‘The Power of "I" – First Person Storytelling in Times of Crisis’

Documentary filmmaker Judith Helfand

‘The Power of “I”: First-Person Storytelling in Times of Crisis’

Led by Peabody Award-winning documentary filmmaker Judith Helfand, the three-day “The Power of ‘I’ ” workshop will offer film screenings, hands-on instruction, expert analysis and in-depth conversation.  

It’s designed for documentary filmmakers, journalists, essayists, podcasters, photographers, health and crisis communicators – or anyone who thinks their small story has the potential for enormous impact 

All elements of the conference will be virtual, using Zoom or other streaming technologies.

“The Power of ‘I’ ” convening has currently reached capacity, and registration for the full conference is no longer open. 

But you can still participate in several of the sessions — each of which requires individual sign-up, and all of which are free. Registration buttons for these three programs are directly below, with full descriptions of the programs included within the schedule on this page.

6:30 p.m. Oct. 22: “The Feeling of Being Watched” screening  + post-film discussion with director Assia Boundaoui and Detroit surveillance/police reform activist Tawana (Honeycomb) Petty.

5 p.m. Oct. 23: Alone Together: The “I” becomes “We”: COVID-19-related short — and even shorter — films from around the globe including Iran, Canada and cities across the U.S. With a discussion among the filmmakers.

6 p.m. Oct. 24: “Strong Island” screening + post-film discussion with director Yance Ford and Detroit criminal justice reform activists.

This workshop is made possible by the Bob Allison (Allesee) Endowed Chair in Media, Wayne State University Department of Communication.

‘The Power of I’ schedule

The schedule is tentative and subject to change.

THURSDAY, OCT. 22 (5:30-9 p.m.) 

Juanita Anderson
Documentary filmmaker Judith Helfand

 5:30-6:30 p.m.: Introduction to “The Power of  ‘I’ ” 

Documentary filmmaker (and “Power of ‘I’ ” workshop curator) Judith Helfand and Wayne State’s Juanita Anderson provide an introduction to “The Power of ‘I,’ ” and discuss the critical significance of first-person storytelling during this moment when local and global crises — systemic, long-term, personal, communal,  transformational and universal — are colliding.

"The Feeling of Being Watched"

6:30-8 p.m.: Public film screening: “The Feeling of Being Watched,” directed by Assia Boundaoui 

In the Arab-American neighborhood outside of Chicago where director Assia Boundaoui grew up, most of her neighbors think they have been under surveillance for over a decade. While investigating their experiences, Boundaoui helps prove that her hometown was the subject of one of the largest counterterrorism investigations ever conducted in the U.S. before 9/11. The 2018 film weaves the personal and the political as she pieces together the story and grapples with the effects of a lifetime of surveillance on her community.

Co-presented by Detroit Narrative Agency.

This screening is open to the general public. But reservations are required, and tickets are limited. Registration for the film includes admission to the post-film discussion. Register using the button near the top of this page.

Director Assia Boundaoui
Tawana (Honeycomb) Petty

8-9 p.m.: Public session: Q&A with “The Feeling of Being Watched” director Assia Boundaoui 

“The Feeling of Being Watched” director Assia Boundaoui talks about the making of the film — and its impact — in a discussion moderated by “Power of I” curator Judith Helfand.

Joining the discussion will be Tawana (Honeycomb) Petty, a Detroit-based surveillance/police reform activist and director of the data justice program for Detroit Community Technology Project.

FRIDAY, OCT. 23 (10 a.m.-9 p.m.) 

"A Healthy Baby GIrl"
"Blue Vinyl"

10 a.m.-noon: The Power of “I” During Crisis

Award-winning documentarian (and “Power of ‘I’ ” curator) Judith Helfand leads a connect-the-dots look through her first-person work, exploring the power of transparency, juxtaposition and humor to work through personal and universal crises. Using clips from films like “A Healthy Baby Girl,” “Blue Vinyl,” “Cooked: Survival By Zip Code” and “Love & Stuff,” she will demonstrate how to engage and activate audiences (and even make them laugh).

Director Judith Helfand and her mother in "Love & Stuff."

Noon-1 p.m.: Lunch break

Atieno Nyar Kasagam

1-3 p.m.: Crisis, Activism and Resilience: Telling Detroit Stories

Detroiters working on a range of human rights issues — including transportation, water, ecology, immigration, housing and safety and policing) and collaborating to bring a Detroiters’ Bill of Rights to the city’s charter — will talk about the challenges of telling their stories and getting them heard effectively to shape public policy. This collaboration for change joined forces before the pandemic but is all the more urgent now.

Memria — a new digital platform for collecting and aggregating oral history, eyewitness testimony and personal stories — will be explored as a tool for their efforts.

