Monday, August 20, 2007

Upcoming Screenings and a win at Woods Hole FF!

We are happy to announce that Beyond Belief recently won the Best of the Fest Award at the Woods Hole Film Festival!

For those of you in the Massachusetts area that haven't yet seen the film, it will be screening at two more local festivals in September:

UNIFEM Berkshire Women's Film Festival
Sunday, September 9 -- 10am
Koussevitsky Auditorium, Berkshire Community College -- Pittsfield, MA

Newburyport Documentary Film Festival
Saturday, September 29 -- 7:30pm
Firehouse Center for the Arts -- Newburyport, MA

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

"Beyond the Boundaries of Grief"

Ellen Mills of NEFilm has written a profile of the Beyond Belief production process, including interviews with Susan Retik and director Beth Murphy. As mentioned in the article, the documentary will screen at the upcoming Woods Hole Film Festival. The film will play Saturday, August 4 at 6pm in the Redfield Auditorium.

Monday, July 09, 2007

"The Show Must Go On" screening times at the Independent Television Festival

The Show Must Go On will be screening on the following dates at the Independent Television Festival in Los Angeles. We hope those of you in the area can make it!

Saturday, July 28th at 4PM
Raleigh Studios / Fairbanks Theater / 5300 Melrose Ave / Hollywood

Sunday, July 29th at 12PM
Raleigh Studios / Ziddio Theater / 5300 Melrose Ave / Hollywood

Tickets are available through the ITVF website:

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Trapped Inside Iraq: The Added Immigration Burden for Displaced Iraqis

The situation in Iraq is extremely fragile. Thousands of patriotic Iraqis have voluntarily come forward to work as interpreters and staffers with Americans. Many of these Iraqis risk their lives every day to continue to work with Americans. Many of these Iraqis, including several friends of mine, have been assassinated for working with Americans. While it is very unlikely that we may have to evacuate the Embassy and the Green Zone, if we evacuate we must not leave these people banging on the gates of our Embassy – again.

Gerald (Jerry) F. Burke
Major, Massachusetts State Police (Retired)
Former Senior Advisor, Iraqi Ministry of Interior and Iraqi Police Service
Testimony before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on
Oversight and Investigations, April 2007

My conversation with Jerry was brief, only about 45 minutes, but it was enough time for me to realize that he will never get Iraq out of his system. His frustration over botched police training (a complete failure) and the embarrassment of the transitional government (a disaster) verges on anguish when he talks about all the Iraqi translators, drivers and policemen who are now targets because of their work with him and his criminal justice team.

“I had to do something,” Jerry says about protecting his Iraqi friends and colleagues.

I contacted Jerry because we’re developing a documentary that follows three Iraqi families during their first full year in America. What challenges will they and their families back home face as they begin new lives and form new identities here? What dreams will they pursue, and how can they be fulfilled? How will they be received as our country’s newest Americans?

This year Jerry succeeded in bringing Asma’a Abdi, his first translator in Baghdad, to Boston as part of the new special immigrant status available to translators with the U.S. Armed Forces. She’s one of the people the Bush administration says it feels a “moral obligation” to help… one of the tens of thousands of Iraqis who work for the U.S. military in Iraq, putting their lives in imminent danger.

Ultimately, 7,000 Iraqi refugees will be allowed into America over the next year, and, according to UNHCR, Washington is leaving the door open to accept another 18,000.

Is it too little, too late? I ask Jerry. “Yes. It has been – and continues to be – hard for the administration to encourage this legislation at an acceptable level because it shows a bit of defeatism. After all, why would Iraqis want to leave? It’s a democracy now, right?”

There are about 2 million Iraqis who have fled the country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, most of whom sought refuge in Syria and Jordan. There are another estimated 2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), Iraqis forced to flee their homes because of persecution and war but who, unlike refugees, remain inside their country.

“For them [the IDPs], finding a way out almost impossible,” Jerry says. “We make it so difficult. The process is almost designed to fail… designed to hinder people who need the most help.”

Because the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad does not issue immigrant visas, Iraqis who want out need to get to an American Embassy in another country. Most will choose to go to Amman, Jordan, and flying is the fastest way to get there. It’s also the most expensive – about $500 roundtrip. And Airport Road is notorious for crime, making the four-lane, six-mile journey from central Baghdad to the airport one of the most dangerous in the world. At the airport there’s the threat from Iraqi insurgents who force pilots to make corkscrew maneuvers during take-offs and landings, in hopes that the spiraling pattern will keep planes from being hit by missile fire.

The other option for getting to Amman’s American Embassy is to make the 13-hour road trip from Baghdad. Bandits with AK-47s are known to terrorize the region closest to the border, and for those trying to keep a low profile, the fear of discovery – never mind robbery, kidnapping or worse – is terrifyingly real.

Once Iraqis reach the U.S. Embassy, their application can be filed. Filed, not finished. Later, they’ll have to do the whole trip all over again to pick up their visa.

For the chosen few, it will all be worth it. But Jerry has no way of knowing if his friends who remain in Iraq will ever make it out. “I know they’re being threatened. I just hope we do the right thing and increase the numbers of people we’re allowing in… so that it’s not too late.”


