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Interview with Vanessa Roth

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VANESSA ROTH’s documentaries have been seen worldwide and have won the highest honors in documentary filmmaking. With national outreach campaigns as part of all her films, the films themselves have served as catalysts for progressive social change. Her first film, the PBS prime time special Taken In: The Lives of America's Foster Children, won numerous honors including the coveted DuPont- Columbia Award. Roth's next film, Close to Home, premiered in competition at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, was highlighted on Oprah and made its national broadcast on the Discovery Health Channel. Roth co-produced and co-directed the PBS special, Aging Out, which was honored with many awards including the Cine Golden Eagle and a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. She then produced the 2007 Sundance Special Jury prize winning short, Freeheld.

Tribeca Film Festival: What is your film about? What is the take-home message?

Vanessa Roth: The Third Monday in October is about twelve-year-olds running for president of their middle school student councils. And we filmed it during the 2004 elections, so it’s sort of about national politics and kid politics at the same time. It’s about democracy, it’s about voting. It’s also about how different kids are raised…I wish I had sort of a three-word thing about what it was about, but I think it’s about a lot of things.  It’s about being 13 in America right now, but it’s also a film for adults because it’s a film that shows the impact that we have on kids, and how they get their belief systems and what they believe in. I think it makes us question our own system of democracy.


And it’s also about families; it’s about families communicating with each other. And I think more than anything, I guess it’s really about participating, whether it’s in school, or in your community. It’s not pedantic, and it’s not challenging, it’s not hard to watch—it’s fun to watch. You can have a good time watching it and then still leave and have a conversation about it.


Tribeca Film Festival: Why did you decide to tell this story?

Roth: I was really curious about that age of 13, which is really that beginning of searching for your identity. And in a time when our country was so divided politically, how was that effecting kids? Were they getting a political sense of themselves at that time? And I thought about student councils. It’s sort of a silly thing, but it’s something we all either remember running for or we knew somebody who did. It was a way in to understanding democracy and voting.


Tribeca Film Festival: Were you surprised by anything?

Roth: One of the things that I loved about making the film was just the kids themselves, and how articulate they mostly were and how much they wanted to be a part of things and wanted to make a difference. I was surprised about how politically active some of the kids were and how politically aware they were at 13 years old. That was really great to see.



Tribeca Film Festival: Tell me a little bit about your background.

Roth: My dad’s a screenwriter, and I grew up around the process of creating stories. And I just loved that he got to invent things all day, and tell stories. So I was always drawn to that, and always knew I wanted to be creative. But I also always was sort of drawn to social issues. And so documentaries have always been a great way of doing both.

I actually went to graduate school in social work and law knowing that I wanted to make films or I wanted to write, but with some sort of social bent. And while I was at grad school I met a family that was in the foster care system, and I was really drawn to that topic because I was seeing a system that was so overwhelmed and seeing kids that were being kind of pushed around all these different places but didn’t really have a voice in their lives. 


So I became really interested in doing something that gave kids a voice in their own lives, and thought that through a documentary I could do that.  And so that was my first film, called Taken In. I’ve done four other films that are child welfare-related and have been funded by foundations and corporations, and have gone on to film festivals and PBS or Discovery. 


There’s always been a big outreach component to my films. The making of them are really great and having them go on television is great, but also for them to be used as a tool to change legislation if possible, or just to make people more aware of things. And I love making films about kids; I loved that time in life and I love talking to kids who are 13 because they’re really starting to discover themselves and how they see the world and how the world impacts them. All my films actually have all focused on young people and their voices and that’s what I hope to continue doing.


Tribeca Film Festival: Talk about the relationship between the students and the teachers

Roth: I’m always really fascinated by how kids and adults interact with each other, and how much kids get from the adults in their lives and how much the adults in their lives sort of plant things in the kids. And in this film it was great because we got to see both kids with their families and kids with teachers.


All the families had different routines with how they eat dinner together, or how they support each other, and we loved watching those differences. There’s Nick, one of the kids in San Francisco, whose parents both work two jobs each. So he eats alone a lot, or he’s at home a lot alone, and you can see that he really has to figure out his way in the world by himself. But on the other hand, he also has his parents as models of working hard, and he talks about America being this land of opportunity because that’s what his parents have said to him. They work really hard.


But he doesn’t have the kind of time that another family, like we have in Austin, who spends their time together sort of philosophizing about politics. And they have the time to talk about that, and have those conversations. And then we have a family in Atlanta—a single mom and her daughter. And they’re very political, and her mom is very on top of her all the time about being aware of issues. I love the differences in how families communicate that way. 


