Art + Culture

Q+A: Michele Mitchell of Film at 11

Film at 11 is DUMBO’s resident “responsibly rogue” film company dedicated to investigative journalism for change.  DUMBO Improvement District intern Amanda Salguero sat down with executive editor and co-founder Michele Mitchell to talk about their upcoming film, The Uncondemned.

Can you tell me a little bit about the film?

The Uncondemned is about the first time that rape was prosecuted as a crime of war. There was a huge push, especially by activists rising up through the ranks of international criminal law, to take [rape as a crime of war] seriously.  Everyone thought that Yugoslavia would be the first to trial, but it was the incredibly underfunded Rwanda tribunal.  They were really making it up as they went along, because international criminal law didn’t really exist, and a lot of the things that they started during that trial have continued to this day actually.

What was really incredible was that the women back in the village were protesting their own government trying to get rape taken seriously within the Rwandan criminal system.  When it came time to call them to court, these women were ready for their moment. Those women are the first in history to testify about rape as a crime of war, and they come forward in this film with their real names to tell their stories, which is really cool.

What was the inspiration behind starting this project, and why do you think now is the right time to tell this story?

I’ve been in a lot of post-conflict zones, so I’ve seen the aftermath of rape during conflict.  It’s quite drastic, not only for the victims but for the community that they’re in.  And it’s always concerned me that it’s not as prominently discussed as, say, using toxic gas, or any other type of weaponry; the idea is that this is something that just happens.  In all honesty, it was the 2012 election that really did it.  When I was listening to these people running for office talk about “rape” versus “legitimate rape” I remember thinking “you know what?  I’m going to show you what it really is.”  I wanted to show this as a human rights issue, and take the sex element out of it.   It’s not a sex crime.  It’s an act of power, torture, and humiliation, and that’s why I really wanted to do this film. The sooner that we’re able to actually look at this through a different prism, one of human rights, and not sex, then we can start to make some fundamental change.

On your website, the company is described as being “responsibly rogue”; what does that mean to you?

When we worked on our first documentary, I remember someone saying “you just went rogue” and I said “no, we’re responsibly rogue.”   It took putting ourselves out there for an awful lot of criticism, and being willing to take it, in order for some substantial questions to be raised about whether we’re really doing good.  That’s what responsibly rogue means; you have to be unafraid to take the editorial risks, of being the unpopular kid, and making the story that gets you ridiculed.  But you have to be very responsible about how you do it’ you have to do the work.  You have to be right, you have to have your facts straight.

I know the idea of crowd funding and creating community around films after the last frame of the movie is over is also very important to you.

Yeah, and we kind of learned that organically with the Haiti doc.  That documentary was supposed to be totally standard, have a sponsor underwrite us, it airs, and that’s it; what happened was, because we had all the sponsors pull out, we had to turn to our friends.  As a result there was a community waiting for that film to come out, and because of that, the Haiti documentary is still alive out there.

Even though it’s really hard to fundraise [through crowdfunding], it’s actually really fun, because of the people that we’ve met.  Yes, it’s great to give money, because we certainly need it to finish the film, but it’s great how many people come forward and say “I want to get more involved, and this is what I can do.”   There’s so clearly a need for dialogue right now, real meaningful dialogue.  This has been great because there’s just so much talent out there, and brain power, which has been really fun to utilize, and allowed us to facilitate some change.

So to go back to the film itself, do you have a favorite moment from when you were filming?

God there are so many.  I came across a memo written by a woman named Lisa Pruitt that was attached to the amendment of the indictment. The report was page after page of information that ended up being the basis of the case, and the backbone of the amendment by and large.  I remember thinking, who is Lisa Pruitt??  She turned out to be a professor at UC Davis.  When I called her and told her that I read her memo, and that the prosecutor who won the case had given it to me, she started to cry and had to hang up.  When she called me back about 10 minutes later, she told me that she had no idea anyone had even read it.  When she wrote the report, the investigators at the time ridiculed her.  They told her, “You know you’ve been the laughingstock of the office the entire time.  No one’s ever going to read this report, and if they do, no one ‘s ever going to care.”  When she submitted the report, she was told by the higher ups “thank you, but we’re not going to pursue the sexual assault charge.”    It ends up that this report, which she thought no one ever read, was incredibly important to the success of that case, and why history was changed.  That was a really good day in my career.

Why do you love working here in DUMBO?

We’ve been here six years, and I love it.  When I get off the train and I see the view, it’s like “yeah, I live in New York” which I know sounds so corny, but I love that view of two bridges as I walk down the street.  I also really love the community that’s down here.  First of all, people are so generous.  If we need to borrow something we can run down the hallway here.  People are very encouraging; there’s a real spirit of comraderie.  And it’s so unpretentious;  to have so many accomplished people who are in this area, and to be so unpretentious, is really cool.

Join Michele and the rest of the crew from Film at 11 for a Happy Hour TONIGHT at Olympia Wine Bar to hear more about this upcoming film!

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.