The moving image is a diversion and instrument of the masses. What house doesn't have a TV? Who doesn't go to the movies? Films are many times seen as pure entertainment, vehicles for the viewer to vicariously walk in another's shoes. Frequently, these lives the stories told on screen are of glamour, gold, and grandeur. But what about the stories that are rarely told? What about the real stories of people who live on the street, battle drug addiction, immigrate to the US in search of a better life, or work all night?
We cut to the streets of St. Louis. Downtown. Shots of warehouses, now lofts in the midst of construction. This is a typical Midwestern city, in the midst of a revitalization effort. Through a chain link fence we see a man with a small video camera in hand. Behind him two college-aged boys follow with another camera. They walk along the outside of a massive, abandoned school building. Entering, we switch to the point of view behind the lens of the college students. They walk through the door of the school building, and we immediately see signs of dilapidation. As the camera pans from left to right, the man with the smaller camera says, "This is where I used to live." The camera follows the man as he slowly walks through the building. He recounts how almost fifty homeless individuals once squatted here. We see the clothes strewn on the floor from a police raid. The interior walls are crumbling, and the blackboards have half-written phrases here and there. On window sills sit jars of urine. Through the camera's lens the viewer has an exclusive look at one homeless man's former "home." Fade out.
Fade in. In an auditorium on Saint Louis University's campus a crowd is quiet as their eyes follow the story on the screen of a family divided by the Mexico-U.S. border. A young woman cries as she recounts how proud her parents were as she prepared to graduate from high school, and the audience is captivated. They have already learned that her father was deported to Mexico a few years ago, unable now to see the rest of his family living in the U.S. When the lights come on in the auditorium, an expert on recent immigration issues in the Congress takes the floor. Dialogue begins on topics raised in the film and how what the audience has just seen translates to policy and activism. If one were to hit the fast-forward button, as images of the next few days speed by, there are more films and speakers, and dialogue.
All of these are clips of the Otro Mar Project, a collaborative organization in St. Louis that explores social justice issues through the digital video/film medium. In short, OM makes and shows films that are relevant to today's society and gives voice to underrepresented people and issues. Over the past year and a half we have produced and directed three short films on immigration and homelessness, and a feature-length film, Nightwork, about people who work the night shift in Saint Louis. Nightwork was shown recently as part of the Webster Film Series, and will be included in the 2006 Saint Louis Filmmaker's Showcase as part of the Saint Louis Film Festival. The short films have debuted at film festivals sponsored by OM: Sleeping Under the Arch in 2005, and Crossing Borders: Immigrant Perspectives on the American Dream in 2006.
Method is as important as product for the Otro Mar Project. Using digital video/film as a tool for exploration of social justice issues, OM also sees the creation of visual media as a way to engage with populations who do not normally receive the attention of mainstream culture. The experience is educational for the filmmakers many of whom are students at Saint Louis University and empowering for the film's subjects. But the advocacy doesn't stop there: exposing mainstream audiences to films about social justice issues through film festivals and advocacy events, the Otro Mar Project seeks to inspire others to action. Films on their own can raise awareness with a poignancy that mere talk doesn't always have and in combination with discussion and information, films can become a call to action, empowering people to effect real change. This is the Otro Mar Project's ultimate goal.
OM operates as a collective of students and community members who share a passion for film and social justice. Projects are chosen by members, and often several projects are in development simultaneously. As a fledgling non-profit organization, the group functions with a very small budget. A recent grant from the CALOP foundation will help with production of the next feature-length film, which will be a glimpse into the lives of those who lived in the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing project, set for completion in December 2006. Although all members are currently volunteers, the hope is to secure enough funding in 2006-2007 to pay for at least one staff position.
Zoom out. Back on the streets of a city, traffic on the street is negligible. Cut to a short-order cook at a local all-night diner who laughs with a customer as she fills shakers with sugar. As the hours tick on toward dawn, she scans the restaurant and wonders what project to tackle next. Even at $2.50 an hour she isn't satisfied with sitting still in the empty diner. She knows that even in the wee hours of the night, there is work to be done.