The trajectory of writer, producer, activist Gail Pellett, brought her from Saskatchewan, Canada where she was born, to Vancouver and Victoria where she grew up before heading to the US in the 1960s, and then around the world. This interview was conducted on behalf of mediaforchange.org by Shamina de Gonzaga. To learn more about Gail Pellett and her work visit http://www.gailpellettproductions.com/
Media Making and Change
SG: How has your perspective on the effectiveness of activism through media evolved over time?
GP: When I first began working in radio and writing for an alternative newspaper, the voices of women, minorities, the elderly, children, immigrants, and working people were largely absent from media. I was filled with the hubris that if I provided critical analysis and fresh voices, with documentaries on issues like day care or discrimination, people would go out and take action…. That’s a powerful and charged idea: If we could only educate people, then they would have the tools to change the world. The tragedy of growing older is that you have so much skepticism about that connection, because we see the same issues confronting us over and over again, from affordable housing, to systemic racism in the judicial system, and countless others. I now realize that it’s not enough to put forward good information—there’s currently an explosion of documentary film—you need to connect your media work with organizations and community groups that will move with that issue. Today social media has changed how media is used, but you can do all the videotaping of police brutality that you want, unless there’s an organized movement of people using that material, it doesn’t go anywhere.
SG: Are there instances where you feel that media has contributed to the kind of change you wish to see?
GP: Yes. Documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson, whose recent film on the Black Panthers garnered much attention, has put together an organization that takes the film into communities to enlarge the dialogue and help people create a movement to develop strategies for change. His documentary coincided with the emergence of Black Lives Matter and serves as a critical tool and part of that conversation. Diego Echeverría’s film Los Sures about the Puerto Rican community that used to live in South Williamsburg has inspired a new generation to research and document their history. In my own work, I feel I had a clear impact on thinking and legislation with a documentary series about death and dying that I, along with another filmmaker, produced with Bill Moyers at PBS. It came along at a time when there was much controversy about death with dignity, and the series generated conversations across the US. My two-hour PBS documentary, Facing the Truth, about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa has been used throughout the country and the world to generate dialogue about justice, accountability, and reconciliation in the aftermath of violent conflict.
SG: To what do you attribute your commitment to social justice?
GP: I arrived in the US in 1963 and settled in the Bay Area when the Black Power movement was taking off. So my political consciousness was put together in the US, but I also grew up in a social democratic country where the battle for single payer health care was going on. It became federal policy just as I was leaving for the US. I didn’t realize to what extent those factors had influenced me until many years later when I went to work and live in China, in 1980. There’s nothing like going to a totally different culture to understand where you come from, what matters to you, and how you got there as a human being.
SG: The subjects you have focused on throughout your work seem to be far removed from your own direct experience. Were you attracted to “otherness,” or did you identify in some way with the people you were interviewing?
GP: I grew up far from the centers of power, media, money, or entertainment. It seemed like everything interesting was going on somewhere else. So I had an interest in “the other”, I wanted to know about other cultures. I was the first person in my extended family to go to university. When I got to grad school, there was an explosion in academia itself; in the 60s and early 70s we raised so many questions about the relevance of curricula, the fact that all our professors were white males, and I was influenced by the new perspective on history—social history, from the bottom up. When I first got a hold of the microphone as a radio host, it became an excuse to go up to people I didn’t know and interview them. It’s an idea filled with hubris, but I loved it. I loved hearing what other people thought about the world, how their experience shaped them. When I look back on it now, I think, oh God, how did I have the balls to do that? How dare I go into neighborhoods where I didn’t belong, approach people whom I should have been shy to address? In Boston, I worked with a feminist radio collective, and near where I lived was a little jazz bar where the kids from Berklee School of Music would play. I began to notice black women who were streetwalkers hanging out there. They made it known they were warming up, because they were streetwalkers and it was freezing outside. I learned that the girlie clubs were racist and wouldn’t hire black girls, so they were forced onto the streets where they were more vulnerable to arrest. That issue led me to the courts, and to document the work of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), an organization working to decriminalize prostitution. That was in 1974. Did I see myself reflected in their struggle? Probably, yes, in terms of the double standard for men and women.
SG: How has feminism affected your identity, and how do you feel about young women today who are uncomfortable with that term?
GP: I’m proud to be a feminist. Women have an extraordinary capacity to change things in the world and the global feminist movement has enlarged my understanding of what it means to be a feminist. In Liberia, women developed strategies to make peace and bring warring men together. My filmmaker friend, Gini Reticker, made a stunning documentary about that called “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.” All over the world I see women working for the flourishing of all people. I associate that with feminism, as much as equal rights to jobs, and childcare, and controlling their own bodies. I don’t understand younger women who aren’t attracted to the notion of feminism, what is it that is negative about it? I’ve just written what I consider to be a feminist book about my experiences in China in 1980, Forbidden Fruit—1980 Beijing, a Memoir (Van Dam, 2016).
SG: As an outsider, have you found it challenging to earn the trust of the people you interview, or gain access to the activities you document?
GP: In 1978, I was hired by the Brooklyn Museum to accompany the museum’s curator to Haiti to make a series of short documentaries about Haitian artists for the first major exhibit of Haitian art in the US. While I was there, I also did a film on the Ra Ra festival that happens around Easter. In many ways, I love some of the material I shot for that, but I call it “across the street photography.” I wasn’t immersed in the community and didn’t speak Creole. I got footage of some Voodou ceremonies, both in Haiti, and in Brooklyn with a Voodou priestess. That was challenging because in Brooklyn people wouldn’t show up when they knew a camera would be present…. Ultimately, however, the Haitian Art show turned out to be among the most successful shows the Brooklyn Museum has organized because it drew the local community, at a time when Voodou was so maligned.
Interviewing Generals, who were being held accountable for horrible human rights crimes committed under their watch in El Salvador, for my film Justice and the Generals, was another instance where there was some resistance. But that film is especially relevant today when the use of torture is being revisited by a presidential candidate in the US despite the US being a Party to the Geneva Conventions.
Racism, Community and Social Change
SG: Are there issues you feel deserve more attention than they’re currently receiving?
GP: Systemic racism is so difficult for reporters to address. I’m shocked by how quickly police shootings get objectified and not analyzed. Even the few police that have been arrested for murdering young black men have not been convicted. There are problems with prosecutors and judges and police training. I’m always surprised at the reporting; even though it’s constant it doesn’t go far enough. On other aspects of inequality, we can’t discuss anything relative to social democracy without it being called “socialism”. While there is never enough reporting about the poor and inequality, it has improved and that has to do with pressure from movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter.
SG: Are you finding your place in the changing media landscape and making use of the new media tools that are available?
GP: There’s always a cultish quality around each new social media phenomenon, followed by disillusionment, as people understand they’re involved in a high school game of “likes” and approval. People who are using social media to create community and movements of social change are inspiring to me. These days I am more focused on writing.
SG: How did you come to choose the outskirts of Oaxaca, Mexico as your base?
GP: I began traveling across Mexico 35 years ago and was fascinated by the country’s cultural diversity from one state to another, as well as by the legacy of indigenous heritage and colonial influences. Mexico is a mix of the latest incarnations of capitalism to wonderfully socialist ideas. Some incredible principles are built into politics, for example, ensuring that people have the right to dissent, protest and resist. People do act on that right, but then there are consequences ranging from the government not listening, to disappearances and death. The more deeply I try to connect, the more I feel I don’t understand. Talking with Mexicans, though, about challenges there, they’re quick to point out the travesty of gun violence in US, so I am always reminded to check my perspective.