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CONNECTING COMMUNITY: Working Films celebrates anniversary and 20 years of social-justice filmmaking

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(L. to r.) Tara Eng, George Stoney Fellow; Andy Myers, senior campaign coordinator; Molly Murphy, exective codirector; Sara Zia Ebrahimi, development manager; Hannah Hearn, impact coordinator; Gerry Leonard, impact coordinator and Southern Partners Fund program officer. Courtesy photo


FILM = JOBS is a bumper sticker or a sign promoted around town. For most of my adult life, a very heated discussion about film incentives, or giving tax breaks to attract filming to the state of North Carolina, has been part of public discourse. Many industries receive tax incentives, but unlike large corporations with offices in other states, the film world spends far more money here than it takes. In addition to the money spent with small business, the performers and anyone brought in from outside the area for production must rent accommodations while they are here. They must be fed, have transportation, etc. All that money adds up.

For our B&B and the loft above the bookstore, we have been renting accommodations to film people—and renting books for set dressing. Thus, it results in the remittance of  room occupancy and sales taxes.  Long-term, there is the tourism piece to the film industry: People travel here to see where shows like “One Tree Hill” and “Dawson’s Creek” were filmed, as well as “Blue Velvet,” “Firestarter” and now the Halloween movies, to name a few. They come from around the world and spend money on housing, food, travel, souvenirs (i.e. sales tax, room occupancy tax and food tax). The film industry and subsequent money it brings to the North Carolina’s economy is important, so on October 22, 2019, Governor Roy Cooper announced a new Governor’s Advisory Council on Film, Television and Digital Streaming. The council will educate the governor on efforts to help grow the industry and support the state’s film office. Governor Cooper’s office noted that in 2019 alone, production spending in the state has already reached $165 million.

In addition to the big name productions that have put us on the map, Wilmington is home to a thriving independent film culture with far-reaching impact. This fall, two pillars of that community, Cucalorus Festival and Working Films, are both celebrating anniversaries: Cucalorus is turning 25 and Working Films is celebrating 20 years.  Hence: a toast to both! A party to commemorate two decades of life-changing cinema will take place Saturday, November 16, 2-4 p.m. at The Blue Post.

Founded two decades ago by Robert West and Judith Helfand, Working Films seeks to connect documentary filmmakers with funding and partners to create social change utilizing film as a tool. Though headquartered in Wilmington, Working Films connects with filmmakers and social campaigns around the country. In 2013, cofounder and executive director West passed away. He knew he was terminally ill and prepared Anna Lee and Molly Murphy to move Working Films into its next phase as co-directors. When they responded to our questions about their upcoming event and the future of Working Films, they noted that like everything they do, the co-directors collaborated on the answers to our questions.

encore (e): So tell us a little about how WF started? Whose idea was it? Why Wilmington? Yet you work all over the world, yes?

Working Films (WF): It was the brainchild of Robert West, curator of film and video at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, and Judith Helfand, a documentary filmmaker based in NYC. They met when Judith came to Robert’s office to borrow a projector to screen “The Uprising of 34,” a film she was working on with the acclaimed documentary director George Stoney about the unionization of NC textile factory workers. In getting acquainted, they discussed films moving people to not just think differently but to act differently. They agreed there ought to be an organization dedicated to using film for social change, and so they started one. Recognizing the importance of tackling social and environmental justice in the South, they embraced an opportunity to move into the Firehouse at 5th and Castle streets in Wilmington. We continue to work locally, across North Carolina and in states across the country.

e: Do you approach filmmakers, or do they approach you?

WF: We approach filmmakers through “calls for media” and requests for proposals. We have developed a very large network of artists and allied organizations over the years, so the response to these is usually pretty good. We work on specific social and environmental issues, such as climate change and immigration. When first embarking on a project, we listen to organizers and advocates who are working to address problems and forward solutions. With them, we determine the kinds of stories most needed to advance progress. We then make an announcement.

