Walker Art Center

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Voices Seen and Heard

By Joanna Kohler

Public engagement, access, and community storytelling are the major reasons I found myself attracted to documentary filmmaking. With my first documentary, Witness, I saw the need for exhibition venues that are open to young people and that could host community conversations. This is when, in 1999, I first experienced the Walker and the Girls in the Director’s Chair program. In March 2007, I premiered my latest documentary, BOXERS, off-site at the production location in Northeast Minneapolis as part of the Walker’s Women with Vision Film Festival. The Walker continues to be a collaborative partner in my journey as a filmmaker.

As a teen, I was involved in programs for runaway and homeless youths throughout the Twin Cities. I eventually became involved in youth development initiatives and community education and political efforts to gain youth voice in federal policy. During this process, I became increasingly aware that the passion and realities of people’s lives outside of the mainstream were easily co-opted and misunderstood by both the public and those invested in helping. As a young person, my voice was often being taken from me as adults spoke about the needs and experiences of youths. It was at this point that Kris Sorensen, now the director of In Progress, came into a youth center to teach a group of us about videomaking. I was 17.

I lit up as I played with the camera and began to frame shots and form story ideas. I loved the power a camera offered to document an event. I began to frame stories faster than I could have spoken them. I explored the power of an image to say more than is possible with a thousand words. I could feel the camera teaching me about life, people, and the multiple realties that exist in an experience, depending on what someone brings to it. At 19, I completed Witness, a story about my experience of challenging the adults I had worked with about co-opting my voice. When I approached people about screening the film, the controversy behind it stopped many from even looking at it. Two venues chose to present it—Witness premiered at Girls in the Director’s Chair and, one week later, screened to a packed house at Intermedia Arts. Following the screening, an audience conversation took place about the film’s content.

Filmmaking and art offer unique opportunities for community storytelling when traditional channels are closed or the subject is unpopular or in conflict with another version of the story. When filmmaking and art are used this way, a delicate power is placed in the hands of the exhibitor to facilitate a space for both the voice of the artist and the needs of the community. Youth media often poses this challenge because young people are likely to look around and question what they are seeing. More adults are inviting young people to use media to tell their story, but it would be unfair to these artists if it didn’t occur hand in hand with efforts to create exhibition opportunities for their work. Without this, an artist either develops in isolation or not at all. Young women and girls who are filmmakers need the same opportunities I need as an adult woman filmmaker—to test a story with an audience in the hope of bringing the often untold realities of women to the big screen.

Filmmaking is a collaborative effort. The audience is in participation with a filmmaker the moment people sit to watch a film. The filmmaker has an investment in nurturing and responding to this relationship. The craft, art, and technical aspects of filmmaking are all challenged to advance further when works are screened in public. For Twin Cities youth, Girls in the Director’s Chair is vital to this development. It is my hope that Girls in the Director’s Chair filmmakers and audiences recognize that their participation encourages and inspires women filmmakers to continue growing and allows diverse community stories to reach the public consciousness.

Joanna Kohler
Documentary filmmaker


Directed by Joanna Kohler, 2006