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Outstanding Alumni: Miri Navasky

Posted by Rachel Reda on August 31, 2015

A School for Children alum (’82), Miri Navasky has produced numerous groundbreaking documentaries with her co-producer Karen O’Connor for PBS FRONTLINE, the esteemed public affairs series. Many of her films have won awards including The Undertaking (2007) which won an Emmy Award for Best Arts and Cultural Documentary, The New Asylums (2005) won the Robert F. Kennedy Grand Prize Journalism Award, and The Miri NavaskyKiller at Thurston High won the Banff Award in 2000 for best social/political documentary. Miri’s most recent film for FRONTLINE is Growing Up Trans, a gripping portrait of transgender children and their families that premiered June of 2015. We sat down with Miri, the mother of three boys—two of whom currently attend SFC—to talk with her about her films and her experience at School for Children.

Your films almost exclusively grapple with tough issues like school shootings, assisted suicide, and incarceration. What—if anything—makes Growing Up Trans different from your past work?

Yes. Most of our films have focused on what many would say are “darker” topics—mentally ill in prison, aging, death, and dying, so Growing Up Trans, especially with its focus on children, is clearly different in that sense. And, it just has a different feel to it. Karen and I made the decision to try and tell as much of the film as we could from the perspective of the kids, so their voices really drive much of the film. But in the big picture, I do think Growing Up Trans is more similar to our other films than it is different. Like our other films, it shows people as they face difficult, life-changing events and decisions. And in the end, it’s a journey inside a world that’s seldom seen or discussed and a world that, hopefully, becomes much more complex the more it's explored.

What draws you to these difficult subjects?

Well, Karen and I don’t consciously go searching for “difficult” subjects. We like to explore worlds that are somewhat marginalized or hidden from public view—worlds that we think we know but realize very quickly that we don’t. We search for strong narratives that take viewers deep inside worlds that may seem foreign or strange or troubling at first but that turn out to be widely relevant and relatable. Ultimately, I think we always end up searching for territory that is in some way universal. But we try to make films that are complicated and unexpected. This seems trite to say, but I do think we’re also interested in stories that have no easy answers.  We like to take on difficult subjects and look at them from multiple perspectives. In all honesty, when Karen and I start having big arguments about the film, and start swinging back and forth ourselves, that’s when I know we’re onto something.

You said you search for “universal territory”—what’s the universal territory in Growing Up Trans?

Although the film focuses on transgender kids and their families, the film at its heart is about kids and parents and families. It’s about identity. It’s about being a kid and trying to figure out who you are. It’s about looking for a sense of belonging and struggling to feel whole. It’s also very much about parenting—about parenting a child who turns out different than you might have expected. And it’s about being a parent in the 21st century and all the difficult choices parents have to make, including increasingly complicated medical choices. Even the more specific aspect of the film, about gender, seems relevant to everybody. One of the reasons I was interested in doing this film is that as a parent of three boys, I think a lot about gender. From a young age, my kids developed a strong awareness of gender identity. How much of it is socialized and how much is innate? I still don’t know. I know when my kids hit kindergarten I was shocked by how gendered everything quickly became—even in my super progressive community (from what colors kids wear, to the new “friends” Legos, etc…) and even frankly, in my home. Honestly, as territory, I’m not sure there is anything more universal than gender. On a separate note, I’ve also been fascinated to watch schools really begin to tackle gender. It’s happening in both mundane and profound ways in schools across the country.  A diversity specialist we spoke with for our film, who is African-American and has spent a lifetime working on racial diversity in schools, told us that he’s finding that gender presents an even more fundamental challenge to schools.

Given the complexity of the issues and worlds you explore, do you feel it’s a challenge to do them justice?

Absolutely. It’s hard to convey all the nuances and subtleties in one hour, or even 90 minutes. Impossible, really. So much is left on the cutting room floor, so we really have to carefully choose what we include and what we leave out. One scene can make a huge difference. We always try to include as many different perspectives as we can. We tend to use subjects from our film as “guides” rather than outside experts, which I think helps. It also helps to confront our own prejudices. For example, when we started making a film called The New Asylums (about mentally ill prisoners), I went in assuming that the prison guards were a big part of the problem and that the story would be told primarily from the inmates point of view. But what we found was a situation that was far more complex. In most cases, the guards were trying to do well, but were completely overwhelmed and ill-equipped to handle this growing population. The guards themselves quickly became as prominent in the film as the inmates we were profiling.

Do you think the School for Children played a role in your choice of career and in what kinds of films you make?

It must have. I spent ten years at Bank Street, and they were probably the most formative years of my life. I grew up working collaboratively on almost every project I undertook, from dioramas to rod buildings that stretched the length of the second floor to learning how to count at the fruit market. In the end, I really couldn’t have picked a more collaborative field and I’m sure SFC had something to do with that. Filmmaking is all about coming together to challenge, learn and create, and that’s Bank Street in a nutshell. Also, I think my desire to try to see issues from different perspectives stems pretty directly from my education at Bank Street, where that’s one of the core parts of its mission. As is social justice, and that obviously had a major impact on the subject of the films I choose to make. Finally, and probably most significantly, there’s Bank Street’s emphasis on in-depth inquiry, where observation leads to questioning and more questioning and deeper questioning... My sons go to SFC now, and I’m watching them become increasingly inquisitive about the world around them. It started when they were studying neighborhoods and our own community—our walk to school in the mornings just changed—they noticed everything. The social studies curriculum that every class has—the Hudson River, Egypt etc… that’s obviously good preparation for becoming a documentary filmmaker, especially for Frontline, one of the few places that allows you to spend a year or more delving into a single topic. It’s like going to Bank Street forever.

When and how did you get your start in filmmaking? Was it always something that interested you, or was it an interest born out of other passions?

Honestly, my start in filmmaking was pretty random. Most of the jobs I had had before were social work of one kind or another (working with abused children, autistic kids, and battered women). But I was a history major in college and had been planning to continue to study history in one form or another (I loved doing research and going through old documents), but then I needed a job and got one answering phones at Frontline. I happened to be seated near June Cross, a producer who had particular interest in social justice. She was doing a film about the killing of two African-American kids in inner-city Boston (by another African-American kid). I was able to spend my days listening to her on the phone and watching her work. She would ask for my help occasionally with research, which really gave me my first chance to take part. Day after day, I saw how involved she became with all the families and the community and simultaneously how much she needed to know about the legal system and our juvenile justice laws. I watched her views on everything evolve. It was all so complicated. Anyway, it slowly hit me that it was the perfect mix of my interests: research and social work. I think that’s what first got me interested in actually making documentaries of my own. 

What would you say to a School for Children student or alumnus who might be interested in filmmaking?

My advice probably doesn’t mean much because I got into this field such a long time ago. It’s changed so much. With so many new platforms and new technologies, filmmaking is more accessible than ever before. People are making stunning documentaries with their iPhones. My inclination is to say, if you want be filmmaker, be a filmmaker. Go out and do it. Start with something that interests you and keep asking questions, and more questions and more questions. Do all the things that you learn at Bank Street: explore the world around you, make inquiries, try out ideas, go deep. Question-think, question-think, question-think…

*Interview by Sara Krolewski

tagged: film, filmmaker, growing up trans, miri navasky, outstanding alumni, pbs frontline, school for children alumni