Interview with Producer Tammy Arnstein

This winter I became involved with Crossing the River after seeing an advertisement posted by Producer Tammy Arnstein through Teachers College, Columbia University, where we have both studied International Educational Development and Peace Education. While Tammy wears several hats as a Producer, I work with her as we collaborate on maximizing the educational potential for Crossing the River in both classroom and community settings. After Tammy returned from the film shoot in March, she shared with me her experience in South Carolina and spoke about how and why she became engaged in this project.

KJ: What drew you to this project? Why did you choose to join the team as a producer?

TA: I’ve had a winding career path that has taken me in a number of exciting directions. I went to film school after college, then worked in various fields: public television administration, media and museum education, and immigrant integration policy, to name a few. Although I am now a doctoral student in International Educational Development at Teachers College, I never let go of my desire to make films.

What continues to draw me to the arts and visual media is that they fill our world with possibility. In the fields of peace and sustainability education, some educators and theorists emphasize envisioning just and sustainable worlds and alternative paths to solving conflict through violence. The arts offer opportunities to explore infinite transformative potentials. From my perspective, creative and future-oriented thinking should be an integral part of formal and informal education.

So how did I get back into filmmaking and end up as a producer on Crossing the River? Emilie and I met in our neighborhood – Sunnyside, Queens – a few years back when we both became part of a local moms’ group. I was immediately inspired by Emilie’s passion for filmmaking and, in particular, her dedication to using narrative film as a means of exploring social justice issues. Last year when we co-organized a film festival showcasing Sunnyside filmmakers, I found it an incredibly gratifying experience working with Emilie because every step of the process of seeing the festival to fruition was a true collaboration and partnership.  Once the project finished, I knew immediately that I wanted to work with Emilie again. So I asked her if I could co-produce Crossing the River after she shared the story with me. I was honored that she accepted.

I asked Emilie if I could work in a producer capacity because I knew that I could simultaneously learn a tremendous amount about the organizational aspects of short filmmaking while providing an important support to Emilie. I learned way more than I could ever have anticipated.

In mid-March you traveled to South Carolina for the film shoot. How did it go? What were some highlights for you?

Shooting a low-budget short film on location is tremendously challenging, as well as rewarding. While it was one of the hardest experiences I have had, it is also one of the projects of which I am most proud. It was rewarding to see a group of people come together for a shared goal. I was inspired that the whole team – both the crew and actors – were drawn to the project because of its message of tolerance and reconciliation and worked tirelessly to accomplish this shared goal. It is quite magical to bond with the team and work together so intensively.

As part of the educational nonfiction media project that we are pursuing in conjunction with Crossing the River, I had the opportunity to learn more about what personally motivated Desiree Ross, the talented young actress who plays Michaela, the cross-burning victim, in the film. On camera, I interviewed Desiree’s mother, Brooke Smiley Ross, and grandmother, Barbara Smiley, who were victims of a hate crime shortly after moving to a suburb of New York City in the late 1970s. The family’s boat was set on fire in their yard and the perpetrators left a threatening racist sign on their lawn, sending a hostile message that a black family was not welcome in a white neighborhood. The three generations of women shared their experiences and insights about the inter-generational shifting perceptions of race, racism, and segregation in the U.S. The conversations I held with the Ross-Smiley women served as one of the highlights of my experience on location in South Carolina.

As a doctoral student in education, early on you recognized the educational potential of the themes present in Crossing the River. What conversations do you hope to encourage in the classroom or in community settings?

Along with welcoming the opportunity to work with Emilie again, one of the primary motivators for wanting to join the Crossing the River team was the content of the film. I’ve heard stories of cross burnings, but was unaware that so many still occur on a yearly basis in the U.S. and Canada. And in addition to believing that it is crucial to draw attention to the reality that cross burnings are still being perpetrated as acts of racism and terror, Emilie was exploring reconciliation and unlearning racism from the perspective of young people.

From an educational perspective, contemporary examples of reconciliation and transformation are important and powerful. Schools teach historical examples of leaders, such as Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., of social transformation and social movements. But equally important to celebrating our past history and leaders is exploring contemporary examples of transformation that demonstrate how everyday people are making strides to change their immediate environment and community. I think Crossing the River has the potential to show how quotidian decisions to transgress racism and hatred can create a tremendous impact. And, just as a cross burning can terrorize a family, an act of reconciliation and rejecting racial injustices can transform individuals, families and possibly communities. Crossing the River shows that anyone at any age can participate and create change individually and collectively, and that everyone can be as courageous as our civil rights leaders.

Inspired by the message of the film, we are choosing to focus on real life examples of contemporary acts of social injustice and how they have been and can be transformed through individual and collective action. We will be creating a curriculum and teaching guide accompanied by documentary media pieces to illustrate racial and social justice themes. We will use cross burnings and other symbols of hate as the point of entry, focusing on the emotional impact that these acts have on individuals, families, and communities and then move into other contemporary and related civil rights and racial justice issues.

Read about other members of the Cast and Crew.

KatyAnna Johnson is the Curriculum and Communications Specialist for Crossing the River.

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