Scribe explores oral history in 'Power Politics' series, funds emerging media makers - Generocity Philly

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Oct. 29, 2021 9:25 am

Scribe explores oral history in ‘Power Politics’ series, funds emerging media makers

The new monthly virtual series, highlighting Philadelphia’s Black and Latinx political power strategies and struggles from the postwar era through modern times, launches Friday evening, Oct. 29, at 7 p.m.

Still from Finding Elijah, a film by Yolonda Johnson-Young, which was funded by Scribe.

(Courtesy photo)

Last year, Louis Massiah, who founded the Scribe Video Center to embrace the artistry of film and its potential to ignite social change, wondered, as many creators did, how to continue his work amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

With rising case counts and mandated quarantines making filmmaking and interviews unsafe, if not impossible, Massiah sought ways to keep moving forward while the world was on pause. And then one day, he realized that Scribe had 40 years of interviews with Philadelphia’s — and the nation’s — most extraordinary people sitting in its archives.

So Scribe launched what it called Archival Revival, dusting off unused interviews from old documentaries with some genuine legends, including W. E. B DuBois’ granddaughter Dr. DuBois Williams Irvin, Queen Mother Estelle James of Marcus Garvey‘s Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities’ League, and former Howard University chief librarian Dorothy Porter Wesley, among many others. Under the direction of line producer and editor Dallas Taylor, Archival Revival goes out on Scribe’s West Philadelphia radio station, WPEB, and is made available for podcasts too.

“Fundamentally, I look at culture, and I include filmmaking and documentary storytelling as part as culture, as really a tool how to help society really to function better,” Massiah said. “How can we use documentary filmmaking as a tool for working for something better in this society?”

Last month, the nonprofit Scribe Video Center announced a new slate of recipients for the long-running Philadelphia Independent Media Fund, a grant program that awards media makers from the region the necessary funds to begin, finish, or level up their creative work. The fund supports a robust and connected film community throughout the Philadelphia region and not only helps to promote the completion of their work but also helps to put that work in front of audiences.

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According to Massiah, while the city’s filmmakers may not create movies for commercial purposes, even though many have produced works for network television, streaming services, and big studios, they make transformative art that allows communities to tell their stories.

And bold stories are also what’s behind Scribe’s new “Power Politics” oral history project, a new monthly virtual series highlighting Philadelphia’s Black and Latinx political power strategies and struggles from the postwar era through modern times. The project, which includes 32 interviews over 52 hours, launches Friday evening, Oct. 29, at 7 p.m.

“We came up with this idea of just really doing oral histories with people that have been involved in struggles and strategies for Black and Latinx political empowerment,” Massiah said. “And the idea was that you sort of begin to foster through that intergenerational dialogue, to train college students from area schools, as well as upper-level high school students in oral history techniques.”

Last year, the program began in conversation with several area journalists, including the late Heshimu Jaramogi, the former president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists who died right before the pandemic. “Power Politics” soon blossomed into a bold collaboration between college-aged and high school oral history interviewers and a group of journalist mentors such as Barbara Grant, Karen Warrington, Linn Washington, and Massiah himself. Benji de la Piedra, an oral historian by training, guided the effort with coordination by Taylor.

One of the things Massiah found most intriguing throughout the course of the project was how political power, especially when influenced by money, shifted the balance of social responsibility within African American and Latinx communities.

For example, becoming the first Black mayor of Philadelphia makes one the mayor of all Philadelphians — an inherently positive thing, Massiah said. But it’s a dynamic, complex political shift that can leave Black or Latinx communities questioning whether or not their interests are being served enough.

In other words, with anything gained, there is something lost.

“Look at certain sections of the city that had been highly segregated, let’s say in the 1950s, but also were more diverse class-wise,” Massiah said. “They had, sort of, very wealthy African Americans, and working-class African-Americans, and middle-class African Americans, and poor African Americans. And then suddenly, as people are able to move to other neighborhoods, it becomes more of a poor area or a poor and working-class area.”

The “Power Politics” series kicks off on Scribe’s Crowdcast and Zoom platforms with interview excerpts featuring Cecily Moore Banks, daughter of Philadelphia attorney and political stalwart Cecil B. Moore, along with oral histories from Shirley Dennis and Bilal Qayyum. On Nov. 23, the program will air conversations with Paula Peebles, the national president of the National Alumni Association of the Black Panther Party.

And although the pandemic is far from over, Scribe Video Center continues with its mission to help Philadelphia media makers develop their craft.

The Independent Media Fund supported the development or completion of 16 new digital media works during its last round of funding, divided into three categories — planning award grants, finishing award grants, and next-level award grants.

Part of the brilliance of the fund, which Scribe administers with the Wyncote Foundation, having taken over such duties from the now-defunct Philadelphia Independent Film and Video Association, is its support for new and emerging media makers.

According to Alexia Chororos, managing director at Scribe, most grants go to established filmmakers, making the Independent Media Fund unique in its mission.

“We have people like Yolanda Johnson-Young, I would say, with her film ‘Finding Elijah’ — she had never made a film before, never done film,” Chororos said. “[She] just had this really beautiful story to tell about the loss of her son and went on to get this grant.”

Overall, Scribe Video Center continues to push forward, even at it takes the occasional look at the past.

Perhaps most importantly, it remains a transformative space for Philadelphia’s media makers, not only supporting the completion of their films but ensuring that audiences across the country hear the stories of the city’s communities and enclaves.

“Over the years, it’s some wonderful works, Massiah said. “Two years ago, we supported a film that actually was [shortlisted] last year for an Academy Award. Barbara Attie, Mike Attie, and Janet Goldwater made it.”

“We’re quite pleased that people — not only do they apply, not only do they get granted, but they finish the work, and it’s good,” he continued.

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Registration for Power Politics screenings and presentations at Scribe can be made at: https://www.scribe.org/events/power-politics-screening-and-speaker-series. For more information about Power Politics, contact dallas@scribe.org or visit www.scribe.org.   

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