Kathy Bisbee, Brookline Interactive Group’s newly appointed Executive Director, understands the profound impact history and an openness to change can have on us and on our communities. As a storyteller, Bisbee’s approach is rooted in a welcoming attitude toward adventure and personal growth through transition.
Although Bisbee is a California transplant to Brookline, she was raised in Western Maine. Bisbee reflects on her creative instinct that developed in childhood. “I really am at my core a storyteller that has a history with community organizing,” Bisbee says. She credits much of her creativity to her upbringing. Her mother was an English teacher and her father was a journalist. Bisbee has fond memories of the two collaborating in writing camps with the YMCA, and driving across the country when she was four years old. She remembers sitting on the engine of the family’s 70s Dodge van during the journey. Her parents were in their late 20’s. “I’m half-Yankee and half-southern Appalachian.” On her father’s side, she is a Mayflower descendant, and on her mother’s side there is a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Hearing these stories growing up was a major influence. “Everyone [has] these stories, they just may not know them,” Bisbee explains in terms of her filmmaking philosophy.
As a student, Bisbee didn’t jump into filmmaking right away. She studied journalism in Wyoming, where she was inspired to start her own progressive newspaper. Although her first real job was reporting on the Red Sox games in Maine, Bisbee was pulled toward community organizing. She worked for the public health activist organization U.S. PIRG. Eventually, community organizing took her westward to California. Bisbee says that her work alongside Latin American communities is similar to the filmmaking process. “I think solidarity is very important. You are not above or below… [just there] with your sleeves rolled up.” Through Global Exchange, Bisbee spent 25 days in Latin America, first working on a film dealing with sustainable coffee in Guatemala. From there, she went on to Cuba. “When you go to Cuba as a media person… you have to apply to the Treasury of State, and get a license to enter… you have to agree not to spend any money there,” Bisbee says. “We went illegally at the time.” In retrospect, she says, filming “Don’t Cost Nothin’ to Dream”—her documentary film that recently screened at Brookline Interactive Group—was dangerous. Especially in Cuba, they were often followed and questioned by the police. Her crew spent six days in Cuba, and on numerous occasions they would have to pick up and move as government officials were keeping tabs.
Bisbee found some emerging themes while filming in Cuba, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. “I really felt a responsibility to make sure their stories were told.” In “Don’t Cost Nothin’ to Dream,” youth living in these three respective countries are inspired by the hip-hop art form to survive their hardships. In the film, one Guatemalan explains, “For us hip-hop is about how to support your people, your neighborhood and people lifting themselves out of the violence of their situation.”
In countries like Cuba, where freedom of speech is not a right, hip-hop is vital to political expression on the street. Bisbee believes that freedom of speech is integral to a healthy democracy and filmmaking can be a vehicle for free speech. However, the desire to empower can complicate a film’s message. “There was a moment in [making] the film where I really had to make a decision,” Bisbee says. “I had been showing my film on airplanes to complete strangers [and] got great feedback for about two years… I realized I was telling people, not showing them.” Bisbee warns that all media makers get to this question in themselves especially when they come from a social justice perspective. The goal should be to let people tell you their own story and the filmmaker serves as the vehicle. Still, with filmmaking, Bisbee says her ultimate goal is to empower. “When you tell your story… it changes you, it makes you feel like you have some power, it makes you feel heard, sometimes understood.” She says this is crucial to human development.
In the discussion of empowerment, it is impossible to ignore the lack of women directors hired by major studios. Bisbee says for herself and friends in the industry, it can be hard to walk into a room and feel respected as a woman filmmaker. In some cases, Bisbee feels that women are not trusted to be able to handle large budgets and crew. Her position as the Executive Director of Brookline Interactive Group is an opportunity to show otherwise. With BIG, Bisbee enjoys putting the focus on media literacy, teamwork, and confidence. “That’s how I want to affect others…[to get someone] inspired to think, ‘I have a story.’” Ultimately, Bisbee says, “I get inspired when others are inspired and have the courage to speak up for or against something.”
“Don’t Cost Nothin’ to Dream” will be screening again in Boston and is available for private screenings. For more information, visit www.bisbeefilms.com.
—By Adriana Hammond