We seek media that can shift negative and false narratives and move people to action in meaningful ways. For example, after Hurricane Florence hit and we became involved in recovery efforts, we recognized the need to highlight the current injustices, systems at play, and solutions needed to prepare and respond to climate disasters. So we partnered with the NC Environmental Justice Network, the NC Justice Center, California Rural Legal Assistance, the Houston Organizing Movement for Equity (HOME) Coalition, the National Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, and the Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition to curate a compilation of short films called “Revisioning Recovery.” The series just had a private premiere during a convening of leaders from across the U.S. working for equity in planning and response to climate disasters. The collection will soon be announced, and more information can be found at

Through a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, we’ve been able to start the Docs In Action Film Fund to support the  production of short documentaries. We’ve funded five short films to date, which will be incorporated into our on-the-ground campaigns once they are  complete.

Lastly, our Impact Kickstart program serves four underrepresented artists each year, whose films hold great promise to catalyze positive change. Through this program we help filmmakers create strategic goals for impact and specific plans to engage future partners, funders and audiences in meaningful ways.

e: When Robert knew his time was limited, he started grooming you two to share the co-directorship. What is it like? How do you complement each other? What has been the biggest surprise?

WF: It’s gone really well. We’re in a really strong place today that would have been hard to imagine seven years ago when Robert was beginning hospice care, and we became interim codirectors. Fortunately, we have very complementary personalities and skill sets. We have both been with the organization for more than a decade (Molly Murphy 19 years and Anna Lee 14 years). When we aren’t at work together, we’re often hanging out socially with our kids who are close to the same ages. You know if you still want to spend time together outside of work, you have a good working relationship! We essentially act as CEO and COO, and we both lead organizational strategy with the participation of our stellar staff and board.

e: What accomplishment are you most proud of thus far?

WF: Beyond being proud we survived the tragic loss of our founding director, we are proud we’ve stayed true to our mission. We’ve taken bold risks over the years to remain as responsive as possible to the needs and priorities of those most impacted by the issues we work to address. We are proud of our incredible staff, which has grown to eight people in the last year (seven full-time and one part-time position). Beyond being proud, we are grateful for partnerships and relationships we have maintained and continue to build with change leaders, artists and those who surround and support them.

As we celebrate our 20th anniversary in Wilmington, we’re particularly grateful for the community of filmmakers, cultural institutions, and activists with whom we partner locally. A special shout-out goes to Cucalorus as we both celebrate 20-plus years! We’re grateful to have been partnering with them for so long, creating powerful programming like Works in Progress­­—which supports filmmakers making social-justice documentaries that engage community members working for change locally.

e: What do you have planned for the next five years? 10? 20?

WF: We plan to be around far into the future—because we believe in storytelling as a truly powerful resource, and a catalyst for making connections and forging progress on critical issues that face humanity and our environment. We will continue and expand our collaborations with local, statewide, and national nonprofits and grassroots groups, beyond the thousands we have worked with, helping more organizations use film and other cultural organizing events to translate complex issues, engage new supporters and provide people with repeated opportunities to act over the long-term.

e: What role can independent film play that the cineplex doesn’t fill in our larger society?

WF: We know independent films and other forms of visual storytelling hold a unique power, especially when combined with programming that allows community members to come together in shared spaces, learn from one another and issue experts, take meaningful action and plug into the work of local and state-level groups. As we’re choosing documentaries to work with we are looking for films made by people who have a deep sense of accountability to the people featured in their films. The world of independent filmmaking creates more space for films created by and for communities whose stories are often left untold in mainstream films. We believe those films have the greatest potential to affect change. 

Working Films Celebrates 20 Years
November 16, 2 p.m. – 4 p.m.
Free, family-friendly event
Music by hip-hop artist and filmmaker Fuzz Jax with DJ Suspence
Blue Post Billiards, 15 S. Water St.

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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