A few weeks ago, we welcomed the film editor and producer, Kate O. Wagner, for a special film-making workshop series at the Weißensee shelter.
In August, Pass the Crayon and the children living in the Weißensee shelter enjoyed a week-long film workshop series, led by movie-maker Kate Wagner. Kate had flown all the way from Washington DC to lead a pre-production workshop series for us. From character design, to script writing, to story boarding, around ten kids from eight to ten years had the opportunity to delve into their imagination and write some incredible stories. The children relished the opportunity to get behind the camera, and under Kate's guidance produced some wonderful videos.
For the Pass the Crayon team, it was such a delight to see how involved the youth became with the project. We were particularly pleased that some of the older ones - Saad, Zeed and Barham - preferred to spend five whole afternoons working on their story-line rather than playing football!
Aside from the content of the workshop, what was remarkable was how quickly Kate managed to bond with all the children. When I interviewed her last week, I was amazed at the detail and clarity with which Kate remembered all of the kids at the shelter, recounting conversations and little snippets of info about their lives that even I did not know- a true testament to her integrity as a documentarian and her passion for understanding and connecting with human beings. This really shines through not only in our interview, but in her impressive body of work, including her freelance work as a youth art teacher and co-founding of the independent film company, SAMEBLOOD productions.
We really enjoyed our experience with Kate, and are deeply grateful for the time and effort she took in teaching the children invaluable new skills. From beginning to end, Kate showed incredible attention to each detail, finely tailoring each workshop to maximize the children's enjoyment, and meet their needs and expectations. Thank you Kate for giving the kids the opportunity to express themselves in new creative ways, and importantly, getting to know them all on a personal level. <3
"My favorite moments are when kids get excited about their ideas, and their own personal creative process starts to take over—like giving someone a push on a bicycle and watching them take off!"
You are a photographer, filmmaker and editor/producer. What first attracted you to these creative mediums, and how did this develop into a career?
From a young age, I had been trained in classical art (painting and drawing), and then over time began trying different artistic mediums like creative writing, theatre, and photography. When it came time for university, I bailed on art school in New York because I felt it would be limiting (students picked their academic tracks based on a chosen medium). While at a liberal arts university in DC, I wanted to find a way to combine my interest in visual art with my interest in storytelling and direction, so I entered the Media Studies program and concentrated on video production. When I graduated, I began freelancing and was hired a lot as an editor and also as a photographer and occasionally as a cameraman on video projects.
The first projects I worked on were during my freelance years, and those include promotional digital content for the Discovery Channel, assistant editing a feature documentary, a music video, some instructional videos, and promo videos for nonprofits. But in about 2013 a US nonprofit hired me to accompany them on a fact-finding mission to South Sudan. Speaking with the people on the ground there about the humanitarian needs and the work that churches and NGOs were doing to meet those needs got me really interested in the effects of conflict, especially on youth. I met my creative partner and started working on SAMEBLOOD in 2014, around about the start of the current refugee crisis. Through my friends and my work, I became interested in the Middle East and the Arabic language, and wanted to work more in the region. A colleague of ours was doing workshops in Karlsruher, Germany so I started to think about how a refugee youth film workshop would work in the US. I spent the summer of 2017 teaching workshops in a small city in the US, basically as practice. Then after a project in the West Bank in Palestine earlier this year, where I saw how little there is for youth in the way of practical career training and also programming to tap into and support their creative voices, I decided I really want to conduct these youth workshops in Arabic, on the ground in the MENA region and in the cities that these kids will call their new homes (like Berlin).
Eventually I met my best friend and creative partner, Oday Sadoon, and jumped in on his project, SAMEBLOOD, which I’m producing. Often as a creative person, you take many different unfulfilling jobs just to make the money to carry on doing what you love. It was after being fired from one of these jobs that Oday and I decided it was time we start a company. Now I work with Sameblood Productions, while independently working on projects of a more humanitarian nature, and teaching youth film workshops.
"The film, like all documentaries in a way, is a living thing—it’s grown and changed and matured"
You are currently producing ‘Sameblood’, the creative feature-length documentary focusing on the life of a Muslim man, Danyal. Why do you think it is so important to explore these cultural and religious themes, particularly in today’s society?
The most important aspect of 'SAMEBLOOD' to me is the way that Danyal navigates very different societies without judgement but also without being indoctrinated. He has a very strong core set of beliefs that are immovable, like love and respect for others, and a really humble devotion to Truth. He loves to study language, but not just to know the language—it’s to know the people of that language. Through his study of language, he explores other societies and becomes close to people in their mother tongue. I think it’s crucial to share Danyal’s example with the world. Human beliefs and cultures and languages are so varied, but in the end we are all one human family. Nationalities are random—we are born into them—and borders are flexible. Cultures are not static—they absorb new influences and sometimes old ideas or ways of doing things die out. But still, as humans we have a tendency to differentiate between ourselves and others out of a survival instinct. We think we can trust what we know, and what is unknown is potentially dangerous. That primal instinct today can take on very sinister forms. It leads to racism, classism, xenophobia, radical partisanship, and a lack of empathy generally. The antidote to this is friendship across boundaries. I think the more we can familiarize ourselves with different peoples and ways of life, the better people we become really.
