Social workers use film to spotlight social issues

Raif Walter, left, and Matt Anderson Raif Walter, left, and Matt Anderson attend a Capitol Hill screening of Anderson’s film From Place to Place, a documentary that follows six young adults in Montana who have aged out of the foster care system.

Social worker Matt Anderson became a documentary film producer on a whim.

He was working with foster children in Missoula, Mont., when he met Codie, an 18-year-old who had been placed in 17 foster homes in just seven years. Like many former foster children, Codie was struggling to reconnect with family and avoid becoming involved in crime or drug abuse.

“He shared his story and I said his life was important,” said Anderson, who holds an MSW and is director of planning and sustainability at the Children’s Home Society of North Carolina. “He said, ‘Let’s make a movie,’ and from that conversation I decided to do it.”

Anderson teamed up with filmmaker Paige Williams to make “From Place to Place,” a documentary that follows six young adults in Montana who have aged out of the foster care system.

An excerpt of the film was shown at a 2010 Senate caucus hearing on foster youth, and Anderson said it helped spur Congress to pass the Child and Family Services Improvement and Innovation Act, which President Obama signed into law in September.

Anderson is not alone. Other social workers are using documentary films to put a spotlight on social issues and advocate for positive change. And there are other filmmakers who are making films that highlight the contributions of social workers or issues that are important to social workers, such as health care and mental illness.

Anderson’s film and two other documentaries — “What is Love: Pathfinders” and “King’s Park” — will be shown at a July 23 film festival during NASW’s national conference “Restoring Hope: The Power of Social Work.”

“What is Love: Pathfinders,” from documentary filmmaker and producer Ted Bogosian, follows an organization partly founded by social worker and NASW member Tina Staley that provides holistic, compassionate care to people struggling with cancer and other serious illnesses.

Bogosian met Staley through a mutual friend. Both had ties to Duke University in North Carolina, where Bogosian was a visiting filmmaker and Staley was an integrative oncology instructor at the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center. Bogosian explained why making the movie was so important to him.

“Well, my mother (Natalie Bogosian) died from lung cancer a long time ago,” he said. “And I would say this became a movie that I made for her, so the aspects of this production are very personal.”

“Kings Park,” from producer and director Lucy Winer, is about Winer’s return to a Long Island mental hospital that her parents committed her to when she was a teenager more than 30 years ago. The film looks at the changing state of the nation’s mental health care system over that time.

Bayou fishermanA scene from Angels of the Basin, social worker Leslye Abbey’s 2007 documentary about life on the Louisiana Bayou. — Photo courtesy of Leslye Abbey

Leslye Abbey, an NASW member who lives in Bellmore, N.Y., says becoming a filmmaker was a spiritual calling for her. She was visiting the Pine Ridge American Indian reservation in South Dakota more than 15 years ago and was taking photos when an Oglala Lakota Sioux elder noticed and said she should record his people on video. The elder said a spirit had passed the message to Abbey through him.

Abbey took a filmmaking class and started making documentaries. She is now an award-winning filmmaker who has traveled through the United States, Canada, Mexico, South America, Asia and Africa, recording little-known indigenous cultures.

“I think I am enlightening and educating people to different cultures, to different situations,” she said. “I really like to focus on the indigenous people, because they are the most ignored — just dismissed is probably the best word to use.”

Abbey’s films include “Angels of the Basin,” a look at Louisiana’s French-speaking Cajun culture; “Bayou Landfall,” a documentary on the impact of Hurricane Katrina on Louisiana’s Houma Tribe; and “Experiencing Aging,” a film about the process of aging that focuses on NASW member Catherine Papell (MSW, DSW, ACSW), one of the founding members of the Association for the Advancement of Social Work with Groups Inc.

Abbey continues to run a private practice and make films. One project she is working on is the documentary “Buffalo Nation,” which is about poverty, alcohol abuse, crime and other issues that affect teenagers on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.

“It’s really very important and I hope to go internationally with this movie,” said Abbey, who wants to post a trailer of the film on YouTube soon and then raise money to complete the documentary using Kickstarter, an online funding platform.

“Half of these kids show fetal alcohol effects, and now they are having children and drinking – they don’t even have adult daily living skills,” Abbey said.

The Vanishing Oath posterThe Vanishing Oath, a documentary by NASW member Nancy Pando, uses film to warn the public about what she believes is a looming health care crisis.

Another social worker and documentary producer, NASW member Nancy Pando, used film to warn the public about what she believes is a looming health care crisis.

Pando, who has a private practice near Boston and used to do hospital social work, always wanted to make films. She joined a local filmmaking group, and that is where she met fellow filmmaker Ryan Flesher and came up with the idea to create “The Vanishing Oath.”

“The Vanishing Oath” is about a pending shortage of physicians. Many doctors have become disillusioned by the piles of paperwork to get insurance reimbursements and the threat of being hit by expensive lawsuits. They are leaving the profession in high numbers, Pando said.

“American physicians are some of the best-trained and most dedicated health care professionals you’ll ever meet,” she said. “But their hands are tied and they’re being driven away from the profession in droves. How can we expect these dangerous trends not to have consequences?”

Pando hopes her film will educate the public about the plight of doctors and demystify the medical profession. She has created a three-hour, three-CEU seminar for social workers that is centered on the film. She hopes the seminar can help improve understanding between the medical and social work professions.

“It seems there is a lot of pressure on physician, and we expect them to be perfect,” she said. “I think we stereotype and paint people with a broad brush.”

NASW’s “Restoring Hope” conference, will be held July 22-25 in Washington, D.C. The film festival will take place during the conference.