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David Felix Sutcliffe, 2017 Pew Fellow. Photo by Ryan Collerd.

Pew Fellow of the Week: An Interview with Filmmaker David Felix Sutcliffe

Our Pew Fellows interview series focuses on the artistic lives of our Fellows: their aspirations, influences, and creative challenges.

This week, we speak to documentary filmmaker David Felix Sutcliffe(2017), who creates intimate, character-driven stories rooted in racial justice and advocacy. His feature film (T)ERROR premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and was awarded a Special Jury Prize for “Break Out First Feature.” Most recently, the film won the “Outstanding Investigative Documentary” award from the 38th Annual News & Documentary Emmy Awards. Sutcliffe has been a fellow at the Sundance Institute, and his work has been screened at numerous international festivals and licensed by Netflix Worldwide, as well as television networks in France, Japan, Finland, and Israel, among other countries.

Your films examine the complex experiences of Muslim American communities today. What first inspired you to become a filmmaker, and to tell the stories of Muslim Americans?

Currently, I see my work not so much as an effort to tell the stories of Muslim Americans, but as an attempt to illuminate the policies and forces contributing to the individual and systemic violence that the AMEMSA (Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, South Asian) community has been forced to bear. I was first exposed to this violence (and to social justice filmmaking) in 2005 when one of my students, a 16-year-old Muslim teenager named Adama Bah, was arrested by nearly a dozen armed law enforcement agents in a pre-dawn raid. The New York Times reported that the FBI had accused Adama of being a “potential” suicide bomber in an internal memo but had failed to provide any evidence to the public to substantiate this claim. Thanks to the Times’ reporting and the efforts of a coalition of activists and community supporters, the government was pressured into releasing Adama after six and a half weeks.

Many saw Adama’s release as a happy ending. However, as her teacher, I saw that her situation continued to deteriorate. Adama’s father, who had been arrested at the same time as her for immigration violations, was still being held in a detention center in New Jersey. As the oldest child, Adama was forced to drop out of school to help her mother support her younger siblings. After a year and a half in detention, Adama’s father was ultimately deported to Guinea, Africa. This event was devastating for the family— financially, emotionally, and psychologically. For several years, while her friends attended proms and applied to college, Adama was required to work to support her family while also wearing an ankle bracelet and obeying a daily 10 p.m. curfew as she underwent a legal battle.

At the time, I was teaching video to high school students at an after-school arts program, and encouraged Adama to document her own experiences. Although she was initially enthusiastic, she ultimately confessed that she was too exhausted to take on any extra responsibilities. I asked her if she would feel comfortable with me stepping in to film, while also providing her and her siblings with a camera. Adama agreed and I ultimately ended up spending several years documenting her and her family's ordeal for an hour-long film, ADAMA, which received a national broadcast on PBS in 2011.

The experience of making this film, along with the relationship I developed with Adama and her family, had a profound impact on me. I became a filmmaker—and continue to be one—not just because I love film, but because I saw it as a tool capable of enormous political and social power. Ultimately, I want my work to ignite not just an emotional response, but a kinetic one, and to inspire non-AMEMSA viewers— white ones, in particular—to investigate their biases and passivity, and commit to justice and anti-racist action.

What was the first work of art that really mattered to you? Did it influence your approach to your work?

Seeing Laura Poitras’ My Country, My Country at Manhattan’s Cinema Village in August of 2006 was a pivotal moment in my life, not just as a filmmaker, but as an American. The film interweaves several disparate narrative strands during the 2005 Iraqi election. At the time, I don’t think I could have articulated why that film was so important to me, why it affected me on such a core level. Now, I recognize that its impact was directly tied to my own efforts to make my first film ADAMA, and my desire to achieve the balance that exists so beautifully in My Country, My Country. I’m not referring to “journalistic balance,” but to the balance between love and anger. Watching My Country, My Country, I interpreted Poitras’ portrait of her central character and his family—a tender, intelligent, and complex depiction—as an act of love. And yet, her portrayal of this man and his family never slipped into sentimentality. It is an astonishing film, and it awakened me to the possibility of using documentaries as a way to tell stories that deliver penetrating critiques of society, without losing sight of the figures who deserve and demand our praise.

How do you approach your art-making?

Spending time in progressive activist spaces—not as a filmmaker or artist, but as a human being—has been incredibly helpful in combating the mounting anger, anxiety, and depression triggered by my newsfeeds. There’s some valuable work being done in Philadelphia, especially in terms of conscious and community-based media, such as the Blackstar Film Festival, Scribe Video Center, POPPYN, Media Mobilizing Project, and Philly Cam. These organizations and the individuals behind them remind me that there are millions of people in this country who possess extraordinary courage, talent, and imagination.

What is your most treasured possession?

My brain-heart.

What is your biggest motivator as an artist?

For many years, while making ADAMA, my primary motivator was anger. I was outraged by the treatment Adama and her family were subjected to, the destruction of their family—death by a thousand paper cuts. One night, on the eve of one of Adama’s immigration hearings, a friend of mine offered to light a candle and say a prayer for her family. It was a simple gesture, but one that was based in hope and love, rather than anger and rage. Looking back, it’s striking how deeply moved I was by this kindness—it activated or satisfied a thirst I didn’t realize I even had. This moment initiated a critical step towards balancing my own emotional relationship with filmmaking and activism, and re-oriented my actions between these two poles. I don’t think I’ve quite managed to achieve that balance, but I’m working on it.

Whose opinion about your work do you respect most?

My wife.