Female Fusion: Local Artists, Short Film, Social Justice


How do you make a message film without being preachy? Three veteren Los Angeles filmmakers; director Deborah Lemen, writer Stacy Dymalski, and producer Megan Ford-Miller tackled that challenge with their short film Everything Has A Home. Shot in one day on location in Shreveport, Louisiana, the film is a character study focusing on two young girls with very different circumstances. It looks at classism, homelessness, and the dichotomy of appearance vs. reality. The film stars sisters Julianna Kilgarlin and Isabella Kilgarlin as girls who have a chance encounter. The filmmakers hope to both raise awareness and empathy for those in challenging circumstances while creating a calling card for their young actors. A note to the readers; this interview was conducted prior to the current COVID-19 crisis and does not take the reality of today’s situation into consideration.

I spent a morning talking with the filmmakers about creating relevant content in today’s world, the unique power of an all female production team, and how they each navigate the different roles that they each hold in the industry; as friends, colleagues, and creators.

Deborah Lemen, has a successful acting studio. She and Stacy Dymalski are longtime friends and collaborators. They initially combined their talents to create scenes for Lemen’s on camera classes. When the opportunity arose for them to make a reel for some of Lemen’s students in Louisiana, they decided to take the collaboration to the next level by creating a short film, which they plan on expanding into a feature. Once they made the transition to a professional shoot, Ford-Miller (who’s professional actor son studies with Lemen) joined the team. They filled out the cast with Katie Walker and focused on creating a strong team to shoot the film in just one day on location in Shreveport, Louisiana.

My first question focused on creating art as women. They enthusiastically agreed that feminism, motherhood, and the female essence is integral to the way that each of them, separately and as a team, approaches her work, both generally and in relation to this particular film. Ford-Miller has two children, a son and a daughter, both in their early twenties and is married. Dymalski is also a mother to two sons, but not married. Lemen, with a gentle laugh, says that her students are her children. The vulnerability of being a woman, the deep seeded fears that every woman has of ending up alone, on the streets, is an overwhelming sensation that all identified with. They also spoke of the friendship and the ability to think in a similar way and how they can communicate quickly. They all laugh a lot and finish each other’s sentences. They clearly enjoy each other and their work reflects this community spirit.

The path to Everything Has A Home began when Dymalski in short order discovered a homeless man living in her parking garage, and saw a young girl living in a parked car in a homeless encampment under an overpass. She realized what she wanted to approach with the film and then tailored the story to the two girls. She was able to craft a story that, in her words, “showed a bigger story; people are not what they seem, there are people working and living in their cars… you don’t know what a person’s circumstances are.” All three knew that this is a “hot button issue.” The homeless population is still soaring, especially in California. Current counts list it as around 17% of the general population, but it is difficult to tabulate correctly. What is lost in much of the discussion is the humanity. That is what the filmmakers sought to focus on. According to Lemen, their job was to “find the humanity and intimacy.” They did this by focusing on details; the car had a flat tire, sanitary wipes on the dashboard, tight shots of the actors. By doing all of this, they hope to increase awareness. “People don’t have any awareness of what is around them.” Dymanski states. “Who knew that sanitary wipes are a sign of homelessness?” This short is leading to a feature, and will serve as a launching off point for the film.

"Everything Has a Home"

Race is a sticky issue in regards to both homelessness and filmmaking. This is an all white cast, which is notable in today’s film world. They approached this problem head on. “It was an issue in casting.” According to Ford-Miller, “We struggled with what we were saying with that. We came down to this, the reality is that many people do not understand that homelessness is not a problem for ‘others’.” In this short piece, by keeping race and immigration out of the equation, they hope to bring understanding closer to the majority who could, if there was an excuse, easily make it about “those people.”

