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Eyes on the Region

Filmmaker Loren Sonnenberg (photo by Rose Mattrey)

The films produced for Squeaky Wheel's Channels series document the region's past, present and future

Twice a month an Elder Luncheon is held at the Native American Community Services Center. The event includes homemade food, traditional native prayers, and the favorite pastime of the elderly—bingo. Capturing this jovial scene on camera not long ago was film director Ronald Douglas, who had been assigned by the local film organization, the Squeaky Wheel to make a short documentary for it documentary series, Channels: Stories From the Niagara Frontier. Ron had met up with his NACS liaison, Ruchatneet Printup, and the two were hungry for an interview. But finding an opening between the laughs and pleasantries proved difficult, so the pair held back, ate a bit, and chatted with the elders. They were handed a copy of a stern document—an official apology from the Canadian government to that country’s aboriginal people issued by Prime Minister Stephen Harper on June 11, 2008. Reading it made the whole happy scene grow a little surreal:

For more than a century, Indian Residential Schools separated over 150,000 Aboriginal children from their families and communities…Two primary objectives of the Residential Schools system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture. These objectives were based on the assumption Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal. Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, ‘to kill the Indian in the child.’

The Canadian schools to which Harper refers were modeled on the Indian Boarding Schools in the United States, which are the subject of Douglas’s documentary, Unseen Tears: Native American Residential Boarding School Experience in Western New York. To date, the US government has made no apologies for its programmatic effort to separate Native Americans from their culture.

Formed in the late 19th century, Indian Boarding Schools were initially a sincere attempt at improving the education of Native Americans. But as enrollment rose due to government-enforced quotas, the program grew out of hand. Living conditions deteriorated and authoritative measures became more severe. In 1928, an assessment of the program, the Meriam Report, described underfunding, understaffing, and rigid indoctrination of the students with European-American ideals. Later, some improvements would occur—forced enrollment was eliminated in the 1940s, for example—but the schools never transformed into truly useful educational facilities. And as institutionalized assimilation came to be seen by even the “dominant culture” as unacceptable, they started to vanish. Most had closed their doors by the 1980s.

Douglas has become an expert on this topic of late. His research has brought him into contact with former students from around the country, and what he’s heard has been far from pleasant. “Experiences weren’t uniform,” he says, “but they all agreed that [the school masters] would beat you if you spoke your native tongue.”

Douglas hails from Pittsburgh, and came to Buffalo to obtain his master’s degree in media studies at the University at Buffalo. He has become quite involved in the area’s film scene: making films, participating in others’ projects, and teaching a class at UB. Some of his friends had directed previous films in the Channels series, in which Squeaky Wheel connects filmmakers with local nonprofits and activists whose stories need to be told. Squeaky Wheel set Douglas up with the NACS.

Unseen Tears focuses on the two most significant schools in this region: the Thomas Indian School of Irving, New York, which closed in 1957; and the Mohawk Institute of Brantford, Ontario, which closed in 1970. Since the American-Canadian border meant little to Six Nations people, families from American reservations were often split between the two.

As the bingo began to wind down at the luncheon, Ruchatneet introduced Douglas to a former Mohawk Institute resident, Patricia Ann Weber. Now in her 70s, she had entered the school at the tender age of 10. Speaking to Douglas’s camera, she recalled a “lonely life” for her and her little sister, with lots of crying and little education. Running water and electricity were the only positives she could muster. Her only joy during the six years she was enrolled in the school was spending summers back on the reservation with her grandmother—who, though willing, was powerless to release the girls, since it was their neglectful mother who had enrolled them.

Weber left the Mohawk Institute considerably more experienced in manual labor and partially deaf from frequent beatings. But as miserable as those years were, her greatest regret is that she brought some of the school’s rigid authority into her own parenting. She lamented the times she “took a belt” to her children. Decades later, the cruelty she was taught there and the community she lost continue to haunt her.

Keeping an eye on the region

Squeaky Wheel's Dorothea Braemer with filmmaker Christine Zinni. (photo by Rose Mattrey)

Channels: Stories From the Niagara Frontier, now three years old, marked a significant change in Squeaky Wheel’s mission. After 20 years of serving the region’s independent and experimental media artists, Channels created a new role for Squeaky: keen observer of a region seeking to reinvent and reinvigorate itself.

