Spotlight: Social Justice Through Film with Amy Ziering

Amy Ziering is an Emmy Award winning and Academy Award nominated Producer and Director. Her documentary films, The Hunting Ground and An Invisible War, sparked nationwide conversations around sexual assault on college campuses and in the military. As a teacher, an academic, and a filmmaker, Amy has dedicated her life to pursuing social justice.

Your films have impacted a very wide audience, from inspiring lawmakers to enact new laws around sexual assault in the military, to amplifying a nationwide conversation about campus sexual assault. This kind of reaction really highlights the power of media in getting people to pay attention to important issues. What drew you to produce documentaries that focus specifically on pressing social issues?

Amy: I don’t know what other work I would do, honestly. I’ve just always been someone who spoke out, and was concerned about inequities,  and was interested in reading about politics, inequality, feminism and resistance movements. So, that’s been something I’ve thought about my whole life. I think it’s my DNA; it’s what has always interested me and how I’m wired.

As far as how I got into documentary filmmaking as a vehicle for social change – it was really by accident. I was in a PhD program studying  feminism, literary theory, and political philosophy and theory. During that time I read a lot of Marx, Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, (Barbara) Johnson, (Eve Kosofsky) Sedgwick, and (Shoshana) Felman  –  thinkers who helped me formulate the framework for my political thinking and engagement. I was a teacher and an academic, so that’s how I thought I would be politically engaged. While in school I ended up doing a film on one of my professors, Jacques Derrida, who’s most famous for  coining the term “deconstruction,” — and the film ended up being a success – At the same time I also ended up not getting the tenure track positions that I had wanted, so I morphed from being an academic into being a filmmaker.

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Your past two films, The Hunting Ground and An Invisible War, dealt with sexual assault on college campuses and within the military, respectively. Dealing with such sensitive, difficult subject matter can be both exhausting and traumatic. What did you do for self care while creating these films?

Amy: I didn’t do anything initially for An Invisible War because I wasn’t aware of the impact that listening to these stories could have. When I started to become symptomatic,  the fix for me was cardio. I started doing a lot more cardio exercises and doing them a lot more militantly.  Especially on interview days, we would have to make sure whatever hotels we booked would have a fitness room with a treadmill. That was a shift that I had to consciously make – to do something physical and challenging so that I could detox and rejuvenate. So, that’s what I did for self care during that time and actually still rely on a great deal today.

Cardio and sleeping pills (which I now no longer take) carried me through working on both Invisible War and The Hunting Ground.  

The good news is if you put certain things in place to take care of yourself, it helps sustain you and allows you to do this kind of work in the best way possible.

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How can everyday Americans use the power of storytelling to shed light onto the issue of sexual violence in their own communities?

Amy: What we saw in The Hunting Ground and The Invisible War, is that none of these epidemics would have become known if survivors didn’t feel like they were safe and empowered to speak up. So one thing people can do on a micro-level, is share their stories — if and when —  they feel safe and empowered to do so. I want to also say that if you don’t feel safe and empowered to speak up, that’s totally ok and valid and  you should not feel bad. You’re exercising self care and you’re protecting yourself and that’s equally important. There is no one way and no right or wrong when it comes to recovering from and working through trauma. We all heal and process things differently.

Second, when and if survivors speak up, believing and supporting them, is something all of us can and must do – it’s really square one for changing our culture.

So, if all of us on a micro-level could just shift our perspective so that the first response is always to believe someone when they report these crimes – in the same way you would always be inclined to believe someone who walked up and said, “I was in a car accident.” The more these stories are shared and told, and people feel safe and supported and understood when they share them, the more these crimes will no longer covered up and kept a secret anymore. And the more healthy our whole society will be because of it.

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