"Everything Has a Home"

Once they had their story and stars, the three transitioned into production mode, and from this observer’s point of view, really soared. Every part of the shoot was meticulously planned, so that when surprises occurred, there was space to improvise. There were seven set ups in three locations all shot in one day. Ford-Miller; “We were prepared and efficient. The DP (Director of Photography, Jeremy Enis), said, wow, I never shot a short in one day. Bam.” Because of the pre-existing relationships with the actors, Lemen was able to work in short cuts and because members of the team had already worked together successfully, there was an established trust prior to the day of the shoot that contributed to the speed and efficiency. There was initial fear that the DP, with whom they had not worked before, would balk at the all female team, but he was impressed with the seamless work flow.

"Everything Has a Home"

This is an artistic venture, but the team is looking for organizations to partner with and may end with a call to action. They want people to come away with the question, “Where can I go and what can I do.” If you want to make that happen before the film is released, here are a few options:

School On Wheels: School on Wheels volunteers provide free tutoring & mentoring to children from kindergarten through twelfth grade living in shelters, motels, vehicles, group foster homes, and on the streets in Southern California.

National Coalition for The Homeless: The National Coalition for the Homeless is a national network of people who are currently experiencing or who have experienced homelessness, activists and advocates, community-based and faith-based service providers, and others committed to a single mission: To prevent and end homelessness while ensuring the immediate needs of those experiencing homelessness are met and their civil rights protected.

The Midnight Mission: The Midnight Mission offers paths to self-sufficiency to men, women and children who have lost direction. They remove obstacles and provide the accountability and structure that people who are experiencing homelessness need to be productive in their communities.



Female Fusion - The Intersection of Art and Activism

Reena Dutt is exactly the artist that this column is named for. She creates art; theater, film, web, and video, that moves the conversation forward. The subject of the conversation changes, the message is sometimes obvious, sometimes more obtuse, but the medium stays constant. Art speaks and Dutt knows the language intimately.

There are so many stereotypes of what an ardent feminist, an activist, a person of color fighting for representation is; strong, powerful, angry. Dutt is quite disarming and funny. She laughs easily and often. She is petite, pretty and slightly self effacing.

She mocks herself at times. Do not let that fool you. This is a powerful, confident and driven person. Dutt was born in New Jersey but her family soon
moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, where she spent her first nine years. “It was this crazy white picket fences kind of childhood where we were this United Colors of Benetton neighborhood.....it was an idyllic childhood where you just playing.....all of the kids are together and all of the parents would just call each other to see where the kids were and nobody worried.” During this time they also had strong ties to the Indian community and a large extended friends and family network. The next few years involved some additional travel: Huntsville, AL then Dutt moved to India with her mother and brother for school before they finally all settled in Arizona, where they stayed. The South Asian community in Arizona was stronger than in the other cities that they had lived in, and it was here that her lack of belonging became a bit more pronounced. Her parents were not from the same areas, indeed they met in graduate school in Connecticut. Her father was Bengali and spoke Bengali while her mother is
Maharashtrian and speaks Marathi. Dutt doesn't speak either language fluently. They spoke English at home and Dutt enjoyed a very liberal upbringing with Christmas trees, Thanksgiving dinners, foreign students as guests and family outings to the local steakhouse. So, she didn't really fit in with the more traditional South Asian community. Her high school was mostly Catholic and Mormon, with a much smaller population of color. To find a place to belong, Dutt started ice skating, then dancing and eventually found her way to theater, where she stayed. “I was never the other, but I always was different.” She was never discriminated against nor held back due to race and she found her own community in what she did, rather than in her home culture. In fact, race didn't affect or define her until she came to Los Angeles to be an actor, when a casting director, in 1998, “asked me how I speak English so well, that blew my mind, I had never been asked that before...that's literally the first time I felt different.”

Dutt's philosophy and ethic evolved from the juxtaposition of her rather inclusive childhood banging up against the expectations of the rest of the world.