“Power of ‘I’ ” curator Judith Helfand will co-moderate with Hayg Oshagan, the founder and director of New Michigan Media, and an associate professor of media studies at Wayne State University.

Featured short film and filmmaker:

“Sidelots,” directed by Atieno Nyar Kasagam: A love story about family, grief, and Black land reclamation told between Detroit, Alabama and Kenya.


3-3:30 p.m.: Workshop break

Photographer Erik Paul Howard
Rosa Maria Zamarron
Courtney Wise Randolph
David Leins

3:30-4:15 p.m.: “COVID Diaries: Stories of Resilience”

Spearheaded by WDET-FM and Documenting Detroit, “COVID Diaries: Stories of Resilience” is a multimedia project that uses photography and more to tap into our shared experience of the novel coronavirus. Participants in this discussion will include WDET’s project coordinator David Liens, writer/podcaster Courtney Wise Randolph and photographers Rosa María Zamarrón and Erik Paul Howard. They will share their words, images, along with insights on the project’s execution and impact.

Diop Russell
Yemisi Odetoyinbo

4:15-5 p.m.: Detroit Narrative Agency Presents: “Radical Remedies: Collective Healing and Power Through Story” 

As our communities face the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and severe anti-Black racism, what do resilience, resistance, joy, grief and collective care look like? Detroit Narrative Agency (DNA) invited Detroiters and Michigan residents to creatively respond to this question through short videos with this project, “Radical Remedies: Collective Healing and Power Through Story.” This project honors the experiences of Black, Brown and Indigenous people living in Detroit and Michigan, weaving together our collective threads, connecting kindred communities nationally and globally.

DNA Co-Director and “Radical Remedies” creator/curator Ryan Pearson and Judith Helfand will talk with the filmmakers about how this experience pushed them as storytellers, healers and dreamers. 

Featured short films and filmmakers:

“The Call,” directed by Costa Kazaleh Sirdenis, Salakastar and Chris Jakob

“Love Infused Foods,” directed by Yemisi Odetoyinbo

“Return To Breath,” directed by Aleesa Searcy

“Sisterhood, Resilience, and Radical Joy,” directed by Diop Zaria Russell

Laj Wahray
"Together, Alone" director Laj P. Waghray
Aurora Hesper Brachman
“Club Quarantine” director Aurora Hesper Brachman
Liv McNeil
Liv McNeil in “Numb 2020”
Sara Khaki
Mohammad Reza Eyni
Mohammad Reza Eyni
Valerie Soe
Robert Winn
Alexander Catedral
Risa Morimoto

5-6 p.m.: Alone Together: The I becomes We

In this session, several filmmakers who made movie during the COVID-19 lockdown will share their work and talk about their process and what they learned. We’ll see pandemic-related short — and even shorter — films from around the globe including Iran, Canada and cities across the U.S.

Together, they will discuss their creations’ connections, themes, cinematic language and how, when, why and even if … the I has become We. 

Several of the films sprung from “Asian American Stories in the Time of Coronavirus,” a storytelling initiative launched by A-Doc, a coalition of Asian-American documentary filmmakers. Robert Winn, who was on the leadership team for the A-Doc project, will join the conversation.

Featured short films and filmmakers:

“Our Iranian Lockdown,” directed by Sara Khaki and Mohammad Reza Eyni: Sara and Mohammad Reza attempt to process the devastating loss of a family member to Covid-19. As they approach Persian new year, the couple finds some hope and happiness in the rituals that mark the spring equinox.

“Back to Work,” directed by Alexander Catedral: A family experiences the realities of COVID-19 firsthand, together.

“Sewing in the Time of Coronavirus,” directed by Valerie Soe: In the hands of the Auntie Sewing Squad, hoarded film festival lanyards become a way to fight coronavirus.

“Together, Alone,” directed by Laj P. Waghray: A glimpse into the lives of frontline workers by documenting one doctor’s life in isolation at home.

“An Unexpected Goodbye,” directed by Risa Morimoto: A father dies suddenly from COVID-19, and his family is forced to create a new ritual when proper funerals are not allowed.

“Club Quarantine,” directed by Aurora Hesper Brachman: When the Coronavirus shuts down clubs around the world, a nightly 6-hour queer dance party thrives on Zoom.

“Numb 2020,” directed by Liv McNeil: Faced with an open-ended art project to close out the school year, it was clear to 15-year-old Liv McNeil what the subject matter had to be: self-isolation.

This workshop session is open to the general public. But reservations are required, and tickets are limited. Register using the button near the top of this page.

"Club Quarantine"
"Club Quarantine"

6:10-6:30 p.m.: Small group discussions

Workshop participants will break into small groups to discuss what they’ve learned so far and how “The Power of ‘I’ ” will inform their own projects moving forward. (If inspired, participants have the option to make this a working dinner, as the Zoom will stay open during the upcoming break.)

