Chanda Chevannes on Making UNFRACTURED, Activism and Refusing to ‘Play the Part’

0 Flares 0 Flares ×

On a chilly November evening in 2014, I was sitting in a rental car outside the county jail in Watkins Glen, New York. My video camera was turned on, and resting in my lap. I had already set my white balance, exposure, and focal length. And since I had nothing to do but sit in the dark parking lot and wait, a steady stream of thoughts began to run through my mind. Or, more accurately, one thought raced around in there:

Why am I doing this to myself?

CHANDRA HEADIn the four years it took me to make my new feature documentary, I asked myself that question over and over again. You see, my work focuses on the lives of ordinary women and their fights for equity, justice, and public health. And while I see myself as someone who seeks out perspectives that are hidden from public view, until I began working on UNFRACTURED, I had never felt like I was taking any real risks by pointing my camera into the private corners of women’s lives.

But now I was staking out a jail. I was waiting with a camera in a dark parking lot to capture a moment that those in power didn’t want me to capture. I was waiting for two sheriff’s deputies and two prisoners to arrive from Elmira, New York. My main character, biologist and mother Sandra Steingraber, was one of the prisoners. Sandra and ten of her neighbors had been arrested for blockading a gas storage site in an act of civil disobedience. Four of the arrestees—two men and two women—had opted for jail, rather than paying the fines for trespassing.

CHANDRA JAILTonight, Sandra and fellow activist Colleen Boland were being transferred from the women’s jail in another county where they had served their sentences, in anticipation of a midnight release from custody. This would be my one and only chance to get a shot of them in their orange jumpsuits and shackles.

And yet, when I saw the van slowly enter the parking lot, I froze. I had prepared myself for this exact moment, it would be a key beat in the film, and I only had seconds to get the shot. But all I wanted to do was pretend I wasn’t there. This was not an unfamiliar feeling. It had been happening throughout the making of the film. When Sandra and her fellow activists were blockading, I was always looking over my shoulder for the police cars. When these same activists were appearing before the judge, I was literally shaking with fear while filming through the courthouse windows. And when Sandra was approaching a drill rig in Romania with a group of local activists and the police pepper sprayed the crowd, I literally ran in the other direction.


Part of this is just an innate aspect of my personality: I am afraid of conflict. I ignore it, hide from it, and even run away from it. But there was something else going on. I am a woman, a person of color, and—maybe most tellingly—a Canadian. Society’s expectation of me and those who share these same identities is that we will be deferential to—and somewhat fearful of—authority.

I have learned the part well. I have played it faithfully my entire life. I follow the rules. I toe the line. I believe in respecting those in positions of power. But, let’s face it, as a documentary director, my job requires me to step into moments of conflict and to document them. And it’s not a job that was thrust upon me. It’s a job that I dreamed of doing, a job that I chased down, a job that I boldly made for myself when no one would hire me to do it. And this job that I love so dearly requires me to stir up controversy and debate with my work. It requires me to shine a light on authority, to question those in power, and to sometimes step out of line.


But here’s the where my art imitates my main character’s life: Sandra was also forcing herself to act in ways that went against her own personality and the role that society expected her to play—and that she sometimes expected of herself. This is what drew me to make UNFRACTURED in the first place. Sandra is introspective by nature. Like me, she prefers to avoid conflict. And, as a biologist, she has always wanted to present the science and let the evidence speak for itself. But when the gas industry denied the science and threatened to begin fracking in her home state of New York, she forced herself to dig deep and push past the boundaries of the person she thought she was. And when a gas company wanted to use the caverns under a local lake for the storage of fracked gases, Sandra went further. She risked arrest. She pleaded guilty. She went to jail. She defied authority at every turn. And even now that the film is complete, it’s still fascinating for me to watch Sandra on screen as she pushes herself past her comfort zone. It’s emboldening to know what we can accomplish when we force ourselves to be brave.

So, after hesitating, I did indeed push the record button on my camera. I left the protection of my car, stepped out into the empty parking lot, held the camera steady, and walked toward the chained prisoners and the armed officers. With the single-minded purpose of documenting a scene that those officers did not want my camera to capture, I planted my feet firmly on the concrete. And, as I stood there filming silently, I felt small, alone, and insignificant. In objective reality, all those things were true. There I was: my 5’3” silhouette standing all by itself—a crew comprised of one relatively unknown Canadian woman of color—outside a county jailhouse in the dead of the night. But, while I might have been small, alone, and insignificant, I knew that the film that I was making was none of those things. In that moment, I felt the power and responsibility of my work.


And it was then that I also found the answer to my question of why I was forcing myself to film that scene. Because it’s what I needed to do to tell the story I wanted to tell. Because it went against society’s expectations of me. Because it was personally challenging and creatively fulfilling. Because this simple act of defiance represents everything I want to be—as a filmmaker and as a woman. And because I believe that these are the kinds of risks we need to be taking right now. All of us.

chandra head smallChanda Chevannes is a Canadian filmmaker, writer and educator. Her documentaries aim to address complex social issues in an artistic way. Chanda’s first feature-length film, Living Downstream, won several awards (including a Gracie for Outstanding Documentary from the Alliance for Women in Media Foundation), screened publicly over 200 times, and was broadcast on six continents. Previously, while living in sub-Saharan Africa, Chanda created educational films on gender-based violence. Thousands of grassroots organizations are using these films, which have contributed to tangible social change. Chanda’s writing includes a column for Troy Media, screening guides for her films, and two blogs for the NFB’s CitizenSHIFT website. She is a graduate of Sheridan College’s Media Arts Program and an instructor at Centennial College’s Story Arts Centre.

0 Flares Twitter 0 Facebook 0 0 Flares ×
explore: | | |