) explores the struggle for a small town to organize a labor union for its textile workers.  Sally Field plays “Norma Rae,” a single mother who takes it upon herself to work with a union organizer from New York to persuade her fellow workers in the local textile mill to stand up for their rights and to demand protections, which can only be achieved by organizing a union.  The most famous scene from the film, and perhaps the most powerful, is when Norma Rae storms onto the floor of the plant where she, her aging father, and most of her friends have worked all their lives, writes “union” on a piece of cardboard and stands up on one of the tables.  She slowly turns around, showing the sign to all workers on the floor, as her bullying and union-busting bosses stand around her ready to haul her off the floor.  Slowly, but surely, Norma Rae’s fellow workers begin to shut off their machines in support of organizing a union.  Even writing this is making me tear up, and it’s one of a very few scenes in any movie that never fails to make me cry.  (Not to ignore the domestic side of the film, the story also shows how difficult Norma Rae finds it to balance her union organizing work, her day job in the mill, and her homelife where she has a lot of demands placed on her by her kids as well as her boyfriend, played by Beau Bridges.)

Waitress (2007) is written and directed by the late Adrienne Shelly.  It tells the story of “Jenna,” played by Keri Russell in what I think is her best role ever.  She’s a master pie-maker, and serves tables in a diner in a small town with two of her best friends (one of whom is played hilariously by Shelly).  With an abusive and domineering husband at home, who controls her every move, she suddenly finds herself unhappily pregnant.  Unsure of her life – she wants to leave it all behind – she ends up having an affair with her doctor, played by the awesome Nathan Fillion (who is also married).  Faced with a crisis of conscience, she’s able (with some urging by the late, great Andy Griffith who plays a regular in the diner), to face her fears head-on and make the best decision for her and her newborn baby girl.  I like this film not only because it’s wonderfully written; not only because it stars Shelly (who I fell in love with when I first saw Hal Hartley’s masterpiece, “Trust”); not only because it’s funny, sweet, sad and painful, but because it mixes both “workplace” and “domestic” work.  Jenna does very domestic work – she’s the resident pie-maker (and invents some outrageous flavors, and everyone loves her pies – but she does it outside of the home.  There have been many films that deal with the lives of waitresses, but rarely, if ever, have I seen a film that does it so respectfully.

(Note: following the murder of Adrienne Shelly in 2006, her husband, Andy Ostroy, founded the wonderful Adrienne Shelly Foundation which is dedicated to helping women filmmakers. Visit the Foundation.)

Household Saints (1993) is directed and co-written by Nancy Savoca, and based on the novel by Francine Prose.  The film follows three generations of Italian-American women in New York – the mother-in-law of Tracey Ullman (married to Vincent D’Onofrio), Tracey Ullman herself, and Ullman and D’Onofrio’s daughter, played by Lili Taylor.  It’s based both in the home and on the job (D’Onofrio works in a butcher shop).  Taylor’s character is followed from a young age; she is a girl who becomes very religious and enamored of the “Little Flower,” St. Therese of Lisieux, who was a devout Catholic who died at quite a young age.  Taylor commits to prayer and a life of domestic service, both activities which consume her life.  At one point, her parents fear she may be having a mental breakdown and she ends up in a hospital where she does her best to continue to give her life in service.

Jane Eyre is a story written by Charlotte Brontë which has been adapted time and time again for the big screen (and is one of my favorite stories).  Its most recent adaptation, directed by Cary Fukunaga and starring Mia Wasikowska (as “Jane”) and Michael Fassbender (as “Rochester”), was released in 2011.  Jane is a young girl who is being raised by her aunt, a woman who despises her and favors her own children over Jane, despite the fact they constantly torment and bully Jane.  She is soon sent off to a cruel situation at a boarding school from which she eventually graduates, then moves on to a role as a governess for a dour yet aggressive man, Mr. Rochester, who cares for a young ward, the daughter of a former friend of his.  Needless to say, Rochester is quickly won over by Jane, with whom he falls in love, but there are a number of twists!  Throughout the film we witness Jane in her daily activities with Adele (the young ward), as well as with Rochester, who demands her presence during most of his activities as he wants to be near her.  Jane’s life is filled with quite a bit of silence and down time in the large, virtually empty house – this was her job, like it or not, filled with satisfaction or not.  During the time period, being a governess was one of a very few jobs for women, and it was a highly circumscribed position.