“I grew up feeling supported by everybody around me, which is so lucky, and maybe that's why I get so confused about why people can't or don't understand how to embrace diversity. I have had so many people, from my theater community [in LA] specifically, say ‘well, being from a culture is so different and unique, you should embrace that' when all I want is normalized
diversity like it was when I was a kid.”

As a producer and director, diversity is absolutely at the forefront of Dutt's work. She explains that “representation isn't a THING, it just is.” and that “What you see is what you believe.”

Dutt asks a lot of questions. Every determination is well thought through and important.

“What is the social responsibility of an artist or entertainer? In my mind, that is the big question. We are in one of the most visual mediums ever. How do we use that? Even if it changes one child's mind--oh I saw that one dancer, that dancer looks like me, so I can go be a dancer. So when we start talking about dialogue driven stories where you are hearing someone speak in medical terminology or talk about a business that they started and they look like you, how much does that empower anybody who has a dream that they don't know if they can do because nobody in their family does it and they've never seen it before. SO I do think that art and media...is a social responsibility whether we want it or not and I know that there are a lot of artists who hate calling themselves activists but if you are putting anything in front of someone
else, you are an activist by nature so what is your choice of what you want to present? What do you want to show? You are responsible for that.”

Dutt takes the responsibility of diversity very seriously, both in front of and behind the camera. Production staff, writers, story lines, actors and audiences are all part of the mix and decision making process. Her body of work offers evidence of a well thought out and active agenda.

For example, she associate produced (and appeared in) the web series The Real Girls Guide To Everything Else, which could be tagged as a thinking brown girls' version of Sex and The City. It's fun, lighthearted and tackles much more important issues than shoes (though those are occasionally featured as well).

Parvesh Cheena in Squad 85

Squad 85, which Dutt produced, was an insane time traveling detective mashup starring Parvesh Cheena, now of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. The casting was incredibly diverse, but nothing is made of it. It is simply a group of people who don't happen to all look alike and it is hilarious.

In honor of Asian Awareness Week, Dutt directed a series of PSAs called You Should Know This By Now featuring Asian actors saying pretty basic information that somehow gets overlooked. The short clips are funny and uncomfortable and make a point. The first one stars Vincent Rodriguez, who also stars in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Dutt may be a lucky charm!

Vincent Rodriguez in You Should Know This By Now

Snapshot plays with stereotypes and perception in a short film format. It was a finalist for the New Filmmakers LA series.

Check out Dutt's website for a much more extensive look at her prolific career.

Dutt's current project, which she is both producing and directing is Bodies: Place Called Us, A Music Video For Gun Control. She is reuniting with her first love, dance, putting her love of activism and diversity front and center, once again both in front of and behind the camera, and moving an important conversation into a realm where people might not ordinarily have access to the information. “I've put together an incredible team headed by female key crew. Our cast will be representative of all targeted communities in the States.” The video will launch in June, with an accompanying website that will guide viewers to concrete actions, such as voter registration, contact with legislators, and local events, that they can take to fight for gun control reform in their states. The video is being produced in collaboration with CineFemme and SeedandSpark and features Los Angeles singer/songwriter Alex Mackey. (Disclosure: I am the choreographer and a co-producer on this project)

Reena Dutt has a lot to say and a lot to do. She wants to make the entertainment world, and by extension the world at large, a place where a person of color doesn't have to be explained in any given circumstance, they are just there, being. It's both a shockingly simple premise and a huge undertaking. This woman is well on her way to making it happen.


Heather Lipson Bell

Heather Lipson Bell

Heather Lipson Bell is a genuine Los Angeles hyphenate; dancer, choreographer, actress, educator and entrepreneur.  She has carved out a successful career by following her heart and soul, connecting experiences and collaborators and weaving them together to create a tapestry of creativity, artistry, education, altruism and family.

