Film series focuses on immigrant women in New York City

By Tammy Scileppi

Relocating to a new country can be overwhelming, so several immigrant and first-generation American women filmmakers were inspired to capture the struggles and obstacles faced by other newcomers living in New York City.

And now, thanks to New York Women in Film & Television, a new independent movie series “Immigrant Women: Sharing Our Voice Through Film,” will bring these stories to audiences around the borough.

The series kicked off last Friday with a screening at Maspeth Town Hall.

“It’s important that NYWIFT has a chance to highlight the voices of immigrant filmmakers, and I love that I am able to help their work be shown to a broader audience,” said producer Elizabeth Estrada.“When City Council member Elizabeth Crowley selected NYWIFT to be the recipient of funding for the citywide Cultural Immigrant Initiative, I was incredibly excited. As a first-generation Cuban-American and Queens resident, this project immediately felt personal.”

Three filmmakers captured the challenging journeys of the immigrant women in gritty and touching documentaries.

In “Judith: Portrait of a Street Vendor,” director Zahida Pirani showed viewers how one Guatemalan woman was chasing the American Dream.

Pirani, who lives in Jackson Heights, tapped into own experiences growing up in an Indian family in a Mexican-American neighborhood south of San Diego.

“It made me conscious from an early age of the social and economic inequities that many immigrant communities face,” she said.

Having worked around immigrant and worker rights issues as a community organizer in New York City, Pirani’s film is greatly influenced by her activist background. After studying nonfiction filmmaking at Columbia University, she became a filmmaker because she wanted to share the many stories she heard both growing up and in her role as a community organizer.

“From an early age, I was inspired by the stories of family and friends around me, who came from different countries and backgrounds, but who all shared in their struggle to achieve the American Dream,” she said.

When asked why she thinks there are not more immigrant women filmmakers, Pirani replied, “as with all underrepresented communities, immigrant women, especially those coming from low-income or working class backgrounds, have not traditionally had access to the resources that filmmakers of the past had. As access to digital filmmaking technology increases, I’m hoping that changes.”

“Judith” is currently being distributed for educational purposes by Third World Newsreel.

Although she lives in Bedford Stuyvesant, filmmaker Jennifer Pritheeva Samuel insists she has a lot of love for Queens.

Her film, “Claiming Our Voice,” was also shown at the Maspeth premiere of the series.

In her documentary, Samuel follows a group of South Asian immigrant women, who meet through a multi-lingual theater performance, and unite against exploitative work conditions to form their own union.

“I’m first generation Sri Lankan American, so stories of the South Asian community, narratives of migration, movement, displacement and diaspora communities are always what I’ve been drawn to – they’re very familiar and close to my heart,” Samuel said. “Audiences are hungry for this kind of subject matter. I also think there are a growing number of first generation, female filmmakers intent on sharing their stories or the stories of their communities.”

Samuel has produced short films for UNICEF and has also worked on several documentary films for PBS’ “Frontline” series.

Christine Mladic Janney is another Brooklyn-based filmmaker, whose film, “Living Quechua,” tells the story of Elva Ambía Rebatta as she leaves her home in Peru and resettles in New York City. Rebatta’s struggles include her push to learn not only English, but also Spanish. Her first language is Quechua, which is spoken in parts of South America.

“The discussions that the film provokes have been eye-opening and powerful, underscoring the importance of publicly and positively recognizing indigenous language speakers in New York City—a population that is quite large and still growing,” said Janney.

By focusing on Elva’s own personal story, the film helps to reveal some of the challenges and promises of trying to keep Quechua alive, Janney said.

“The film premiered only last fall, yet we’ve had some incredible screenings since then, both at festivals and community events,” she said.

Janney’s interest in Peru can be traced back to her childhood, when two Peruvian infants joined her family in the early 1990s through adoption.

While working in New York City and pursuing graduate studies at NYU, the young filmmaker became involved in many Quechua language-related community initiatives. Janney said she made the film to offer a new point of view on what it means to be a speaker of an endangered language.

“I’m proud to help today’s diverse communities share their stories. New York City was built by immigrants and it continues to grow stronger, thanks to their unique contributions,” said Crowley (D-Middle Village). “It is my hope that this film series will not only empower other immigrant women and filmmakers, but also challenge the perceptions of New Yorkers across our city.”

More information about New York Women in Film & Television, along with a list of upcoming screenings, can be found on its website, www.nywift.org.