Faith in Filmmaking
Prospect Lefferts Gardens resident Faith Pennick is a feminist and a filmmaker. But that doesn’t mean she wants to be called a feminist filmmaker.
“I don’t want to be constrained by what people expect of a black woman, or a feminist,” she begins. “I want to discover and tell interesting stories about interesting people and communities.” As she speaks, Pennick becomes more and more emphatic, repeating her desire to avoid being pigeonholed into making heavy-handed films about African Americans. What’s more, as the creator of five independently produced documentaries and features, Pennick stresses that she is trying to reach the broadest possible audience. “I don’t want to preach to the choir,” she says.
This philosophy has allowed the 43-year-old Pennick to tackle—either as director or producer—a host of themes: Stereotypes about plus-sized women (Weightless); abortion in the African American community (Silent Choices); civil liberties post 9/11 (… and justice for whom?); the stigma of mental illness (Running on Eggshells); and the popularity of double dutch jump rope (Harlem Sistas Double Dutch).
Her most ambitious project to date, the award-winning Silent Choices, was released in 2007. The impetus for the film, Pennick says, was a conversation with a close friend. “She said that black women had more important things to think about and care about than abortion,” Pennick recalls. “She is pro-life and I’m pro-choice, but I was stunned by her comment and was prompted to make a film that explored the many dimensions of the issue. I wanted to show the history of abortion as it plays out for African Americans. People think that the abortion controversy started with the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, but women have always taken steps to benefit their families, decisions that allow them to make better lives for themselves and their children. Deciding what to do about a pregnancy is a lot more complicated than ‘my body, my choice.’ I made Silent Choices because I wanted to provide a place for black women to be front and center in the debate, not pushed to the periphery by largely white pro-choice and pro-life groups.”
The film—a nearly six-year labor of love that required Pennick to move back into her mother’s Chicago home when she ran out of money—not only addresses the reasons black women terminate pregnancies at four times the rate of whites—40.2 per 1,000 versus 11.5 per 1,000--but also allows a wide cross section of the community to examine the concept of reproductive justice. The end result weaves archival and contemporary footage and showcases numerous perspectives, pro- and anti-choice. Pennick calls Silent Choices a “hybrid documentary,” a blend of personal reflections and political analysis that breaks the “loud silence” that all too often surrounds the issue.
Is Pennick proud of the film? “Yes,” she says after a momentary pause, “but when I look at it now, I wish I’d had more money so that I could have done some things differently—like adding poetry or including a few more voices.”
That Pennick is a perfectionist, driven to create films of the highest caliber, is obvious, so it is surprising to learn that she didn’t always want to make movies. “I moved to New York from Chicago in 1994, four years after I finished college, to work in the music industry,” she says, “but somehow I got more and more interested in film once I got here. Maybe it was the films that were coming out at the time, features like The Usual Suspects, Pulp Fiction, and Hoop Dreams. When Hoop Dreams came out I expected to hate it. I thought it would be an anthropological look at black boys playing their way out of the ghetto. But it wasn’t, at least not for me. It was beautiful, compelling storytelling that made you care and did not fall prey to stereotypes about being poor, black, or male. I saw it and said, ‘This is what I want to do.’ ”
The question, of course, was how to move from desire to goal. “When I first came to the city I was like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, relying on the kindness of strangers,” she laughs. “I was temping because I couldn’t find a full-time job and I basically told myself that I had a year to get established. If I didn’t find a job within 12 months, I’d return to Chicago. It took me until the 11th month to get a position with an interactive media company. I was thrilled—I was sure this was my ‘in’ into the music industry—and I was devastated eight months later when the company was shuttered.”
Luckily, other jobs followed, as did graduate study at New York University’s Gallatin Division. “I took classes in film production, cinema studies, business, and media criticism—it was a curriculum of my own design—and I graduated in 2000,” she says.
Pennick was in the process of figuring out her next career move when 9/11 happened; shortly thereafter, Third World Newsreel issued a call for short films about civil liberties in the aftermath of the attacks. Within days, the aspiring filmmaker knew that she’d found her project. “Newsreel let me use their equipment and facilities and I basically spent my evenings and weekends—pretty much every second I wasn’t at my day job—creating … and justice for whom? I made the video in a month. It mostly featured talking heads from the Center for Constitutional Rights but it was my first film. Newsreel screened it and distributed it for me.”
Silent Choices, Running on Eggshells, Harlem Sistas, and Weightless followed.
“I am drawn to people who are poor or disadvantaged in some way,” Pennick says. “Most filmmakers are white men who come to the job with race and class privilege and make movies about white guys just like themselves. That’s why it’s so great to see films like Pariah, about people who aren’t typically featured on screen. Still, it’s distressing that this type of film continues to be so rare.”
It’s certainly not for lack of material, Pennick adds. Her film production company, Organized Chaos—“My life is nuts. It’s absolutely organized chaos,” she quips—is presently in the throes of several new projects. “I’m working on a narrative screenplay now. All I can tell you is that it’s about religion, sex, and Moby Dick.” A minute later, her voice gets louder and her eyes light up as she switches gears. “I’m also in the early stages of doing research for a documentary about men who are victims of rape. I’m not talking about men in prison, but men we see everyday on the street, in church, and at work. I want to address what happens to those men who have no place to talk about this, who shut down. I want to look at societal definitions of masculinity and the expectations that are placed on men and male behavior.”
And that’s not all. “I sing in a gospel choir at Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church,” she says. “I’ve always loved singing—remember, my plan after college was to work in the music industry—and I hope to record an EP by the end of the year. For the last 12 years I’ve sacrificed my singing to have a successful film career. Who’s to say that I can’t have both?”
Pennick’s most recent film, Weightless, will be shown at Harlem Stage On Screen on March 14 at 7:30 p.m. For ticket information go to www.harlemstage.org/calendar. Pennick’s other films are available for purchase at www.orgchaos.com. Pennick is also on Twitter: twitter.com/orgchaosmedia.