Bell is a force in the world of dance and opera, especially as it intersects with young people and both children and adults with different needs. A quick rundown of her current job titles illustrates her lifelong love of music, dance and activism.  She is the founder and creative director for Performing Arts For All, providing arts opportunities for and specializing in working with those who have special needs and limitations. She is a lead educator and the managing director for KIDS/IQUE, a division of www.muse-ique.com, an organization which provides artistic opportunities for those in foster care facilities, at-risk youth and those with additional special needs. PAFA partners with LA Opera, LA Ballet, MUSE/IQUE, Center Stage Opera and is Fiscally Sponsored by the 501c3 Dance Resource Center. Her programs are unique in that they do not separate nor isolate participants by challenge. Rather, all dancers work together and use their different strengths and weaknesses to create a stronger whole.

Bell has worked with the LA Opera since 2008 as a teaching artist, choreographer and assistant director for their in-school and community programs.  She is a dancer and choreographer who works consistently.  She has performed in over ten concerts with the New York Philharmonic, two of which she both choreographed and danced and which will be kept as part of a new online platform, nyphil.org/ypcplay. She performs regularly and has film and theater pieces in all states of production. Recent work includes dancing at the Ford Theater, at the Pageant of the Masters, choreographing and co-producing the short film Halfway, which she and her partner Christine Deitner (They also created the award winning "Freeze! Try Again) are now developing for presentation at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Finally, with co-artistic director Tom Dulack (www.teatrofilarmonico.org) she is planning on touring their concerts and also in development on 2 other theater projects: Extravaganza (based on the life and work of Vivaldi) and Aphra (a play he's written about the fabulous Aphra Behn that Bell would choreograph).

Lastly, Bell is a mom who home schools her two young children and also serves as their audition chauffeur. Final note: Heather Lipson Bell is busy.

We met for hot drinks on a rainy Thursday morning for a freewheeling conversation that circled around the ideas of art as a source of inspiration, community and service, making it as a freelance artist in Los Angeles and the immense value of the support of friends and family.

The phenomenon of dance as a tool for work with differently abled people is relatively new to the general public but has been part of Bell's career path from early on. Her first major foray was her senior showcase at Boston Conservatory, with a project that involved blind and deaf dancers. Although the artistic director was “completely not on board, she thought it a terrible idea…,” Bell and her creative partner stayed committed to their idea and eventually found an enthusiastic mentor in their Laban professor. They focused on research, teaching classes and small workshops at both the Perkins School for the Blind  and Caroll Center for The Blind.

“For me it was specifically a movement inspired thing. How do different people move? How do they understand movement?" She continues, "it became really interesting because we met people who were born with different levels of disability. Then also those who had lost their vision - one man who had so much anger but agreed to do our little movement class, and he was able to find movement, spacial awareness and comfort in this new sightless world.” Eventually they combined sighted dancers into the project and her path, curvy and indirect though it would be, was set. “It was this huge vast world that I had never been exposed to…..that kind of sparked my interest in movement study.”

Bell and PAFA at The Hard Rock Cafe in 2016

Bell moved to LA in 1999 “not to dance, but following a boyfriend.  I thought I'd hang out for a year and go back to New York.” But she she stayed, “I was lucky when I came to LA - to meet a really good group of people right away who were not competitive in the typical sense of what I grew up with, but really supportive and were like, well if I don't get the job, it's good because you got the job and we all kind of came up together." She adds, "To this day - I find this a really unique group of women and that has been a great support under everything I do.” Her circle of friends and collaborators continues inspire and support her. When casting dancers for a short film she recently choreographed and co-produced, she invited people to simply take part, without telling them exactly what they would be doing. “I expected five or six people to show up and over 25 beautiful dancers came to give of themselves.”

Bell and Gary Franco dancing with City Ballet of Los Angeles at the Ford Theater in a piece that she choreographed.

