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The Define American Film Festival Runs On Empathy

Movies just might help Americans see each other more clearly

I was standing on a rooftop in Amman, Jordan, listening to a Syrian refugee named Firas read a letter to his infant son. Firas explained that while the Syrian civil war would always be a part of his people's history, it would not define his family’s future. He continued speaking as everything faded to black and I was transported through the remains of a bombed neighborhood in Aleppo, hovering above a checkpoint for refugees. I was shown the barbershop in Amman where Firas, who was a lawyer back in Syria, now cuts hair to make ends meet. His words reminded all of us listening that refugees' identities are informed by far more than having been displaced by war.

The credits began to roll and I took off the Virtual Reality headset. I was speechless. This film, For My Son, was one of three short VR documentaries about Syrian refugees presented by RYOT, which uses immersive media like VR to explore social issues, as a special addition to the second annual three-day Define American Film Festival in Charlotte, North Carolina.

DAFF was founded by journalist and director of the MTV documentary White People Jose Antonio Vargas. Last held in Des Moines shortly before the Iowa Caucus, the festival curates a selection of movies that are written, directed by, and feature marginalized people whose perspectives are rarely given an audience. Organizers were thoughtful about the location, too: The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture represents the epicenter of Charlotte’s thriving black community, initially driven out of what is now known as uptown Charlotte in the 1960s by urban renewal and backlash from desegregation. The city was also the site of protests last fall centering on the killing of Keith Lamont Scott and the systemic violence of local police.

Gantt Center president David Taylor told MTV News, “People had enough and they spoke up. The uprising was ultimately about healing. People really thinking about a collective community is what Charlotte wants to be. This [festival] becomes an avenue to have those conversations and those moments of healing.” Taylor and the staff of the Gantt Center believe that art can help people grasp the history upon which society's problems are built, and envision a future in which those conflicts can be resolved.

Vargas told the crowd gathered at the festival that when people look at the intersections of oppression, they can then see the larger context of conflicts in places like Charlotte. Then, in turn, those communities can start to heal. “I have been very intrigued in really connecting the dots between immigrant rights and the movement for black lives, especially with Black Lives Matter,” he said, “so we thought having it at the Gantt Center would make [DAFF] really intentional.”

That philosophy was reflected in the movies DAFF chose to screen. Am I: Too African to Be American or Too American to Be African?, the debut film of director Nadia Marie Sasso, examines the bicultural identities of West African women living in America. The movie moves between multiple cultures in its narrative, making sure that an understanding of these different experiences isn't lost in translation. Film as a medium helps audiences overcome barriers of language and culture, according to Sasso. As she told MTV News after a panel following the screening, “Everyone can read a visual story. I think it's important that we speak in a language that everyone can understand so that we can all be a part of the conversation.” Artist and entrepreneur Desirée Venn Frederic, who was on the panel with Sasso, advised that people hearing the narratives of undocumented African immigrants for the first time should “take ownership of these stories. Apply the same care and empathy that you would if they were your own.”

Indeed, empathy forms the heart of DAFF. Throughout the festival, organizers and a few attendees repeatedly referenced a famous quote from iconic film critic Roger Ebert. When he was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005, Ebert said, “Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else's life for a while. I can walk in somebody else's shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.”

DAFF took its audience down several of those paths. The film Dolores carried festivalgoers back to the labor rights movement of California farm workers in the 1950s and ’60s. Dolores Huerta herself was present as a panelist, offering ideas for organizing against regressive politics in North Carolina. Residente took viewers around the world as Puerto Rican musician René Pérez Joglar traced his genetic heritage and then composed original music inspired by the cultures he visited. The documentary Meet the Patels raised uncomfortable questions about the conflicts between American ideas of finding love and some Indian marriage traditions. Forbidden shared the personal story of Moises Serrano, who came out as undocumented and gay to become an activist and fight for the rights and dignity of his communities. Even whiteness was up for discussion with the screening of White People.

But the premiere screening of Entre Nosotras was perhaps the defining example of the film festival’s message about the power of empathy. Produced by DAFF, the short documentary is named for a trans Latina support group that is also the focus of the film. Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, the members of this group regularly come together to lift each other up through their shared experiences of being transgender immigrants in a state that isn't always welcoming to who they are. But the story isn't only about struggle; it's about thriving and finding joy. At DAFF, they were celebrated as special guests and met with cheers from the crowd. Because they were able to share their stories, these women were elevated as everyday heroes right in the state they call home.

Not every film was received well by every audience member. Meet the Patels led to discussions of how patriarchy operates in different cultures. Some attendees claimed the film took too much of a lighthearted approach to a system in which women have traditionally had no say on whom they marry. Any examination of racial privilege is controversial, and White People sparked frustration both from people who think the movie is unfair to its titular subjects and those who question how issues of white privilege should be addressed.

DAFF’s vision is ambitious. Filmmakers, activists, and spectators from across the country were asked to talk about some of the toughest issues facing our country — all while centering folks often pushed to the periphery of these conversations. Rather than shying away from complexity, the festival steers participants into discomfort and controversy, with genuine curiosity about what those who often go unheard have to say.

All of these movies continue, or even start, nuanced conversations about what it means to be American. We should all be so inquisitive as to seek out the stories that aren't being told, and be brave enough to tell our own stories with sincerity. Together those traits can carry us all the way from the home of a Syrian father living as a refugee to a hair salon owned by a trans Latina in North Carolina, to those distant places where we can best witness each other's humanity. Once we feel the empathy these experiences demand, we can ask ourselves to do more to define America, and the world, as a place where all of our stories have happy endings.