If you could pick just one project that you’ve worked on, which would be your favourite, and why?
My favorite project would have to be SAMEBLOOD. The film, like all documentaries in a way, is a living thing—it’s grown and changed and matured. And I’ve learned so much working on this film.
You are currently artist in residence at 202 Creates. Tell us a bit more about your role within this organisation, and how/why you became involved.
202 Creates is quite a new initiative from the DC Mayor’s Office that was created to support DC artists and entrepreneurs. The classic problem for artists in DC has always been a lack of support and funding, so artists have always moved to places like New York, LA, or abroad. But now we have grants and initiatives that are making DC a more hospitable environment for artists. I was selected to be part of the inaugural cohort of 202 Creates’ artist residency program based on my project to develop a curriculum for youth film workshops specifically for refugee youth. The residency has been helpful because it has connected me to resources, like a child trauma psychologist who specializes in refugee kids. She particularly helped me to ensure that my plan for the Berlin workshop with Pass the Crayon would be trauma-informed, so that I could support the unique needs these kids might have.
"What gives me joy is knowing that together we’re providing a safe space where kids can feel they are valued, where they can be themselves (or any other character they wish to be), where they can try things without judgement."
Developing creative workshops for refugee youth, and working with refugee youth, is (as we know at PTC!) a really rewarding job. What do you like most about it?
My favorite moments are when kids get excited about their ideas, and their own personal creative process starts to take over—like giving someone a push on a bicycle and watching them take off! More conceptually, what gives me joy is knowing that together we’re providing a safe space where kids can feel they are valued, where they can be themselves (or any other character they wish to be), where they can try things without judgement.
You recently collaborated with us on a film project at the Weißensee shelter. Tell me a bit more about this. How was the experience for you?
In August, I partnered with Pass the Crayon to do a film pre-production workshop with some of the kids (aged about 8 years old to about 12 years old) at the Weißensee shelter. We did activities that helped them learn about story structure, character development, setting, story-boarding, script format, and (as a bit of a surprise ending) acting! The kids created characters, developed a 3-act story between their characters in which the characters solved a problem, made settings for the story, turned it all into a script, and then some chose to enlist their friends to help them act out their stories.
The workshop was obviously great fun for me. I loved seeing what the kids came up with, and supporting them to bring their ideas to life. I was also super fortunate to have been able to spend a lot of time with Manon Jourdan, the kids’ social worker at the shelter, without whom the workshop simply wouldn’t be possible; and also Andra Dols, a stellar volunteer and also intern with Pass the Crayon, whose kindness, fun energy and German skills really helped the workshop go smoothly.
"Bahram is about 11 or 12 years old from Afghanistan. He has a strong personality and loves to joke around, but he’s serious about his storytelling."
In a much wider sense, has working with refugees altered any of your views, or helped you see things differently?
I think working with refugee kids has made me more protective. The refugee crisis has gone on long enough to spawn entire fields of study, initiatives, and businesses, and some people I’ve spoken with who work most closely with refugees have seen the way that others in these new fields try to exploit refugees and refugee stories for their own personal or professional gain. I think we naturally want to believe that people generally have others’ best interest at heart, but that’s just not always the case. The way that this realization effects my life is that I will always remind myself that I am first and foremost accountable to the kids I work with and their families.
You must have many fond memories from working with these young people. Are there any kids that you formed special connections with? Can you share a little bit about them and their story?
Every person is a little universe and I’m sad not to have been able to spend even more time getting to know each kid, because some take longer to get used to you than others. But there were a few who really impacted me in the week we spent together. Zam Zam is a girl about eight years old from Syria. She is a lovely person-- so funny, confident, and ready to help others. There were three siblings from Syria who were pretty new to Germany and to the shelter. My Arabic is minimal and these kids had no German or English, so Zam Zam readily stepped in to translate all of the activities into Arabic so the siblings would be able to participate. She worked on her ideas with care, but never hesitated to stop and help her friends and me. Even though she didn’t speak English and I don’t speak German, every day we tried so hard to communicate directly without translation from a third person. She would speak very slowly in German and use her hands to make clear gestures. A lot of times it really worked, and I actually learned some German from her!
