Bentonville FF: Dawn Valadez on THE PUSHOUTS – Betsy Bozdech interviews

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As both a filmmaker and a social worker, Dawn Valadez has spent her career focusing on the experiences of young people of color. Those experiences are front and center in The Pushouts, which looks at how the system fails so many at-risk kids — but celebrates the mentors and decisions that can help disrupt the cycle. Valadez, who produced the film and co-directed it with Katie Galloway, (and previously co-directed Going on 13), was at the 5th annual Bentonville Film Festival to screen The Pushouts and talk about its mission of social justice.

Betsy Bozdech: Tell me a little bit about the film.

Dawn Valadez: The big story of the film is that young people, especially kids of color — Latino and black children — often are called “dropouts” when they’re actually in fact pushed out of school. And we follow the story of Victor Rios, who, by the time he was 15, was out of school, a gang member and had three felonies. He experiences a really horrible tragedy in his life. And it’s one of those pivotal points in his life that forces him to make a decision — he’s either going to commit a crime and do something horrible, or what? So he reaches out to one teacher that he had met who cared about him and to a mentor, and the two of them redirect him and help him get back into school and adjust his life, change his life. He’s now a leading expert on the school-to-prison pipeline. He’s a sociologist. He’s a professor at UC Santa Barbara. It’s an amazing story, but there are millions of people who are like, Victor, there are millions of kids out there who are like Victor. In the story, we also go into the current time, where he basically uses what he’s learned with young people in Watts. But we also have archival footage of him when he was 16, going through this transition, because he was in a film called “School Colors” that “Frontline” did [in 1994]. So we have this great weaving of his story. He wrote a book called “Street Life.” We use that as sort of the backbone of the film and have his personal story, his story with these kids and Watts, and then also his archival footage. It’s an intense story.

BB: What are your goals for the film?

DV: Director Katie Galloway and I really believe that public education is critical to our democracy and that every young person deserves a quality education. I’m a social worker, that’s where I started. And I’ve worked with young people forever. And, you know, I’ve never met a kid who didn’t want to have a high school diploma. I’ve never met anybody who didn’t want to have some kind of education. So I really feel that we have an obligation and responsibility in our society to educate everyone and that every child can learn — that there is a way to reach every single child. So that’s one part of it. The other part of it is that we want to stop criminalizing our young people. You know, often young people do absolutely nothing. It’s really based on their race or what town they’re in or what their income level is, and they’re criminalized. And so we hope the film not only humanizes the kids in the film, the black and Latino kids in the film, but it also really helps build a feeling like, “wait a second, this person actually has some potential or some spark” and that if we put the right resources into place, that we can actually reach them and maybe tap into that potential. And I believe that that’s really possible. I’m an abolitionist. I actually believe that the funds for our juvenile detention centers can be used in a better way that could actually help kids a lot better, help families a lot better than policing and criminalizing kids and putting them in jail.

BB: Switching gears slightly, do you feel that female filmmakers approach projects differently than male filmmakers?

DV: Oh, absolutely. I think we all have a different perspective. I mean, I’m Latina as well. I’m a Chicana. So I think, as a Chicana woman, I see the world through my lens. We all see the world through our lenses. And it doesn’t mean that one thing is better than the other, but it does mean that we should have equal access to being able to make films. This is a story about a man, and the way that Katie and I tell this story is specific to our female identity and having men in our lives and caring about the young men. We both have sons, we love our sons, and we have, we have a perspective as women, as mothers to our young men. So it’s different than if we were men. Absolutely. And I like the fact that there’s multiple perspectives. I’m not saying that men shouldn’t be making movies, I’m just saying give us a little bit of the pie, give us a piece of it. We have the right to have that as well.

BB: Are there any particular hurdles that you feel that female filmmakers face?

DV: I think raising money is really difficult, and I think it’s really difficult for women. I think that these independent films are very difficult to fund. And if you’re coming into it already not having resources, that just makes it that much more difficult. I think definitely women and women of color have a lot less money coming into films to begin with. Right? So they’re starting at, you know, a step back than men — than white men. And also just the access to people, you know? Part of making a film is like, “who do you know?” It’s not just money. It’s actually also the connections. It’s true in every field.

BB: That’s where privilege comes into it.

DV: Absolutely. Absolutely. And people take it for granted.

BB: Do you have any favorite female filmmakers?

DV: Oh my goodness. Yeah! Josefina Lopez, who did “Real Women Have Curves.” She’s a friend, but I didn’t become friends with her until after my first documentary came out. But I love her work. You know, there’s just some amazing work out there. I’m a member of the Brown Girls Doc Mafia and also the Film Fatales. So I have all these amazing women around me who are active current filmmakers.

Betsy Bozdech: I heard about the Film Fatales yesterday from Amy Goldstein.

DV: Awesome. We’re so cool. It’s an international organization that started in New York with people sitting around a table saying, “hey, let’s help each other make those connections.”

BB: Thank you so much!

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Betsy Bozdech

Betsy Bozdech is the Executive Editor of Common Sense, for which she also reviews films. Her film reviews and commentaries also appear on Reel.com and Hollywood.com.