Where are you from, and why there?
I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, the fifth in a family of six Irish Catholic, working-class kids. For eight years we walked to the local parochial school, then, as my siblings before me, I attended a Catholic high school. Keeping us girls in place were the notoriously strict Notre Dame nuns. But having a rabble-rouser older sister opened my eyes to the changing world outside our insular Catholic one. Seven years her junior, I’d tag along to the protest marches taking place downtown against the Vietnam War and the shootings at Kent State. My long-haired, guitar-playing sister would also take me to concerts and let me share the hash pipe that made its way around her group of friends. When Gloria Steinem gave a talk at a local college, I proudly joined the sophisticated feminists in the audience, thrilled to be hearing a narrative counter to the one that was parroting the Vatican.
Second to their commitment to the Catholic church and giving their children a Catholic education, was my parents’ belief in the Democratic Party. Tip O’Neill was talking about them when he said, “all politics is local.” On behalf of their candidates, they knocked on doors, made phone calls, worked at the Board of Elections, and attended monthly Ward 7 organizing meetings. We grew up with campaign signs leaning against the garage, boxes of candidates’ bumper-stickers stacked in the living room, three-ring binders with lists of voters on the kitchen table so my mother could make phone calls in between baking her famous Irish soda bread. I’ll never forget the day I walked in from college to see Dennis Kucinich sipping coffee while my mother was rolling out the dough.
Which issue(s) do you work on/care about, and why?
My parents were activists. Between them and my sister, they influenced me more than they ever could have imagined. They cared about the world at large. They believed that even their small role in changing the world for the better — for the common good — was important. And part of being a good citizen.
Through my film and journalism work I honor their influence by trying to make a difference. Sometimes that means raising awareness about an issue or a place or a person. Although trained as a filmmaker and journalist, looking back at the trajectory of my work, I’m more of a humanist than anything else. For me, telling the stories, making them meaningful, and evoking empathy so others will care, is what it’s all about.
How did you get involved?
In 1994, I received Harvard’s Nieman Fellowship for Journalism. Our curator was Bill Kovach, an esteemed journalist and editor. In my class of 24 fellows were 12 international journalists who brought the world to Cambridge. Over the year-long program, we heard stories about the Bosnian war from two journalists who published a resistance newspaper, from a South African journalist who was on the front line covering apartheid, and from a Palestinian journalist living in Jerusalem.
The Nieman was a profound experience and inspired me to do longer-form work.
Some of my past work includes films about: the first African-American to sail solo around the world; Beatrice Mtetwa, the courageous lawyer in Zimbabwe who has defended victims against the lawless regime of Robert Mugabe; the Boston Marathon runner who was stopped by exploding bombs and came back to run the next year; the mother and daughter evicted by gentrification who were homeless on the streets; and the severely wounded Vietnam veteran who struggled to reconcile his fate with the legendary war exploits of his highly decorated father.
And then there is the ten-year-long effort at producing “Forgotten Ellis Island,” my film and book about the lost story of the immigrant hospital on Ellis Island. That project took me years to uncover — given that no book had ever been written about the hospital and its role in America’s immigration history. So, I made dozens of trips to archives in Washington and New York to dig through thousands of documents, photos, film, diaries, letters, etc., to piece this story together.
Funded by three grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the film is in its second, five-year run on PBS, is shown at the Ellis Island Museum, and streams on Amazon. I have to believe that my grandfather, Edward Conway, who came through Ellis at the age of 19 from Killala, Ireland, is proud of my efforts.
What’s the biggest challenge for the issue(s) today?
By far the most challenging aspect of independent filmmaking is finding the funding to produce the film. After leaving commercial and public broadcasting to begin my own production company, a colleague remarked that I better believe in my topics because, according to him, it was going to take a long time to produce them into films. How true! Over the years, I have often thought of that comment as I go month to month, sometimes year to year, fundraising, developing, and writing, then fundraising some more. It can be a very long, lonely process.
Who are your most frequent allies? Any surprises?
People who strive for positive change in the world, or simply in themselves; funders who recognize the value of portraying and preserving these kinds of stories; and my own determination to capture them. I’ve developed strong muscles in that regard, which are indispensable to succeeding in solo filmmaking, or in any solo endeavor, for that matter.
What drives you?
The lived heroism and endurance of my film subjects. Currently, I’m fundraising and developing a film based on Nelson Mandela’s prison letters. Mandela’s ‘voice from the cell’ reveals his dignity, courage, and compassion, as well as his humanity and suffering while behind bars for nearly three decades on Robben Island. The title of the film, “Hope Is a Powerful Weapon,” was found in one of Mandela’s letters to his wife, Winnie, as she, too, was facing arrest and imprisonment.
What do you want your career/advocacy to stand for?
Moments like this one with Zimbabwe’s Beatrice Mtetwa, by far the bravest woman I’ll ever meet, sum up what, I hope, my work represents. We were attending the World Justice Project Forum in The Hague, where a screening of my film about Beatrice took place. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg finished her powerful keynote address, Beatrice turned to me and said, “I really didn’t want you to do the film on me. But I get it now. I get it now.”