6:30-7:30 p.m.: Dinner break

Natalie Bullock Brown
Farah Kassem
Bree Newsome
Shiraz Ahmed

7:30-9:30 p.m.: Emerging Filmmakers and Their First-Person Voices

This program will celebrate emerging filmmakers who are working on their first, first-person documentaries — and specifically the struggle to find their voice, the language of their story and the unique way they will traverse the personal and the universal. Each filmmaker will screen a works-in-progress trailer, edited scenes or creative tests. What will tie this session together is the filmmakers’ generosity and willingness to bring workshop attendees into the creative, chaotic, deeply personal process of finding their voice and the voice of the film they “have to make.”

Featured works-in-progress and filmmakers:

“We Are Inside,” directed by Farah Kassem: Returning to her father’s house after more than a decade, Farah, 31 and still single, has to face the fact that her city of birth is getting increasingly conservative and the only way to connect with her father  is to join his weekly all-male classical Arabic poetry club.

“They Tried To Bury Us,” directed by Bree Newsome: Filmmaker Newsome was the first woman to climb a flagpole and take down the Confederate flag in South Carolina. She’s now exploring how national tensions and racial questions play in her hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina.

“Baartman, Beyonce’ & Me,” directed by Natalie Bullock Brown: For years filmmaker Brown lived in anti-Black hell, rejecting the flatness of her nose, the fullness of her lips, the kinkiness of her hair and the size of her behind. This is her first-person exploration of the white beauty standard, and its historical and social impact on Black women and girls.

“Alive in Detroit,” directed by Shiraz Ahmed: Filmmaker Ahmed, 29, searches for inspiration by documenting patients at Detroit’s free health clinics, and begins questioning whether the city’s “revitalization” is just masking an ever-deepening racial and socioeconomic tension.

“Baartman, Beyonce’ & Me,”

SATURDAY, OCT. 24 (10 a.m.-9 p.m.)

Detroit Free Press Opinion columnist Nancy Kaffer
Aubrey Hirsch
Atieno Nyar Kasagam
Courtney Wise Randolph

10 a.m.-noon: Writing Through Crisis

This segment will examine first-person writing in a variety of approaches for a variety of media: film, blog, print, radio and illustrated comics. Director-writer Atieno Nyar Kasagam will read from her blog detailing her home-birth story on a Detroit urban farm. Award-winning Detroit Free Press opinion columnist Nancy Kaffer will speak about using personal stories as a prism for pieces about larger social currents. WDET’s Courtney Wise Randolph will offer insight on writing for the radio, and writer/illustrator Aubrey Hirsch will address how she juxtaposes words and images. All will share their best practices for finding their voice and getting creatively centered in the midst of crisis. This will be followed by a free-form, four-way conversation where they get a chance to reflect on what they have learned and heard. And that will be followed by breakout groups, each one led by one of the writers.

Noon-2 p.m.: Workshop break and working time

This two-hour break will allow participants to reflect on what they have learned, think about how to apply it to their work, or even develop a new idea to present to the group. They’ll also have the chance to get feedback on their works-in-progress from Judith Helfand.

2:4:30 p.m.: Presentations and feedback

Participants will present their workshop ideas. They’ll get feedback from experts who presented at the conference and representatives from the workshop’s partner organizations.

4:45-5 p.m.: Closing remarks

Workshop curator Judith Helfand will provide general reflections on the event The focus will be on how attendees can take what they’ve learned home to use in their own first-person storytelling and/or how to harness the power of “I” to strengthen and gird the “We” in times of extreme crisis and colliding pandemics.

5-6 p.m.: Workshop break

6-8 p.m.: Public film screening: “Strong Island,” directed by Yance Ford

This Oscar-nominated documentary from director Yance Ford explores how Ford’s family was shaped by the enduring shadow of race in America. It asks what one can do when hit with historical injustice, and how one grapples with the complicity of silence, which can bind a family in an imitation of life, and a nation with a false sense of justice.

Co-presented by Detroit Narrative Agency.

This screening is open to the general public. But reservations are required, and tickets are limited. Registration for the film includes admission to the post-film discussion. Register using the button near the top of this page.

"Strong Island"
Yance Ford
Liz Kennedy

7:50-8:30 p.m.: Public session: Q&A with “Strong Island” director Yance Ford

“Power of ‘I’ ” curator Judith Helfand and “Strong Island” director Yance Ford will talk about the process of finding a film’s voice and its form. They’ll also discuss the relationship between the film’s final structure and Ford’s vision for advocacy, fighting racism and battling for change within the criminal justice system.

Joining Helfand and Ford will be Liz Kennedy, program coordinator for the Detroit-based Allied Media Conference, as well as a storyteller and activist. Kennedy is a Black liberationist, and believes in healing justice and defunding/reforming the legal system as we know it.

Co-presented by Detroit Narrative Agency.