Karen Day has done everything from war-zone reporting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Rwanda, and more to co-authoring a book (Seal: The Unspoken Sacrifice) to raising four children. She turned her attention to feature filmmaking with 2014’s Girl from God’s Country — a documentary about pioneering female filmmaker Nell Shipman. Now, with Bamboo and Barbed Wire, she explores the parallels between Japanese American internment during World War II and our current political climate and attitude toward refugees. We spoke with her about her latest film at the 5th annual Bentonville Film Festival.
Betsy Bozdech: Tell me a little bit about the film.
Karen Day: It’s a story of a 17-year-old Syrian refugee girl and her dream to become a doctor here in America and how the political climate now is so very similar to the lives related by Japanese American survivors of the internment during World War II.
Betsy Bozdech: Who’s featured in the documentary in addition to the 17-year-old Syrian girl?
Karen Day: George Takei does the voiceover and is a huge advocate of social justice and very vocal about the Japanese American internment. And also Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal icon.
Betsy Bozdech: RBG! What are your goals for the film?
Karen Day: My goal would be for every single American to see it, I would say starting in high school. I think it’s a bit long, at 84 minutes, for middle school. But I think that there is a message here — this is an American story that isn’t often told. And I also think it’s a hopeful story, even though, you know, it’s an ugly part of history and we’re trying not to repeat it. That’s why I love the Syrian girl. She embodies our ideals for American democracy and the American dream. And a lot of us are disenchanted with America right now.
Betsy Bozdech: To say the least. What do you think are some hurdles that female filmmakers have to overcome?
Karen Day: My previous documentary, Girl from God’s Country, is about the history of women in Hollywood. And so I’m intimately aware of the gender bias that is really just inherent in the architecture of Hollywood. I’m an independent female filmmaker. I use a female crew by choice. And that’s a big challenge — to find enough women. … But my biggest challenge is financing as an independent filmmaker. And crowdfunding changed everything. It really did — it’s gender neutral. But right now the biggest challenges for female filmmakers, I think, are just getting distribution and getting recognition when you’re working outside of the system.
Betsy Bozdech: Is there any woman or group of women that you think should have their story told on screen who haven’t?
Karen Day: Oh, we could go on and on. I just met the producer who worked on Be Natural and is now working on an Ida Lupino documentary. So her story is going to be told. It’s funny, I never know where the next untold story’s going to come from, because that’s the point! Nobody knows. I didn’t know I was going to tell this one. My whole purpose in journalism or filmmaking is to give voice to people who don’t have one. Right now, I’m working in rural parts of the Third World on three different continents, looking at women who are dying of preventable deaths from childbirth. So another great story.
Betsy Bozdech: Do you feel that female directors approach projects differently than male directors do?
Karen Day: Absolutely. I can speak for myself, but I know many female filmmakers — I’ve been here [at Bentonville] three times since the inaugural one — and have met many more in the last five years. They’ve been inspired. The big question in [Girl from God’s Country] was, if these women could do it 100 years ago with crank cameras — writing, producing, acting, and distributing by walking down 14th St. in New York — if they could do it 100 years ago, then don’t accept excuses now. Just do it. We have so much facility with digital filmmaking, and there are new streaming platforms every other day. I do think there’s room for disruption in the industry. I just keep wondering how it’s going to happen because the mega distributors still are holding tight to that power structure. And audiences are still drawn to formulaic stories. They’re comfortable with that. But I think that different streaming platforms are starting to help people break away from that.
Betsy Bozdech: I think when you’re served up other choices, you sometimes start to look outside of your comfort zone. That’s a good thing, right? You even hear about people spending an hour surfing Netflix and still choosing nothing to watch.
Karen Day: Right. But that’s because of the psychology — if you give them too many choices, they can’t choose anything.
Betsy Bozdech: Who’s your favorite female filmmaker besides yourself?
Karen Day: Kathryn Bigelow. And she makes feature films, fiction, but she does her homework. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Third World as a war zone journalist, and The Hurt Locker, was, for women directors, a revelation. And you know what she says? I’ve interviewed her. She doesn’t want to be called a female director. She wants to be called a director. She’s beyond the affirmative action of gender. She’s like, “let my work speak for me, instead of my gender.”
Betsy Bozdech: Anything else you want to say about the movie or your film or your time here at Bentonville?
Karen Day: I’m really grateful for anybody who takes the time to watch the film — 84 minutes out of their life — and express their opinion, no matter what it is. All coverage is good coverage, right?