Natalie Jowett, Producer/Writer/Director offers backstory on JusticeAid’s Film Forum #JusticeAid Prize and their mission of promoting justice through the arts.
Natalie Jowett is a writer, producer, director and visual artist who started her media career in the New York bureau of The Baltimore Sun newspaper while attending Columbia University. An opening at a sports television network guided her unexpectedly away from print and toward a film and television career that has taken her around the world, telling stories on topics that include racism, secular religious conflict, gender inequity and civil rights.
During 12 years as a Senior Features Producer at ABC Sports Natalie wrote and directed an Emmy-winning documentary on the tragedy of the 1972 Munich Olympics. Work on Oprah's Legends Ball marked a departure from sports, and Marvel's Hero Project was an opportunity to tell the stories of amazing kids who are doing heroic work solving real world problems. Natalie sits on the Board of Directors for JusticeAid, a non-profit that promotes justice through the arts.
New York Festivals: -In 2020, JusticeAid partnered with the Civic Life Project to support the Democracy 2020 Youth Film Challenge! Is storytelling the way to engage young people in getting out the vote?
Natalie Jowett: JusticeAid's tagline is "promoting justice through the arts." Musical concerts have always been the venue for our biggest fundraisers, and we wanted to add another layer of artistic expression to our work supporting organizations fighting for justice. In 2020, voter suppression and voter empowerment were our focus in an election year that was so critical to the future of justice in America. Young people have been disengaged from the political process, and from voting, for decades. They have been a sleeping giant whose participation (or not) represents a huge impact on election outcomes. Young people are also hyper aware of, and adept at, using the power of video as a means of self-expression.
As we sought to enter the realm of film as a way to amplify our call for social justice, JusticeAid was very fortunate to partner with an organization called Civic Life Project in 2020 as a means of launching our first-ever film event. Civic Life Project was well established (since 2010) by two Emmy-winning documentarians, dedicated to supporting and lifting young filmmakers and also encouraging them to participate in matters of civic discourse and responsibility that affect all of us, whether we realize it or not. Civic Life Project runs a bi-annual film competition for people ages 14-25, encouraging student filmmakers to engage in civics through the art of documentary. When JusticeAid joined in with Civic Life Project as a partner in their "Democracy 2020 Youth Film Challenge," we encouraged those young directors to add justice, or injustice, to their thinking when deciding on topics for their film entries and in order to qualify for the newly created JusticeAid Prizes.
The idea was to start by asking young people to identify any issue in their lives that was important to them. Through the storytelling process, we asked them to examine the ways their issues intersected with justice (and a lack of justice) and then accept a challenge to incorporate a call to action to vote within the story they were telling.
Young people are very attached to their smart phones, which are portable film cameras. When I was starting out (in the last century), making a documentary was a cumbersome and expensive process requiring a high level of expertise and access. Now, the door has been blown off the hinges. Making a video is easy enough for even elementary school kids to do. And that allows them a voice they haven't had in the past. I think storytelling is a great way to engage kids in the entire process of politics and government because they have a way to show and tell what goes on in their lives, what they struggle with and how they want things to change.
The entries that wound up winning prizes in our competition were on various topics, from climate crisis to voting rights to the injustice of the money bail system in the United States. No matter the focus, each director was able to show the way voting can make a difference in outcomes around all these issues.
New York Festivals: In September, you held the Film Forum event honoring the winners. Could you talk about the #JusticeAid Prize and the Film Forum event? How did it come together?
Natalie Jowett: The Democracy 2020 Youth Film Challenge culminated in our JusticeAid Film Forum Event in September 2020.
