Speaking From the Lens
A documentary filmmaker brings political passion to her work in the studio and behind the camera.
When Jennifer Filippazzo began her filmmaking career four years ago, she was young, invincible and angry about the repercussions of 9/11, including rampant racial profiling and mass detentions. Cultural tensions were mounting locally and across the globe and countless people had no outlet to share their stories.
“I took this project as a dare,” Filippazzo (FCRH ’01) said of her October 2001 decision to join producer and director Nicolas Rossier’s team for Brothers and Others: The Impact of September 11th on Arabs, Muslims and South East Asians in America (2002). “It was a struggle to get people to talk to us. America is a young nation still struggling to create real democracy,” she added, and “for me [that struggle] is with the camera.”
Brothers and Others leads the audience on a personal journey through the lives of families of Middle Eastern descent and Muslim faith living in New York and attempting to maintain their livelihoods after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. In many of the accounts, detained terrorist suspects are released without any recorded charges, but often deported for Visa violations. Families like Zahida Parveen’s and Uzma Naheed’s are forced to return to Pakistan, a place they no longer consider home. Filippazzo said that the personal hardship and trauma of these families made her “just want to know more and more about them. And sometimes,” she added, “after a day behind the camera, I went home to cry.”
While working on the film, the documentary team faced many challenges, such as lack of funding and manpower and subjects’ self-censorship and fear of the camera, according to Filippazzo. As an associate producer, she sought grants and funding, researched and interviewed subjects, and took on new roles behind the camera as they arose. To make their subjects feel comfortable, Filippazzo said, she and the rest of the crew often spent time in the neighborhood, visiting stores or restaurants and participating in the local culture before turning on the camera.
Brothers and Others opened at the Screening Room in Manhattan approximately one year after production began, and it has been going strong ever since. Initially self-distributed by Rossier’s own Baraka Productions, it was picked up by Arab Films for distribution in the United States and Monarch films for circulation abroad. The film has been screened at prestigious international film festivals from Seattle to Holland, featured on the Hallmark channel, and shown in various schools around the country. The reviews, primarily focused on the right-left political dichotomy, have been mixed. Featured last year at the United Nations Association Film Festival and replayed at the Asia Society in New York City just six days before the U.S. presidential election, it has been praised for its insightful view of personal tragedy. Yet the National Review discredited Brothers and Others last December for promoting a victim mentality and flaunting leftist political tactics over realism.
Filippazzo, who grew up in Brooklyn and Staten Island and is of Italian and Arab descent, has her own reasons for being personally invested in the film. She agrees with political commentator and linguist Noam Chomsky, who notes in Brothers and Others that “history should have taught us that profiling is ineffective.” Filippazzo also speaks passionately about the plight of documentary filmmakers who strive to bring public attention to contentious political issues.
“We are screaming and screaming with the mute button on, and we’re portrayed by the media as naïve, misguided or aiding the terrorist cause,” said Filippazzo. The goal of Brothers and Others, she added, is “to open up more questions, rather than answer them.”
In addition to her film work, Filippazzo is the distribution manager for Democracy Now! the listener-supported, public radio and television show hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez. She first volunteered at the show while finishing work on Brothers and Others and was hired full time just as the film was completed, more than two years ago.
Filippazzo said that her experiences at Fordham, where she was vice president of the Rose Hill theater group Mimes and Mummers and met her fiancé, Nate Donlon (FCRH ’02), have contributed to her personal and professional development. Her classes, particularly those with Norman Cowie, Ph.D., assistant professor of theater and visual arts, helped her “put a lens on gender, race and class,” she said.
These days, Filippazzo continues to work with Brothers and Others director Nicolas Rossier. She served as a researcher and associate producer for his most recent film, Aristide and the Endless Revolution (2005), which explores the events that led to the expulsion of Jean Bertrand Aristide from Haiti. Her next project, she said, will focus on Healing the Children, a nonprofit organization that brings doctors, volunteers and medical care to children in need across the globe.
“It is the type of business where you help each other out. You share footage with other independent filmmakers,” said Filippazzo, who hopes to start her own production company one day. For now, however, she is focused on “going where the silence is and making a big noise.”
If she screams loudly enough, even through a small, nonprofit microphone, it can create a big echo.