The Huffington Post did a piece on the “7 Best Working Women Movies,” which focuses on the workplace.  Take a look at the story and clips here.

Her.Stories: Nina Simone biopic, Toronto Int’l Film Fest, Sweden & women filmmakers, and For a Good Time, Call…

The Controversy Surrounding the Casting of Zoë Saldana                
as Nina Simone in Cynthia Mort’s New Biopic

Cynthia Mort is writer/director of a yet to be titled biopic(ish) of the legendary singer/musician Nina Simone.  With Mary J. Blige originally attached (for several years before she departed the project allegedly due to financial problems with the production), Zoë Saldana has recently been cast as Simone.  There has been an outcry about this mainly around the fact that Saldana bears no resemblance to Simone, but also because Saldana is a Latina (she’s also black, by the way) and has a lighter skin tone than Simone.  Director Mort has indicated that it’s not a strict biopic as it takes liberties with the facts (one of which is that Simone had an affair with a gay man — she didn’t).  Even Simone’s daughter, whose name is simply “Simone,” has spoken out against the story, and has claimed that following an initial conversation with Mort where they agreed to speak again, Simone was met with silence for, as Mort explains separately in an Entertainment Weekly interview, she was told not to communicate with Simone.

One disturbing fact about this entire conversation is that I have seen several articles that refer to Saldana explicitly as “Dominican,” without mentioning the fact she is multiracial — yes, she is a Latina, but she is also a Black Latina (and there are a great many number of Black Latinos in the world).  Also, this is not to disregard that she may be more than “just” Latina and Black.  The language used to describe her as a Latina, while simultaneously avoiding that she is also Black smacks to me of a sort of ethnocentrism which pits the Latino community against the Black community and dismisses Saldana’s ethnic, racial and cultural complexities (just like we all have).  Yes, I’m in agreement that the casting is bad because of the complete lack of resemblance Saldana holds to Simone (and yes, resemblance also includes skin tone), but I do not think that “she’s not Black, but Latina,” is a valid argument against Saldana being cast in the role; in fact, that argument is completely fallacious.  That is one reason I wanted to provide this digest, to not only follow along with the controversy surrounding a biopic of a woman I greatly admire and have been a fan of for years, but also to address, in some small way, the prejudiced approach that many journalists and those choosing to leave comments on news sites, have taken with regard to Saldana playing Nina Simone.

What are YOUR thoughts? Please leave a reply below.

*MUST READ*:  We Need To Educate Ourselves On Race vs. Ethnicity (And Other Things I Learned From The Ongoing Zoe Saldana/Nina Simone Conversation)
at Shadow and Act

Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone: My thoughts
at the Monique Blog: race, entertainment, culture

Nina Simone’s Daughter on Her Mother’s REAL Legacy
at Ebony

Will ‘Avatar’ Actress Zoe Saldana Play Legendary Singer Nina Simone?
at The Daily Beast

Disappearing Acts: Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone & The Erasure of Black Women in Film
at The Huffington Post

Nina Simone’s Daughter Responds to Zoe Saldana Casting, Says Film Is ‘Unauthorized’
at Clutch Magazine

Larger-than-life: Nina Simone film writer-director, others, on beauty, challenge of musician biopics
at Entertainment Weekly

Casting Notice For Nina Simone Project Reveals More About What To Expect…
at indieWIRE

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Other stories about women in film this week:

Toronto & Women Directors
at Wellywood Woman

The Smart and Funny Young Women Behind the Most Surprisingly Empowering Movie of the Year
at The Huffington Post

More Female Documentary Directors, But Celluloid Ceiling Remains
at The Wrap

Ann Richards Film Recalls a Woman and Her Era
at the New York Times

First-Time Director Leslye Headland Talks About Her Uproarious Comedy ‘Bachelorette’
at Backstage

Reichert honore for lifetime achievement in film
at YS News

Venice film festival: female directors get recognition for a change
at The Guardian

LUND 2012: New Wave Of Titles Focus On Female Filmmakers In Genre Film
at Twitch Film