I am very happy to present the trailer for our new documentary, Dancing with Hope. We expect to be completing this short film and submitting it to film festivals this summer. Dancing with Hope is about Shirts Across America, a Seattle-based nonprofit which sends high school student volunteers to New Orleans to help rebuild homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Shirts Across America makes four trips to New Orleans every year, and has been traveling to New Orleans since 2007. We followed them for Spring Break in April 2016.
Katya and I got involved in making this film purely by chance. My daughter had signed up for the Spring Break Shirts Across America trip and asked me to attend one of their mandatory meetings to pick up the orientation material for her, because she was unable to attend herself. At the meeting, Randy Novak, the founder of Shirts Across America, said that they were still looking for parent volunteers to go on the trip. I called him the next day and asked what volunteering as a parent involved. He said that parents usually act as Adult Team Leaders, which means they are assigned a group of about 5 or 6 students and are responsible for transporting them to the worksites every morning, working with them building houses throughout the day, and taking care of activities in the afternoon and evening, which could mean taking them grocery shopping or out to the French Quarter to buy souvenirs and beignets. The Adult Team Leader basically is always at the side of the students. There are also a few parent volunteers who stand by to help out wherever they are needed, in case, for instance, someone gets sick or injured and needs to be transported away from the worksite.
This year Randy said that they were also going to try something different. He needed more promotional material for Shirts Across America, so they planned to organize a Media Team, which would consist of an Adult Team Leader and a few student volunteers. Their job would be to photograph and take video of all the activities that went on throughout the week. I told him that I had some experience in photography and video, and would be very interested in going and organizing the Media Team. Katya also happened to have that week off so I asked her if she would be interested in helping out.
We came up with a plan— a curriculum—for the students. It was focused on teaching basic photography and video techniques. The expectations for us were very vague because this was the first time they had planned for a Media Team. I expected to just make a a short “highlights reel” of the week—eye candy, something the students and parents could want to watch to remember the trip by. But I quickly discovered once we had landed in New Orleans that Randy was more interested in making a serious documentary about Shirts Across America. He was constantly arranging interviews for us and giving us lists of events to cover and people to talk to. All of our students were actually more interested in building houses than taking pictures. Fortunately, this relieved us of any teaching duties for the first few days freed Katya and me up to concentrate on shooting.
The Trap of the White Savior Narrative
Dancing with Hope attempts to show the uniqueness of New Orleans as a location and also raise awareness of the continued need for adequate housing. It also addresses racism and white privilege. You cannot ignore racism and the long history of social injustice and economic exploitation of African Americans in the South when making a film about the victims of Hurricane Katrina. While the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans were overwhelmingly poor people of color, the majority of the volunteers from Shirts Across America are white kids who attend expensive private Catholic schools in the Seattle area, so it is also a challenge trying to avoid the “White Savior” narrative, the trope in which white characters rescue people of color from their plight. Although popular in Hollywood, the White Savior narrative has been criticized for perpetuating racism by framing people of color as incompetent and unable to solve their own problems. In order to avoid falling into the White Savior trope/trap, it was important for us to show that many Shirts Across America volunteers were also people of color. Some of these volunteers have personal connections to New Orleans, either because they once lived there and survived Hurricane Katrina themselves or have family who currently live there who also suffered through the hurricane.
The trailer begins with a young man tap dancing and a clip from an interview with a man on a porch of an unfinished house. I thought it was important to show these two things for a couple of reasons:
Kids tap dancing on the street for money is a generations-old tradition unique to New Orleans and specifically to the French Quarter. While the sight of a shirtless black teen dancing for spare change might strike some as a negative representation of African Americans, children from poor families In New Orleans have been tap dancing on Bourbon Street for spare change for over 100 years. Many of today’s well-known performers tap danced as children. The tap dancing supports the “dancing” theme of the film, whose title (just in case you have forgotten already) is DANCING WITH HOPE. In addition, it anchors the location precisely to New Orleans.
African Americans in New Orleans have a rich oral tradition, which involves "front-porch storytelling". We met the man on the porch, Stanley Myers, at one of the homes that SBP (formerly known as the St. Bernard Project) was rebuilding. The house is owned my Edward Lee Sr., a 94 year old World War II veteran who had built the house with his own hands back in 1947. Mr. Myers initially was reluctant to speak to us about Katrina, but Katya eventually persuaded him to tell us his story. Once he got started, the story just poured out of him. He talked nonstop for about 15 minutes about his experience returning to a devastated New Orleans a week after Hurricane Katrina, and the efforts that he and his wife had taken to clean up their property and rebuild. When Mr. Myers tells his story while literally sitting on a porch of an unfinished house, he is following an age-old storytelling tradition.
What is the name of your movie again?
The film is titled DANCING WITH HOPE. Although there is indeed some real dancing in this film, the term is used here as a metaphor for the complicated series of steps of getting volunteers organized, trained, and transported to their worksites in order to build and rebuild homes, which offer the families who have suffered through Hurricane Katrina hope for a better future. It also refers more generally to imagining what it would take to build a future where all human beings are treated with dignity and compassion without regard to race or ethnicity.
What kind of camera did you use?
We recorded video with three different Canon DSLRs (70D, 7D Mark II, and a 5D Mark III), and occasionally with two iPhone 6 Pluses. The aerials were recorded using a Phantom 3 Professional quadcopter (a.k.a. "drone".)
When will the movie be released?
We expect to release a the final version of the movie on Vimeo for submission to film festivals sometime this summer.
How did Shirts Across America get its name?
Right after Hurricane Katrina, 6 different high school students from the State of Washington were given $500 each plus 60 days to grow that money. Each of them came up with their own way of taking the seed money and growing it. Two of the students pooled their money and made t-shirts, one which had a duck on it that said "Hope Floats". They ended up selling thousands of t-shirts that said "Hope Floats" on them, and they decided to create an nonprofit entity called Shirts Across America to continue to help out victims of the hurricane.
How can I help?
Please visit the Shirts Across America website if you are interested in making a donation or volunteer. Thank you!
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