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Meet the 2013 Sundance Filmmakers #9: Michele Stephenson and Joe Brewster Turn the Camera Onto Their Own Family in ‘American Promise’

Meet the 2013 Sundance Filmmakers #9: Michele Stephenson and Joe Brewster Turn the Camera Onto Their Own Family in 'American Promise'

Back in 1996, Sundance premiered Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson’s first feature film, “The Keeper.” It went on to receive an Indie Spirit Award nomination. The directing duo now return with “American Promise,” which turns to the camera on their own family.  The pair, who live together with their two sons in Brooklyn, founded the Rada Film Group in order to create docs about multicultural America. It expanded to “American Promise,” in which they track their sons’ experience at a NYC private school for twelve years.

“We are both products of the African diaspora,” they both told Indiewire, “but from slightly different vantage points.” Stephenson was a human rights attorney and Brewster studied psychiatry at Harvard before both were drawn to filmmaking and storytelling.

What It’s About: “The film follows 2 African-American boys and their families for 12 years as they navigate the terrain of race, privilege and opportunity at a NYC private school.”

What It’s REALLY About: “The film begins in 1999, when we turned our cameras on ourselves, our son Idris, our friends the Summers and their son Seun. The boys were entering kindergarten at the prestigious Dalton School in New York City. We continued to film them through elementary, middle and high school. Over the years, we see the boys struggling with stereotypes, identity, and issues of race and class. Meanwhile, we wrestle with doubts and angst over our sons’ future, as we juggle our high expectations with the cultural and social obstacles the boys face.

“Through our intimate experiences, the documentary reveals complicated truths about parenting, while challenging commonly held assumptions about educational access in the 21st century. Ultimately, it asks each of us: What is the American Promise?”

Our Chief Challenge: “Deciding how much we were willing to expose the boys, our friends and ourselves – this was certainly the ultimate challenge. In the beginning our parenting instinct was to avoid showing our flaws, we were reluctant to expose our vulnerabilities in front of the camera. However, over the years we realized that pushing ourselves to be emotionally transparent improved both our parenting, ours sons’ emotional development and made for a more a powerful story.”

Our Goal: “Sixty years ago Ralph Ellison wrote a great novel, ‘Invisible Man’ – it spoke to what he called the invisibility of the black man. As he defined it, invisibility was not so much about not being seen, but rather, about being misperceived. This misperception still shapes the life experiences of African American boys and men today. Through the power of our storytelling, we hope audiences will gain a greater understanding of the complicated plight of African American boys. They face obstacles that we must address as parents, educators and institutions and we all benefit from understanding the factors that contribute to the challenges they face. Powerful documentary storytelling can help audiences connect to these issues from a personal and emotional space.

“Ultimately we want to contribute to our sons and families being seen as a vital part of this great American mosaic — where perceptions can transcend stereotypical assumptions, hence make the American Promise more of a reality for all.”

Beyond the Film: “As documentary filmmakers, we are often defined by the next documentary project we produce or direct. But, in today’s revolutionary transmedia landscape, everything has been turned upside down. And, we are excited to delve into the opportunities these multiple platforms have to offer to help expand our story beyond conventional media and audiences. Over the last two years we have been engaged in an ambitious campaign to promote African American male academic achievement. This campaign, which is supported by the Fledgling Fund, Kellogg and Ford Foundations and the Open Society Foundations, has marshaled a small army of grassroots supporters and transmedia storytellers nationwide and will continue to operate through 2015 promoting a change in the way we see and treat African American boys. We have never in our lives been more excited about getting up in the morning and working toward making a difference.

“Our engagement campaign will include community screenings and a speaking tour, a parenting mobile application, and a travelling installation to promote discussion amongst youth and educational stakeholders. We are also completing a parenting book that Random House’s Spiegel & Grau imprint will publish in the fall to coincide with our film’s broadcast on PBS’ critically acclaimed POV series.

“One of our recent initiatives is our festival tour campaign to raise $100,000 and 100 new mentors for African American boys through the national organization, Big Brothers Big Sisters, mentoring brothers initiative. Text Big1 to 80100 to donate $5 towards the campaign and make a difference in a young boys’ life.”

Indiewire invited Sundance Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2013 festival.

Keep checking HERE every day up to the launch of the festival on January 17 for the latest profiles.

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