Bell talks a lot about community and friendship; of the give and take of this industry. She credits much of her success to friends looking out for one another and mentions job after job that she earned after a recommendation from one friend or another. The path to creating Performing Arts for All started with a job vacated by a friend who went to go dance on a cruise. Bell was hired as a dancer by Zina Bethune and Bethune Theatre Dance, a company that created work with both traditional and differently abled dancers. When Bethune later saw Bell's resume, she hired her as an educator which led to 10 years of teaching dance to people with all kinds of challenges. After Bethune was killed in a tragic hit and run accident, some parents approached Bell because they missed her classes. This inspired the creation of PAFA.

What stands out when listening to Bell speak is the fluidity with which she adjusts the focus of her work. There is equal value given to performance, teaching, choreography and activism - all fueled by a constant search for new and inventive ways to create movement stories. Each feeds the other. For example, when choreographing a film scene with Marines who were uncomfortable with the entire premise of dancing, she drew upon what she had learned teaching those who were blind, having them do movement they were already familiar with, then guiding that movement into patterns to create dance. In this way, she essentially allows her dancers to make their own dances. She sums up her philosophy by saying, “there was never a break, I started teaching at 15, following the concept, from an Ailey dancer, of; I am not your teacher, we teach each other.”  She is also vocal in visualizing, setting goals and manifesting what she wants. For example, when auditioning for a beer commercial she asked in the moment if they had a choreographer. They said no. She got the job.

Bell is pragmatic about the ups and downs of the industry. She revealed her disappointment in coming to the realization that she had limits as a choreographer; that creating new movement vocabulary was not among her skills. Initially she mourned what she considered a failing but then turned that liability into an asset. Becoming an expert at research, she studied organic movement and approached her work that way instead. Her work for the NY Phil was based in flamenco, a dance form that she was unfamiliar with at the beginning of the process yet by the time she came to the performance, the world renowned musician with whom she was partnered thought her an expert.

How does she get through the downs? "In regards to fighting depression, a simple thing to do is find one thing, one small thing a day to be joyous about," says Bell. "We all experience depression and feel stuck or powerless. For me, it seems my nature is to be happy - I am drawn to laughter and beauty and stories of strength and resilience like many, and shy away from darkness and evil and blood and guts." For example, "I choose not to go out for roles playing parts of victims, etc." Adding, "I am drawn to other projects and have been lucky to have opportunities that support this. For me I try to always:  Explore. Learn. Play. Move. Connect. I'll continue to set goals, and take on too much, and procrastinate and enjoy my craft and community and family more than I could ever express."

Bell is quick to credit her family for their ongoing support. Her parents, her husband, even her young children all support and participate in her process. “I was a performer when I met my husband. He knows that it is not about the money.” She recounted her dad's reaction when she turned down an opportunity to create a health oriented business when a much less lucrative but much more artistic performance opportunity arrived. “He was like, of course you'll go dance!”

"We seem to all strive for this ‘balance' or even for ‘perfection' - and it is a fleeting thing. If it wasn't I'm sure I'd be bored by the stillness. I have always been grateful for the language of dance, for experiencing and appreciating on a very deep level the impermanence of what we do. And for the voice and opportunities it has given me. Balancing creative work, work, a marriage and motherhood is a dance. I am constantly reminded what a gift it all is and that I'm not perfect - and that is perfect."

"What I'm doing now, who I am -  was present in me as a very young child. I really have always been an artist and activist and as I've been thinking the examples go so far back. I've always loved human movement and storytelling and history and music and art and elephants and trees and collaboration and community and the connections of it all and just the complexity of this world."

Performing Arts For All has a full schedule for 2017.
Two 6 week workshops culminating with a showcase.
Session 1: 1/7/17 - 2/11/17, Session 2: 2/25/17 - 4/1/17
Additional inclusion workshops at Olive Middle and High Schools (Baldwin Park)
KIDS/IQUE outreach visits us: 2/11/17 & 4/1/17
MUSE/IQUE Concert Field Trips: 2/12/17, 4/2/17
LA BALLET Field Trip: TBA
Performing with LA Opera - Community Opera Noah's Flood - shows 5/6/17

To keep up to date on Bell's work, visit her Website

 

Save