PRI’s Here and Now

Refugees International Report

Iraq: The World’s Fastest Growing Refugee Crisis

Christian Science Monitor Article

First Big Wave of Iraqi Refugees Heads for the US

All Iraq News Website

Friday, June 22, 2007

"The Show Must Go On" to premiere at the Independent Television Festival!

We’ve just received news that our work-in-progress of The Show Must Go On is an official selection of the Independent Television Festival in Los Angeles July 27-29, 2007. We will post screening details when we have them.

Filming on this production all started when I met Wendie Jo Sperber on an elevator at the Hyatt Regency Penn’s Landing Hotel in Philadelphia in February 2004. You probably remember Wendie Jo best from either the 70’s sitcom Bosom Buddies or the film I Wanna Hold Your Hand. Of course, her work extends far beyond that… and in LA she became known as an “actor’s actor,” someone who all the stars knew and respected. Lately, she’d only been taking small parts, mostly on TV sitcoms like Will and Grace and 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, in order to keep her health insurance through the Screen Actors Guild.

She desperately needed that health insurance because of her long battle with breast cancer. And as we hit the town that night, dancing, singing and laughing our way through the city of brotherly love, we had no way of knowing that within a week Wendie Jo would hear this from her oncologist: “I’m so sorry to tell you this over the phone, but… the cancer has spread to your brain.”

Less than a month later, she headed to Berkeley, CA for a clinical trial that pumped oxygen to her brain tumors (18 in all) in an effort to make them more receptive to radiation. That’s when she called me and asked me to come visit. “Should I bring the camera?” I asked her. “Yes.”

After two weeks, the trial left her with lots of hope but few answers. She headed back to LA to get back to work on weSPARK, the organization she founded to help cancer patients and their families, and weSPARKLE, a big show (we fondly called it “The Extravaganza”) that would feature lots of her celeb buddies performing in ways that you wouldn’t expect.

In between connecting with Tom Hanks (who she used to commute with every day to the set of Bosom Buddies) to be the show’s co-host, and meeting with Bryan Cranston to nail down the script, she was shaving off the little hair that was left on her head following radiation, keeping life together at home as a single mom, and running a support group for other women like her -- women for whom cancer was back for a second, third, even fourth time. They jokingly called themselves the “re-runs”. That was Wendie Jo… always finding a way to laugh… a reason to love.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Welcome to our blog

In July 2000 I put my documentary projects on hold to teach a journalism class at American University Paris. I brought my students to Amnesty International for a conversation about genocide. As we were wrapping up, the Amnesty representative ushered us into a room and over to a large cardboard box with a bright blue fabric peeking out. Have you ever worn a burqa before? she asked. As I pulled the tent-like garment over my head and imagined being forced to wear it, I thought about what it would be like to be invisible to the world. That’s when I knew I wanted to produce a film about Afghanistan and help Afghan women to become visible again. The challenge was finding a way for the film to resonate with an American audience.

A year later, after the attacks of September 11th, the ability to draw the connection between Afghanistan and us seemed obvious. Three months later, I traveled to Afghanistan to film the growing humanitarian crisis and the aid workers who were struggling to respond to it. I was looking forward to seeing women shedding their burqas, liberated from the medieval laws of the Taliban. But when I arrived, all the women I encountered were still covered head-to-toe, allowed only a small mesh patch for their window to the world. When the documentary I was working on failed to sell, I vowed to return to this place that captured a piece of me with its beauty, isolation and sorrow.

What I could never have imagined then is that as I was filming in Afghanistan, there were two women living in my own backyard who were opening their eyes to the world in new and profound ways after losing their husbands on September 11th. Four years later I would return to Afghanistan with Susan Retik and Patti Quigley. Both pregnant with daughters on September 11th, Susan and Patti’s husbands were killed when the two planes bound for LA from Boston were flown into the World Trade Center Towers.

Their loss gave them permission to shut out the world, but their compassion forced them to have a leadership role in it. As they reached out to Afghan war widows, women they felt a true connection with, it became important to me to tell their story. They weren’t effected by the increasing divisions of the world by politics, ethnicity and religion. Instead, they worked to affirm a common humanity we all share.

After filming with them for more than two years, “Beyond Belief” recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, and my company, Principle Pictures, is now working with a sales rep for theatrical, television and DVD distribution. We’re also looking forward to participating in more festivals.

To take a look at the film’s website:

On this blog, I will share updates of our experiences with “Beyond Belief” and other documentary projects while focusing on two central themes: understanding our ability for compassion, and our vulnerability to compassion fatigue. These are themes that for me combine elements of human rights, social justice, women’s rights, journalism, ethics, philosophy and history.

The idea of compassion fatigue has fascinated me… and the desire to combat it has motivated me…. since reading Susan Moeller’s book, “Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death.” Compassion fatigue has been identified as a relatively new phenomenon. The idea is that as the media hop from one crisis to another, the world is reduced to a blurred trauma of poverty, disease and death, and audiences begin to care less and less about the world around them, despite the increasing number of dramatic images they’re exposed to.

The concept comes out of the relief world as a reference to weary donors, but it translates well to television audiences because it is the result of feeling that, no matter what we do, it is ineffectual.

If we are truly serious about making a difference with our programs, we need to confront compassion fatigue, and help keep viewers—and ourselves—from succumbing to it.

New entries to this blog will be made at least once a week, and I look forward to sharing a little bit of our world with you.