“Squeaky Wheel means many different things to many different people,” says Dorothea Braemer, the organization’s executive director. “There are those that come for the screenings of independent work, those that attend our workshops, and those that come here for our media equipment, be that 16 millimeter or Super 8 film or digital video. Our motto is ‘Make your own media.’”

Historically, the high cost of film production has made it anything but a pastime for the masses. One might spend a couple hundred dollars to take crack at painting, but a quality camera can cost thousands. Expense has always been the bane of independent filmmakers, but the financial barriers also forced collaboration. Even as the artform became more accessible to the everyman in the 1960s, it took groups of everymen to afford the cameras, the film stock, the processing, and the editing equipment.

From these communities of necessity sprung the nation’s first independent media centers. With help from film collaboratives and the New York State Council on the Arts, Media Study Buffalo was established in 1971. It wouldn’t last, however; during the Reagan administration, when many experimental artists (let alone those creating expensive experimental art) lost access to funding, Media Study Buffalo closed its doors, after 14 years of service.

Responded quickly, the New York State Council on the Arts held statewide town meetings on Buffalo’s need of a new media center. From these very vocal proceedings (hence Squeaky Wheel, as in “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”) a group of working artists emerged, including prominent experimental filmmakers Tony Conrad and Julie Zando, and in 1985 the Squeaky Wheel was formed. Two years later, the collaborative opened its first storefront headquarters on Potomac Avenue off of Elmwood.

Today, the Squeaky Wheel remains the city’s epicenter for independent media. It is a venue for the works of local filmmakers, as well as a school that teaches aspiring artists how to use the tools of the trade. There’s a subterranean theater, quality equipment available for cheap rental, and workshops on a variety of subjects—filming, flash animation, after effects, screenwriting. Squeaky has eraned an international reputation. Braemer says that its NEA-funded resident artist program gets applications from all over the world: Russia, Egypt, England, the Czech Republic, Germany, Australia, Kenya, and all over the US.

In recent years, Squeaky has added to programs that expanded its mission: Channels and the Buffalo Youth Media Institute. Both programs are dedicated to the creation of documentaries on local concerns and issues, and have transformed Squeaky into what Dorothea describes as “a kind of chronicler of life in Buffalo.” Channels has resulted in films on topics such as housing demolition, community activism, prisoner issues, and the Buffalo waterfront.

Most Channels films are about 10 minutes long, meaning an entire year’s worth of material can be digested in a single viewing. On Sunday, December 6, the series presents its third annual premier to the public. This year, the four films to be screened are Douglas’s film on Native American boarding schools madw with the help of NACS, plus films on literacy, economic justice, and historic preservation, made in collaboration with Read to Succeed Buffalo, the Coalition for Economic Justice, and Preservation Buffalo Niagara.

“L” is for literacy

I met up with filmmaker Loren Sonnenberg at Bethel Head Start preschool. Toys were scattered about the classrooms, intent children chimed in during group readings, and there was dancing, singing, and big smiles on little faces.

Sonnenberg is from Chautauqua, New York, but has lived in Buffalo for almost 10 years. He has a master’s degree in Film and New Media Studies from UB and plays an active role in the local film scene—recently he went on a three-week film tour named URFest, which showcased Buffalo urban renewal films to cities around the country (Ron Douglas went on that tour, too.) Upon coming home, Loren got to work on his Channels film, about literacy in Buffalo. Bethel Head Start was one of his many stops.

Located on Jefferson Avenue, the school occupies one of the few new buildings in the neighborhood. Giving it a little company is a recently built Frank E. Merriweather library down the street, and the proximity of the two structures is of no coincidence. In the school’s parking lot, Sonnenberg explained thatthe area had become a testing zone to see the benefits of a “literary rich environment.” Illiteracy in Buffalo, he said, is a big problem.

In 2003, the National Adult Literacy Survey found that one third of Buffalo’s population is functionally illiterate. Functional literacy has to do with the minimal literary skills needed to deal with daily tasks in one’s society, meaning it changes from country to country, depending on development. In the US, the the functionally illiterate might be able to recognize the letters of the alphabet and certain words, but they wouldn’t be able to fully comprehend posters, bill notices, or newspapers.

In other words, one third of Buffalo’s adults can’t read this article. The functional illiteracy rate for Erie County is 20 percent.

