Filmmaker blair dorosh-walther's documentary Out in the Night, which challenges the way audiences view the news, will play the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on June 20. A discussion with dorosh-walther and the five subjects of her film will follow the screening. Having received a grant for the film from the Sudance Institute, dorosh-walther worked to create an even portrait of the lives of four women, leading up to an assault charge in New York. Below, the director describes how she created a film promoting change in how we view crime and civil rights.

FilmLinc asked the directors included in the upcoming Human Rights Watch Film Festival to give some insight on filmmaking and tackling issue-oriented work prior to the launch of the series on June 13.

Out in the Night
blair dorosh-walther, USA, 2014, 74m

Responses from dorosh-walther:

On questioning mainstream journalism:

Immediately following the arrest of the women in this story, I became interested in the case when I read a headline in The New York Times that struck me: “Man is stabbed after admiring a stranger.” I wanted to understand why this man was considered, in the mainstream news media, as a potential suitor and not a threat? Why weren’t these women seen as victims of violent, homophobic harassment? And why were a group of friends with no criminal records who were not a gang being charged as a gang? I believe this story would have unfolded differently had the women and the gender non-conforming youth involved been white. Race and class, as well as gender and sexuality, were critical issues in this case. Two years after it happened, I still could not stop thinking about it and decided to commit the next seven years of my life to making this film.

On film as a creative voice: 

My approach to filmmaking is both political and practical. I very much identify as an anarchist; I have it in my blood. Oddly, the act of making an independent film feels like the truest way for me to live that out in my career. When it works correctly, filmmaking is about a small, passionate, and dedicated group of people governing equally. We work in our specific roles for a common and shared vision. I love that part of filmmaking. I’m sure many people wouldn’t necessarily agree with me, but for me it is the lens through which I see and feel the process.

Sometimes I found my creative voice in the abstraction of painting and sculpture. But I did not continue in fine arts because of that very abstraction. I want access to meaning and justice to be more transparent. In my “other” life, in social services and activism, I’ve paid attention to those things. So, filmmaking—visual storytelling—merges these two parts of me in a way that feels whole. In this way I also feel that film has a great potential to reach people in a variety of ways. It is a place to provide context and history—unlike in a courtroom, it is a place to provide a full and thorough picture—sometimes, or arguably, unlike a one-off story in a newspaper, and it is a place to get an audience to empathize and understand where someone is coming from, someone they might never come across in their day-to-day lives. It is in these ways that I believe filmmaking has great power to spark activism, dialogue, and ultimately change.

I first became involved as an activist around this case on the day after the fight occurred. I read the media coverage the following day and I did not know what had happened, but I was sure that a stranger on the street at 1 a.m. was not “admiring” a woman walking by him. I haven’t met a woman who hasn’t been harassed on the street at some point in her life, so at the bare minimum, this felt disgusting to me. I worked on and off as an activist on the case for two years. Then in 2008 when they were going to have their appeals heard, I realized I was still so outraged and felt that they never had their story told thoroughly and loudly enough. That is when I decided to start filming. That was seven years ago.

On the filmmaking process:

Funding is a true obstacle. We never had enough funding at one time in the making of this film. It was a constant struggle that made the filmmaking process longer and harder than it needed to be. I didn’t like shooting vérité as someone was crying; it felt voyeuristic. I didn’t like the feeling of raising money for a shoot when that shoot would be an interview with a mother living in a homeless shelter. I didn’t like waiting quietly for someone to be released from prison. I wanted to put the camera down and yell. Mostly, my challenge has been to find that almost impossible balance of filmmaker/advocate/activist. Being a documentary storyteller sometimes means calming your sense of moral outrage and fury at injustice so that you do press “record.”

On using film as a tool for change:

This story is about the lack of safety for young queer people of color on the street, in the courtroom, and in the media. Race, gender identity, class, sexuality, and age were all part of this story. It wasn’t one thing that criminalized these young women more—it was all combined. The language and fear perpetuated against them in the media entered into the courtroom. Their gender identity fueled the charges against them and the biased coverage.

There are so many changes that must be made so that this does not continue to happen. In the film, we note at least four other cases where violence was enacted against a person of color who was defending themselves. I want audiences to recognize that there must be a right to self-defense when someone—a person of color, a queer person, a woman, a gender non-conforming person—is being attacked. And mainstream media to understand how race, gender identity, and sexuality slant their coverage. The gang assault charge must be evaluated and dismantled for its racial bias. And judges who have habits of over-sentencing must be challenged as well. We want to work with the various organizations that are taking up these issues and hope they use this film as a tool in their efforts.