In 2019, as we planned for what would come, we foresaw a screening in a theater full of film lovers and social justice warriors, with live Q and A between winning directors and audience members. Covid changed all our plans, of course, and we ended up with an event I had never imagined. This was the first film event for JusticeAid, and everyone on our team worked very hard to figure out how to capture the thrill of screening the films, with the passion of social justice work, wrapped into an all-virtual event. The show was streamed on a platform called StreamYard, that allowed live chats and multiple guests to interact remotely. The JusticeAid prizes were awarded in two categories: short film and social media campaign. A group of high school kids from New York City won the gold prize for their short documentary on the injustice of the money bail system in America. They worked on the film remotely,3 kids working over zoom from 3 different apartments, using handmade graphic elements and stop motion animation to create a visually interesting, original and compelling story about a system that cages people for being poor. It was incredible to see their proud smiles when their award was announced! All our winners ranged in age from 14-24. Even those who were too young to vote made compelling cases for the importance of getting involved in civic life. It was a wonderful celebration of the power of storytelling to shed light on issues that affect all of us, and to make a call to action to use whatever resources we have to make positive change in our communities and our world.
All of our prizewinning entries are available here: https://justiceaid.org/film-forum/
New York Festivals: JusticeAid was formed in 2013 to promote justice through the arts and public engagement. JusticeAid combines education on social justice issues with events centered on music and the arts, to support civil rights warriors in their work for social justice causes. Could you talk about the organization you are partnering with in 2021?
Natalie Jowett: JusticeAid's mission is to leverage the community-building power of art and music to transform awareness into action in the fight against injustice. Each year we focus on one tendril of social injustice (and there are so many), and we identify a small organization doing excellent work on the ground in that specific area. We then rev up all our resources to raise awareness and money to support this organization and the work they do. This year, our focus is police accountability and community empowerment. Our grantee partner for 2021 is an organization called Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem (NDS). NDS has been working as a holistic public defender service in Harlem since 1990 and is now in the process opening more offices in other states. In addition to growing their public defense services, NDS is launching the PACE program. PACE is a vehicle to create structural change in the systems that cause so many people, especially people of color and poor people, to interact with the criminal legal system. Through impact litigation, issues like over-policing in brown and black neighborhoods, children falling victim to the school-to-prison pipeline and gross violations of the civil rights of people living in underserved neighborhoods, the PACE program is focused on a paradigm shift where those who have traditionally suffered the most at the hands of the criminal legal system will finally be able to enjoy peace and life without fear of police.
For several years, JusticeAid has been partnering with Riverside Church in New York City to produce an educational forum each spring. We bring together an impressive panel of experts who are working on the issues aligned with our grantee partner's work, and we host a panel discussion so that we can help raise awareness and increase understanding about the injustices facing vulnerable people in our society. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Stacey Abrams are among the experts who have lent their voices to our panels in the past. This year we will host a virtual forum with Riverside Church on May 2nd. We will also be hosting two concerts, in the spring and fall, to raise money to support this year's grantee partner, Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem and their PACE program to help expand this police accountability and community empowerment program nationally. Details about all our events can be found here justiceaid.org
New York Festivals: Looking ahead, what storytelling techniques do you think young filmmakers will use to express their individual voices on topics that are important to them?
Natalie Jowett: Because of social media, especially TikTok, young people are very savvy about the power of video. They have shown themselves to be incredibly clever and creative in finding ways to mesh music, satire, politics, news, comedy and the daily angst of being alive in ways that tell powerful stories. I feel like the creativity of this moment is so alive and full of possibility. With the availability and accessibility of smart phone video cameras and computer editing, the storytelling landscape is so wide open. The fact that young people inundate themselves with videos also means that in some ways they are so aware of what's going on in their communities, in their countries and in the whole world, and they are connecting in real time to share ideas and the power of collaboration. I think we'll continue to see young people exploring ways to use video storytelling to express their feelings, their anxieties and their hopes. It's up to those of us who have experience, and who have the ability to open doors, to support them and pay attention to the ways they are breaking down barriers. I am particularly mesmerized by the way so many young people use video as a means to call out injustice and to create calls to action to help. Hopefully we'll see lots of student films entered in the NYF social justice category! I can't wait to see what wonderful things they can imagine and create!