Unsurprisingly, functional illiteracy has serious social consequences and has been directly linked to poverty and crime. Many functionally illiterate people find it difficult to move beyond entry-level employment. This makes the issue a great concern in our faltering economy.

Enter Read to Succeed Buffalo, a coalition formed in 2006 of more than 70 literary organizations in Buffalo. Its stated aim is “to transform the current, fragmented [literacy] system to one that is comprehensive, unified, and measurable…[working] with the community to develop and implement solutions that address the needs of people across the entire age span.” To do this, the organization encourages communication between its members, strategizes citywide plans, tries to find programs that work, and adds money and resources where necessary. RTSB started implementing its first citywide plan in 2007, and since then has raised more than $4.7 million.

The coalition has helped a wide range of people, from four-year-olds to 50-year-olds, creating what Sonnenberg describes as “a lifelong learning pipeline.” However, the organization has a strong interest in helping young children, as adult education is the most resource intensive, many communities are stuck in a cycle of illiteracy, and up to 40 percent of Buffalo children go into kindergarten underprepared, with limited vocabulary and unable to identify letters and numbers. Some even can’t recognize their own names.

Bethel Head Start enrolls children around the ages of three and four, and introduces them to the foundations of literacy they desperately need. Bright, pristine, and colorful, the schools is a haven in a struggling neighborhood. As Sonnenberg filmed, three classes were bustling with children. One teacher taught the basics of a book as an object, having the kids point out what was on the cover and showing them how to open it. Another class was in the throes of playtime. In the last class, further along in the program, children recognized letters and colors and even short words.

The program id federally funded and cost-free for parents, who are required to attend parent-teacher conferences that, as the staff say, “teach parents how to teach.” If the “literary zone” RTSB has made around Bethel Head Start works, the intention is to spread the model. RTSB’s goal is clearly stated on its Web site: 100 percent literacy. A steep challenge, but as Sonnenberg’s film, Towards an Ecology of Reading, will show, ignoring it will cause a steeper decline.

Low wages and high vacancies

A scene from Zinni's film Dawn 'til Dusk, about low-wage workers fighting to lift their families out of poverty.

Two others premiere on Sunday, as well: Dawn ’til Dusk: Buffalo Workers and the Fight for Jobs with Justice, directed by Christine Zinni, and Building on the Past for Our Future, directed by Diedie Weng.

Dawn ’til Dusk director Christine Zinni is a professor of anthropology at the State University of New York at Brockport. She grew up in an Italian/Polish working-class neighborhood in Batavia before spending time in Sweden, Greece, and the midwestern US. She returned to Western New York to earn a master’s degree and doctorate in American Studies at UB, where she studied film and media with Sarah Elder, Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz, and Tony Conrad.

Her film focuses on Buffalonians who work full-time jobs for wages so low that the workers are still impoverished. More than thirty percent of Buffalo families live below the federal poverty level of $22,500 a year (a similar statistic to the illiteracy rate). Dawn ’til Dusk follows the course of a day with four workers: a bus aide, a sanitation worker, an emergency medical technician, and a nurse’s aide. The film hopes to convey, in the director’s words, “the human dimension of what it takes to make a city work.”

Diedie’s film, on the other hand, focuses on the importance of Buffalo’s built environment, and what we lose through neglect and careless demolition. The Chinese filmmaker recently received a master’s degree from the Media Studies program at UB, and has been involved with media projects around the world. In India, she worked with Video Shala, an organization dedicated to teaching rural communities how to make education films for children. Diedie has made several documentaries in the US and China, including one that tracked a disappearing Chinese folk song tradition called Mosuo.

Since 1990, the rate of vacant housing units in Buffalo has risen from an estimated 10 percent to 23 percent. Vacant buildings attract vandalism and crime. The obvious solution would seem to be to demolish the derelict structures, which is often what happens, but many of these vacant structures buildings are solidly built, and some are historic. The empty spaces left by their demise effect the fabric of the neighborhood, and leaves, Diedie puts it, “a visual and psychological emptiness.” Her film, Building on the Past for Our Future, shows the obstacles low-income communities face trying to revitalize neglected historical neighborhoods.

The premiere starts at 3pm on Sunday, December 6, at the Market Arcade Film and Arts Center.

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