And then at the schools, what I find really interesting in the film is that the teachers have such a pivotal role in kids’ lives in terms of inspiring them to do stuff or just bursting their bubble about things. Kids’ egos are fragile when they’re 13, and they’re willing to push certain boundaries but as soon as those boundaries are questioned they’ll very quickly go into a shell. And I don’t know if they can come back out of that on the social level at school. 


Tribeca Film Festival: Can you talk about the different kids’ motivations?

Roth: I think all the kids that run for student council are very brave, either because their friends support them or their parents support them or they just have a certain sense of themselves that’s very unique.


And the film shows some kids who do it as a performance opportunity and some people who do it as a joke, and some people who use their friends, and some people who use it as a serious chance to talk. And that’s also great, too—there’s a girl in Atlanta who’s so articulate and strong, and she does her speech in this way that’s just sort of mind-blowing. She could be a stronger politician than many adults that I see.


Again, the film talks how adults vote for things, and how kids take that in. One of the dads in the film says to his kid right before he gives his speech, ‘remember son, it’s not what you say it’s how you say it that matters.’ And I find that sort of troubling, not necessarily on the student-council level but I think that it actually means more than that. Nationally, with politics and with issues, we’re swayed by how things look and not necessarily the substance behind it. And that’s definitely something that’s shown throughout the film.


Tribeca Film Festival: What three pieces of advice would you give to a documentary filmmaker?

Roth: I think if you want to make a documentary—to really be committed to the topic—it takes days, months, years, sometimes to follow what you want to follow. And often the story you think you’re going to tell is not the story you end up telling, and so I think that you just have to have a lot of patience and determination.


I also feel like you should surround yourself with people who know more than you do, whether it’s technical or about the issue. Find someone that can help you with the vision of the topic or the access to the people. 


Depending on the subject of your documentary, it’s really about establishing a real relationship with the people that you’re making the film about. Again it depends what your agenda is for doing it, but I think that the better films are made when the filmmaker really understands their subject and the person that’s in their film can collaborate with them.


Tribeca Film Festival: Do you have a favorite moment in the film?

Roth: There’s one girl Katie, who talks about running because she thinks she’ll get a lot of votes because of the way she looks and she thinks it’s not fair. But she still says, ‘that’s the way it goes’. I love how candid that is. A lot of people are offended by it and then some people say ‘she’s 13 and she knows the truth’. There’s a moment with Katie that I really love, where you sort of see her feeling out her politics and they’re not really popular with a lot of people in the audience. And I love the reaction from the audience at that moment. 


I love every moment with this boy Nick in San Francisco who’s just earnest. He really wants to just do good and he’s just so sweet and forever hopeful and wants to run for president when he grows up and he’s the one that says that America is the land of opportunity. He’s from the Philippines, and I love every moment with him; he sort of breaks my heart every moment.

And then there’s Sam from Austin, who is very political and so sure of all his feelings about everything. There’s one line he says, “Yeah, yeah, I’m pretty much known as a political dynamo. In American studies class, they always say ‘don’t get him started on Florida!’’’ And I just think that’s so funny for a 13 year old to be talking about that. 


Tribeca Film Festival: Talk about how you hope this film will be used in the upcoming election.

Roth: We would like to set up voter registration outside of where it’s playing. A lot of the kids that are in the film will be 18 in 2008 so we want to put a thing at the end of the film of those kids talking about their politics when they’re 18 and see how they’ve changed or what they’re thinking about. 


We’re talking about doing a big national outreach campaign as a way to get people to register to vote. They would meet together, show the film, and have it as a way to sort of inspire conversations about some of the issues that are raised in the film—about the progressive change in the way that we see voting in democracy and politics.


Tribeca Film Festival: So…inspiration for the film?

Roth: I was looking to do a film that was lighter than the films I had done before, but I really wanted to do something that still had something to say that could be interesting. And I was taking my daughter to school one day and they were having student council elections at her elementary school.


And they had all these posters up for these cute little quirky things, and these are kids in third grade, and I thought well the parents are putting those together, for sure. And I just started thinking ‘why does a kid decide to run for student council?’ And that same day that I saw the posters there were people outside the school registering to vote for the upcoming elections. This was like in the spring of 2004. 


Looking at the kids running for student council at school and looking at the adults outside of the school gate registering to vote, I was thinking how could we make a film that intersects those two worlds? And I thought that middle school student council elections could be a way to do that.  And one of our thoughts was ‘how different is the actual campaigning process? How different is it when you’re 13 to running for president of the United States?’ And it’s not that different.






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