By Annette Hinkle
Film has long possessed the ability to influence opinion, elicit emotion and entertain the masses. But perhaps at its most effect, film has the capacity to enlighten and reveal truths about the world in ways that words alone never could.
The transformative power of film will be on full display this Saturday when the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum presents its Emerging Artists Film Festival, five short films by young local filmmakers screened outdoors on the museum grounds.
The theme of the festival is “Sag Harbor and the World: Embracing Diversity,” a topic that has become more relevant in recent months given the vast social and cultural divides that split many nations as the complications of human displacement grow. Throughout its long history as a port town Sag Harbor has embraced multiculturalism in ways that few communities in this country have.
Fast forward to 2017 and as immigrants from around the globe seek out new opportunities in this and other countries, the welcome is not always warm. Which is why the five short films featured this weekend will offer perspectives from the point of view of “the other.” The filmmakers taking part are: Sailor Brinkley Cook, whose film “Identity and Freedom — Episode 3” explores how unique individuals view themselves; Vincent Urban who explores the plight of Syrian refugees in his film “In Lebanon — during the Syrian Crisis, 2014;” Jackson Hyland-Lipski whose film “A Day Without Women” documents a women’s march in New York last spring; Dave Fitzpatrick’s film “From the Head to the Heart” which was filmed while he was working with an education start-up in southern India; and Nicholas Whelan’s film “A Refugee’s Story – Rezwan,” about the plight of young refugees in Serbia.
Whelan, who curated the festival, understands well the power of film and he comes to the medium with some pretty serious cinematic heft to his lineage. His grandfather is famed documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker (“Monterey Pop,” “Don’t Look Back” and “The War Room”), who, along with his wife and collaborative partner Chris Hegedus, continues to make documentaries even well into his 90s.
“I was inspired by my grandpa, but not necessarily in the way you might think,” admits Whelan when asked about their relationship. “He does long form documentaries, mine are short form with fast movement. The individual has so much more access to tell stories in our pockets now. We can use cell phone to make a film.”
“What really inspired me about his life is that he’s making films at 90 years old. He’s a champion.”
While his legendary grandfather may have provided Whelan with an enlightening education in the making of documentaries, when Whelan went off to college at the University of San Diego, he majored in economics, not film. That came later as an outgrowth of his business acumen.
“My first job after college was at a TV production studio in San Diego. I thought maybe I could start doing this,” recalls Whelan who contacted friends with businesses and made videos to represent their companies. That venture grew, and he now produces videos for a range of clients, balancing his commercial work with the compassionate.
“Everything I use is in my backpack. I’m a one-man band, which is attractive to those who hire me. It’s direct, personal and cheaper too,” says Whelan, who recently completed two short videos for Uber, a gig that gave him the financial security to pursue more personal work.
“It’s one for them, one for me,” he explains. “I embrace the commercial work, and then I get to do my own videos. It’s refreshing, but what I do I value? How do I feel about a topic? There’s no better way to learn about a topic than make a film.”
Whelan’s film for the festival centers on a young man he met earlier this year when he traveled to Belgrade, Serbia with staff from the International Rescue Committee (IRC). The IRC hired Whelan to document the plight of Belgrade’s growing refugee population, particularly the many young men — some in their early teens — who have traveled there alone.
“These kids are sleeping in abandoned warehouses in three degree weather. I was confused about what to make the film about, so I just honed in on one person,” explains Whelan. “I thought if I tell the story of one person, it will be more emotionally impactful and honest.”
That one person is 17-year-old Rezwan who Whelan met in a Belgrade park, one of thousands of young men who have fled Taliban rule in Afghanistan to seek a better life in Europe. Like many, he now finds himself stranded in Serbia, unable to reach Germany, his preferred destination. While Rezwan was willing to share his story with Whelan, he would not allow his face to be photographed. That’s because he had already been featured in a story about refugees in Serbia.
“He was photographed by the BBC and his cousin saw it on social media,” explains Whelan. “His family thought he was safe in Germany. Instead, he’s been freezing in a Serbian warehouse. The parents called him to ask about it, and he lied, telling them he was in Germany and that the photo was not him.”
But the truth is, Rezwan and thousands like him remain stuck in limbo in Serbia with no way to support themselves and no clear path forward.
“Usually, these kids are young enough to not yet have a family and old enough not to have a school structure,” says Whelan. “They’re in that weird middle ground which is tricky. They feel stuck. To be stuck at that age is hard.”
Perhaps because at 24, Whelan is not much older than Rezwan, he admits he was moved by the teen’s tale, and immediately after shooting was compelled to sit down and edit the film.
“I had never felt such a pull toward editing as I did then,” says Whelan. “As soon as I finished the interview, I went to my hotel room and worked for 48 hours — I had 98 percent of it done.”
“I felt this emotion — this is what I came here to do, this is the service I’m providing. If I had waited to edit, I wouldn’t have had the same emotion.”
Recently, Whelan has been reading the work of civil rights activist James Baldwin. He notes that one idea Baldwin expresses in his writings is that bigotry is based not so much on people passing judgment on the outside world, but rather is a reflection of those who are dissatisfied with what they see when looking inward at themselves.
To that end, Whelan quotes Baldwin:
“It has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within. And yet, the terror within is far truer and far more powerful than any of our labels: the labels change, the terror is constant. And this terror has something to do with that irreducible gap between the self one invents — the self one takes oneself as being, which is, however, and by definition, a provisional self — and the undiscoverable self which always has the power to blow the provisional self to bits.”
“It’s this irreducible and amazing gap of these two selves,” adds Whelan. “I’m always trying to figure out from this film, or this specific story. What broader picture can anyone take away from it?”
The Emerging Artists Film Festival is Saturday, September 9, at 7:30 p.m. on the lawn of the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum, 200 Main Street. Rain date is September 10. Bring chairs or blankets. Admission is free. Visit sagharborwhalingmuseum.org for more information or call (631) 725-0770.