Julie Mallozzi explores cultural intersections and social change through award-winning documentary films. Her latest nonfiction feature, Circle Up, will screen in the GlobeDocs Film Festival on Saturday, October 14, 2017, 12 PM, at Brattle Theatre.
We asked Julie about the film’s origins, what engages her as an artist and teacher, and what’s next in her intriguing career as a nonfiction media storyteller.
Where did the Circle Up project start for you? And can you talk about how it’s changed since its initial conception?
The initial inspiration for Circle Up came back in 2005 when a non-profit colleague of mine, with whom I was producing a video for United Way of Massachusetts Bay, handed me an article about the amazing work Roca, Inc. in Chelsea was doing to support youth and prevent violence and mass incarceration. “You’ve got to make a film about this,” Jane told me. She knew of my interest in the ways traditional cultural practices are being applied far from their original context to address social issues. Roca has for years drawn on indigenous peacemaking circles to build community and resolve conflict.
I was intrigued by the idea of a native practice that is proving helpful in multi-cultural, urban settings. Peacemaking circles usually involve sitting in a circle with sacred objects in the middle, opening and closing with a ritual such as burning sage, and using a talking piece to encourage empathetic listening. There is more to it than that, but as Strong Oak Lefebvre says in the film, “Circles are really simple but really hard to do.”
In 2007 I received a grant from Mass Humanities to develop this spark of an idea into a film. I traveled around the country observing circle practices and meeting all kinds of inspiring people. For several years I thought the film was going to be something more abstract, maybe even a video installation, about peacemaking circles themselves. And then in 2012 I met Janet Connors.
Janet has an amazing life story that spans decades of community activism in Dorchester and the rest of Boston. When her son was murdered in 2001, Janet knew she wasn’t interested in revenge or extreme punishment for the four men responsible. She wanted personal and community healing. She wanted these men to turn their lives around, and for there to be less violence in her community. Janet fought the bureaucracy for a year to become the first person in Massachusetts to do a victim-offender dialogue through the Department of Corrections. She also reached for what she had learned about restorative justice from native elders, continued her exploration, and began leading peacemaking circles with young people affected by violence.
So the film evolved from being a story about peacemaking circles to a film about Janet and finally to a film about a community of mothers who are working to create true justice for their murdered sons.
The trailer for CIRCLE UP
Is there something that connects the subjects of your various films? Or to put in another way, what subjects are you drawn to as a filmmaker?
I have become close friends with all of the primary subjects of my films. I guess this comes in part from the spark that drew me to them and in part from the years spent exploring intimate details of their lives.
In terms of topics for films, I am drawn to stories of cultural hybridity and of cultural traditions that are being “repurposed” to address personal or social problems. I think this stems in part from my own mixed heritage: my parents are Chinese-American and Italian-American, and our family managed a Native American historical site in Ohio for 20 years. I also lived and traveled widely in Latin America (where I’m often mistaken for a Latina) and then happen to be married to a Dutchman so our whole family speaks Dutch too.
I just love unexpected cultural combinations and disintegrating geographical and ethnic borders!
Your film Circle Up depicts people, Janet Connors in particular, coping with devastating loss, yet persevering in important work. Several months ago we posed this question to artists, and I’d be curious of your thoughts, given the subject of Circle Up: How do you approach art-making during times of emotional distress?
That’s a great question! My work is generally not about my own life – it’s about other people’s situations seen through my lens – so I don’t tend to process my own emotional issues in my art. But it certainly feeds my soul to be creating something that may enlighten or inspire others. And it’s so helpful to be constantly going out into the world to see other perspectives and realize how lucky I am.
As a teacher, what do you try to instill in emerging filmmakers?
I love working with emerging filmmakers of all ages (I teach at Rhode Island School of Design and in MassArt’s Continuing Education Program). I like to start with a focus on observation – learning to truly SEE the world as a maker. Ultimately my goal as a teacher is to help bring out the individual cinematic vision of each student, while giving them the technical tools they need to realize that vision.
In other words, I want students to develop work that has a strong conceptual foundation but isn’t only about the concept; and to make work that has the production values that they are looking for but isn’t just slick for the sake of being slick.
What other artists, in film or otherwise, interest and inspire you?
There are too many to name, really! I admire the observational filmmaking of Fred Wiseman, the Maysles brothers, and Barbara Kopple; the political films of Laura Poitras and Stephen Maing; the amazing video art of Bill Viola, Patty Chang, and many others. I’m always grateful to my original teachers at Harvard’s Visual and Environmental Studies department, where I also taught for many years.
What’s the most surprising response to your films you’ve ever received?
Circle Up is the most emotional film I’ve made. It’s just been released, but I am finding at every screening that there are people sobbing in the audience. They come up afterwards and give me and the subjects big, long hugs. They talk about how the film shook up their ideas of revenge and forgiveness – and how the story has given them new ways of looking at their issue with their parents; with their substance-abusing boyfriend; with the person who stabbed them or killed their friend. This is the first film I’ve made that I feel has the power to actually prevent violence and change some lives, at least in some small way. It’s exciting.
What are you working on next?
Right now I’m collaborating with the Center for Restorative Justice at Suffolk University to create an impact campaign to accompany Circle Up. We are going to bring the film to schools, prisons, survivor groups, faith-based organizations, criminal justice venues, and academic institutions to help people talk about forgiveness, accountability, and justice.
I’m also developing several short film ideas because I want to produce my next film in less than five years! I’ve just finished shooting a short follow-up to my film Monkey Dance, which was about three Cambodian-American teens coming of age in Lowell, MA. The teens are now in their early thirties and I’m exploring how they managed to avoid some of the pitfalls of urban adolescence and grow to become great leaders in their community – including for a new wave of immigrants and refugees.
Julie Mallozzi’s new documentary Circle Up will screen at the Brattle Theatre as part of HUBWeek’s GlobeDocs Festival (10/14, 12 PM).
Julie Mallozzi‘s films have won awards at festivals around the world and have screened in museums, universities, and on public television. She also produces videos and transmedia projects for community organizations and works as a freelance producer and editor in Boston’s lively documentary community.