Creating an account with Tribecafilm.com gives you access to more features and services, like our weekly newsletter and other special features just for the film community.SIGN UP
On June 29th, fifteen-year-old indigenous climate activist and eclectic hip-hop artist Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez visited the United Nations to address a packed audience (including fellow speaker Robert Redford) about encouraging global efforts in combatting climate change. New York filmmaker Vanessa Black, who documented Roske-Martinez's childhood in the short film Kid Warrior, was also on-hand to film the day's events. (See the above video.)
We spoke to Black about the perks and protocols of filming at the United Nations, future collaborations with Roske-Martinez, and the careful yet constructive fusion between documentary filmmaking and environmental activism.
How did you approach making a film that’s not only inherently political but that also deals with a global issue that’s still widely divisive?
Most of the projects I take on are political in nature. I like using film as a form of activism and as a way to educate. And I like things to feel like they’re as balanced as possible. But, then, when it comes to the environmental movement, there’s a lot of debate where people think of it as a Republican versus Democratic conversation, but it’s really above that. I can’t imagine a more high-stakes story than climate change. It’s going to affect the way we live our lives, my children’s lives, my grandchildren’s lives... And I think there’s a way to find a solution that’s beyond political affiliations and can please Republicans, Democrats, and any other political parties.
Have you been surprised in any way by the overwhelmingly positive response to Xiuhtezcatl and his cause?
I'm not surprised. Xiuhtezcatl has such a fresh take on the climate conversation and I think hearing from such a young man with a new perspective on the conversation is exciting to people. Millennials tend to get such a bad rap but they're really doing a lot to inform people and change the conversation.
You’re clearly very close to Xiuhtezcatl and his family. How do you navigate personal relationships with your subjects while keeping an objective grasp on them, especially when the subject is only a teenager?
Kid Warrior was really about getting to know the family. We never really get to see [Xiuhtezcatl] be a kid and so we wanted to document the normal part of his life and then contrast it with his very adult work. And then with [the UN] video, we really wanted to show how the friendship between an activist and a filmmaker can promote the activist’s voice even further. Xiuhtezcatl is a young man and if we do more work together, he’s putting himself further into the public space. So, [for me], it’s more like a guardian role than anything.
How will you continue to follow Xiuhtezcatl’s journey?
We’re working on developing some things with him now that I want to keep under wraps. But I will say that they involve Xiuhtezcatl’s public work turning into more film-based projects.
What are you future plans for Kid Warrior?
Kid Warrior was successful but it was also just a starting point. We will continue to get that story out there in a variety of different ways.
How was your experience filming at the United Nations?
The UN talk was an extremely unique situation to film in. So much of what goes on in the UN happens behind closed walls. But the UN is continuing to open up its walls and allow more high-profile talks to be heard by the public, so we were excited to go behind the scenes and get coverage. We had to go through a lot of protocol and were told a lot of things we could and couldn’t do. For example, if we brought an additional crew member on the day of the shoot that we hadn’t cleared with the UN beforehand then the whole shoot would’ve been scrapped. But yeah, it was a crazy day. It was back-to-back appointments and meetings. We were joking that doing our location scout at the UN was the closest we’d ever get to being James Bond. And I was playing a lot of scenes from Dr. Strangelove on my phone while we were setting up. [Laughs] It was super exciting.
The documentary medium seems to be in a sort of golden age at the moment but it can still be an understandably tough field to break into. What’s your advice for aspiring documentarians?
Find a story that you’re very passionate about and work with passionate people.