Racism in the family: A Bulgarian husband wants to know the truth. Ivan Ivanov wants to know what his wife thought of the Roma people, his people, the Gypsies, before she met him.
She speaks softly.
"They don't like to work. They are lazy. They steal. Everything negative."
What about now, he wants to know -- now that she has gotten to know a Roma and is married to one, a man with degrees as both a doctor and a lawyer?
She speaks softly.
"My opinion is the same, because they have not done anything to change it."
Ivanov just looks at the table. His video camera records the silent hurt.
We know racism. We know discrimination. But in a new documentary, "Faces of Change," we see it happening everywhere -- pervasive and universal and with the same crushing effect on its targets, like Ivanov. The struggle to overcome shame -- as much as the racism -- pervades this film.
It is five stories rolled together in an arresting portrait of racism that was shot by five amateur filmmakers who are human rights activists in far corners of the globe. They have shot their own lives and struggles in vignettes that are raw and personal and oftentimes inspired. The stories are strung together, for the most part seamlessly, in a feature-length documentary that is Michele Stephenson's directorial debut.
"Faces of Change" has its world premiere at 2:15 p.m. today as part of the Silverdocs festival at AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring. In its use of amateur filmmakers telling their own stories, the film is unique among the 89 other festival films, says festival director Patricia Finneran.
In the film, we meet Elodia Blanco, an activist fighting the Environmental Protection Agency over the toxic dump beneath her New Orleans subdivision, where she and her African American neighbors are beset by strange ailments. Her daughter had to have breast tumors removed -- at age 12.
We meet Mohamed Ould Bourbosse, an underground activist dedicated to revealing that slavery still is practiced in his native Mauritania. He films an Arab Mauritanian admitting that his family has slaves. He films government officials denying that slavery exists.
Kathir Raj tells of his people, the Dahlit of India, the "untouchables," and his family's struggle against the dictates of a caste as low as the human excrement they are consigned to handling in society's worst jobs.
And there is little Marilha. Who can forget little Marilha?
She is a 14-year-old Afro-Brazilian child with huge, wanting eyes, all shy little girl in front of the camera that is telling the story of her innocence lost.
"I've never had a doll," she says sadly. "I've always wanted a Barbie."
The camera pulls back. Little Marilha, we see, is very, very pregnant.
Behind that camera is Naracirlene dos Anjos Rodrigues, who in telling Marilha's story is essentially telling her own. Now an activist for Afro-Brazilian girls, Rodrigues once was young and pregnant. Black and brown girls, marginalized in Brazil's color-conscious hierarchy, end up with their spirits "massacred" by society, she says.
The film was conceived to document the stories behind the September 2001 United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. It was intended as a video tool for the activists.
With a Ford Foundation grant, Stephenson brought the five activists to New York that July to teach them how to operate the cameras and how to compose their stories. Back in their home towns, they shot their families, their neighborhoods; they depict the exclusion they have experienced. And they continued shooting even as they all converged in Durban for the conference.
When Stephenson started looking at their work, she was bowled over by its intensity. The project snowballed. Stephenson decided a full-fledged documentary should be made, and Ford kicked in again.
Firelight Media also supported the project. Stanley Nelson, Firelight's founder and an acclaimed documentarian, is the executive producer; he received a "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation in 2002.
The long gestation for the project is not unusual, for documentarians often have to raise funds while their works develop. This film had additional challenges. It was being shot in five countries.
"We had to stop, edit, raise money, shoot again, stop, edit," says Stephenson.
And they had to worry about security for their filmmakers, especially in Mauritania, where the project on slavery was greeted with official hostility. In one scene, Bourbosse is attacked on the street by a stone-throwing man.
The film presents a travelogue of the global world of the oppressed -- of non-whites who are marginalized for being just that. Ivanov, the Bulgarian Roma, even calls himself "black."
Stephenson's background is rooted in that milieu. Of Haitian and Panamanian descent, Stephenson, a lawyer, has worked in the human rights and development fields in Brazil, Cape Verde, New York and Montreal.
It was there, outside Montreal, that her family settled after fleeing in 1966 from the dictatorship of Haiti's Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier.
"My whole life has been political," she says. "From as young as I can remember I was surrounded by political conversations around human rights and repression."
Now, Stephenson lives in Brooklyn with her two sons and her filmmaker husband, Joe Brewster. They are partners in the Rada Film Group and worked together (he as director, she as producer) on the acclaimed feature films "The Killing Zone" and "The Keeper," which went to the Cannes, Toronto and Sundance festivals.