Bahram is about 11 or 12 years old from Afghanistan. He has a strong personality and loves to joke around, but he’s serious about his storytelling. Each activity he approached with determination and clarity, and was always the first to finish. It took him no time to come up with ideas—he really is a storyteller at heart. A lot of the time he would be joking around with his friends, trying a bit to impress people as one of the older boys in the workshop, but as soon as we began story-boarding and writing scripts, it was like everyone else disappeared and it was just him and his story. (Maybe this is too much information: I learned toward the end of the week that he had left Afghanistan about three years prior and spent some time in a camp in Turkey before arriving in Germany. I just can’t believe how good his German is and how comfortable he is in the shelter with his friends. When I think of him, it makes me want to accomplish more in my life.)
There were three brothers, Saad, Seed, and Saladin, ranging in age from about eight or nine, to eleven or twelve years old, each with a completely different personality type. Saad is the oldest, responsible but mostly likes to joke around. Seed is the middle brother, and what we would call a “tough nut”—it’s clear he has a lot on his mind. Saladin is the youngest. If I had a favorite, he might be the one. He is hilarious, and so persistent. He is a sweet and silly boy, and I think his energy lifted up everyone around him.
I could really say something about each kid in the workshop but maybe that’s too much information?
And why did you decide to choose this particular topic (the art activity) with the children? Did your original idea translate?
Great question! Typically I like to do a 2-week film workshop, which lasts minimum half a day for 5 days per week and covers everything from pre-production to post-production. However, this kind of program format simply doesn’t work in an optional workshop setting. The Pass the Crayon workshops are not obligatory—the kids don’t sign up for them and come every day—they are offerings to the kids, who are free to come if they like to whatever workshop might interest them. So we turned it into a pre-production workshop, and the onus was really on me to make it super fun, and on Manon to market it to the kids! In the end, the workshop lasted minimum 1 hour and maximum 2.5 hours each day for 5 days. My original format was also much more instructional, but after meeting the kids the first day, I worked with Manon and Sevin (one of the co-founders) to make it more engaging and age-appropriate, especially for the younger kids. The second day was a huge hit and the kids stayed twice as long the second day than they did the first!
"This democratization of film is so important because it means that it’s becoming easier for people and communities who have been marginalized or overlooked or underrepresented in society to share their own stories."
In what way do you think film is different to other artistic mediums?
Film is the only medium with the potential to encapsulate all other artistic mediums—theatre, visual art, dance, creative writing, music, fashion, etc.—and then add another dimension through editing. I think there is something for everyone in film, wherever your creative voice feels most at home, be it writing, acting, photography, architecture, lighting, carpentry, painting, music, whatever.
What pulled me away from painting and toward film was film’s dimensionality. Some people prefer the sort of stand-alone, discrete nature of art like painting or sculpture because it does a lot with a little and requires the audience to engage more in order to experience the work. But for me film opens up infinite possibility! And I’m continually falling in love with film as technology progresses. It’s so much easier to make a film now and a person has so much more control over the image than even 20 years ago when we were still using physical film. Even if you had a camcorder, it was so difficult to edit. Now you can do it from a smartphone in seconds with just a swipe of your finger! This democratization of film is so important because it means that it’s becoming easier for people and communities who have been marginalized or overlooked or underrepresented in society to share their own stories. This is work that I want to support.
Why do you think it is important for young children to understand and learn to use creative mediums, such as film?
One of the main reasons I think it’s so important for young people to explore creative mediums is that it can be very difficult for children (and adults) to process information and express themselves because much of what they’re experiencing is brand new to them. They have a very small frame of reference to help contextualize things. It can be really scary or frustrating or confusing when you’re full of feelings but can’t share them. You need to express yourself, and you will, but there are controlled ways to do that, which can empower you; and there are uncontrolled ways to do that, which are often problematic. Imagine feeling so joyful that you just jump up and down yelling about how happy you are for an hour, or you’re so angry that you start hitting the wall in your bedroom—this behavior is going to cause problems with the people around you, and it doesn’t get you much closer to understanding what you’re experiencing. Art has a way of distancing us from the stimulus and because it’s interpretive, we are also processing something inside of ourselves in order to create something outside of ourselves.
Beyond that, I want young people to know that it is possible to support yourself using your artistic talents, you just need to hone your skills and be a little savvy. If you’ve got a talent for drawing, practice it, explore it, try to learn as much as you can, and when it’s time to make a living, you can figure out how to do that using your talent. You don’t have to just “fall in line” and spend the rest of your life doing something that makes you miserable.
Would you like to return for another series with PTC? Do you have any ideas for what it could be?
PTC will always have a special place in my heart, and I would be so happy to come back for another workshop. Maybe next time we can build off of the August workshop and I’ll come with pre-made scripts so we can just work on making videos!
** We wish to thank Kate for taking the time to make this interview, and for her amazing work with PTC over the past month. All photos displayed in this post are from Kate's personal archive, and can be found here. If you have enjoyed this post then don't forget to 'like' and share on social media! **