Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar are the Emmy-award winning filmmakers of Made in L.A. (MadeinLA.com), a feature documentary that tells the story of three immigrant women’s transformation as they fight for their rights in Los Angeles garment factories. Praised by The New York Times as “an excellent documentary… about basic human dignity,” the film won numerous awards including an Emmy. Made in L.A. screened internationally at 100 film festivals and was the subject of an innovative community engagement campaign that led to more than 600 community and faith-based screenings that reached 30,000 people directly, in addition to the nearly two million people who viewed it on television.
Both professors had prestigious careers prior to Made in L.A. and they are currently directing and producing The Silence of Others, a cinematic portrait of the first attempt in history to prosecute crimes of the Franco era in Spain, which has received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Sundance, ITVS and the Catapult Film Fund. They are also teaching a new course at NYU Madrid. Here they share their thoughts on teaching and filmmaking.
I understand you are teaching a new course at NYU Madrid. Can you tell us a bit about the course and why it’s exciting?
The course, which is called “Madrid Stories”, uses the process of making short documentary films to immerse students in researching, exploring and engaging with Madrid. We study Madrid as a city, we study documentary as a form, and we study documentary filmmaking skills. Students then apply what they are learning as they venture out into Madrid, in teams of two, to make their own short documentary films and, in the process, uncover new people, stories and places, and strive to represent Madrid in ways that may counterpose mainstream images.
This semester we’re running a short version of the course as a pilot. Students are creating short “City Symphony” films, a filmic subgenre that originated in the early days of cinema and that aims to capture the rhythm, dynamism and texture of a city or a neighborhood. In the Spring, we will run the full course, “Madrid Stories,” and students will make longer films that explore the city through stories of unique people and places.
It’s important to point out that this is not just a film production course. Students must investigate their subjects, write a well-researched proposal, and reflect upon and analyze their films and their experiences in a final paper. There are cultural readings about Madrid, as well as readings and discussions to help students develop their own creative voices and to explore issues of authorship, representation and construction in documentary film. It’s thus an opportunity to think critically about Madrid and about the creative process itself.
Even in the early days of this pilot, it’s thrilling to see the students so passionate about their subjects, and so deeply engaged with them by way of the filmmaking process. The “workshop” environment in the classroom is electric, and it’s exciting to see students sharing ideas and footage with their peers, and providing really valuable feedback on each other’s work.
In a month, this semester’s students will complete their films and we’ll have a festive screening where they will present their films to the NYU Madrid community and beyond, and each do a Q & A. Sharing your work with an audience for the first time can be nerve-wracking but also magical, and there’s already much excitement in the air!
NYU Madrid students Elizabeth Cortez and Olivia Valdez filming a scene with Professor Almudena Carracedo.
What are the academic backgrounds of your students?
The course has no prerequisites, and thus we are able to welcome a diverse group of students, which this semester includes students from Business, Communications, Political Science, Film, Television, Theater and individualized majors.
It’s easy to understand why Film, Television and Theater students would be attracted to the course. But the interest is so much wider, and, across disciplines, there seems to be a hunger for both practical and rhetorical multimedia storytelling skills. Business and marketing students, for example, increasingly need multimedia skills; communications are increasingly multiplatform. “Madrid Stories” offers an opportunity to develop these skills, and to nurture one’s artistic and creative voice in the process of doing research and fieldwork.
Finally, of course all of the students in Madrid are studying Spanish. “Madrid Stories” provides a special opportunity to go out into the city and practice using the language, while also enabling students to team up to accommodate varying levels of language skills.
As Emmy-award winning documentary filmmakers yourselves, what drew you to teaching and how does it inform your own work?
Teaching and mentoring have always been part of our filmmaking practice. Teaching filmmaking is exciting because you can really see when students start to “get it” and begin to express their own creative ideas through the form. Of course mastering the technical aspects is important, but it’s seeing new voices and points of view come through in the work that really excites us.
And there’s no question that teaching and mentoring helps us grow too. It forces us to distill, articulate and interrogate our own artistic process. And it forces us to consider and support diverse artistic voices, some of which may run counter to our own instincts. Finally, the “workshop” environment in the classroom every week is really immersive and dynamic, and it keeps us fresh, in a way that just going to our own studio every day couldn’t.
How do you think participating in your course deepens or alters the students’ understanding of Madrid?
When you move to a new place for a semester, it can be hard to go out and discover everything that that new place has to offer, especially the more subtle, interesting things that lie below the surface. “Madrid Stories” forces and empowers students to go out into the city to explore and to research, develop and produce their own documentary projects. It’s an active experience, and you can’t help but experience and engage with the city.
By making their projects really specific – for example, portraying a day in the life of one extraordinary, alternative, community-built plaza – students come to know exceptional places, they meet new people, and they become experts on a particular part of Madrid. Through those experiences, they deepen their understanding of the entire city. Ideally, it’s a process of researching, exploring, looking, and listening very carefully. Beyond their subjects and the filmmaking, we hope that they learn about themselves too, because their own artistic voices are also inherently part of their works.
In addition to the projects themselves, we also offer optional outings to documentary screenings in Madrid, and, in the Spring, we’re hoping to offer some exciting opportunities in partnership with other film-related cultural institutions in Madrid. Our hope is that the course will be a gateway to a very special experience in Madrid.
NYU Madrid students Paulina Orozco and Paloma Rabinov filming a scene in front of the Palacio de Cristal in Madrid’s Retiro Park.
I understand that you are in Spain working on a project that explores the first attempt to prosecute crimes of the Franco era in Spain. Can you tell us about that work?
Our film is called “The Silence of Others” and, for two and half years, we have been following a team of human rights lawyers and former victims – now plaintiffs – who have filed the first lawsuit in history to prosecute crimes of Spain’s Franco dictatorship. The case brings together victims of cases of stolen children, re-education camps, torture and extrajudicial killings from throughout Franco’s 40-year dictatorship. The case is known as the “Argentine Lawsuit” because it has been filed in Argentina where a Judge has taken it on using the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows courts to investigate crimes against humanity abroad if the country where they occurred refuses to do so.
After years of preparation, what started as a small, potentially quixotic effort has now yielded the first-ever arrest warrants for Franco-era officials, including most recently, two cabinet ministers. The case has also brought this nearly forgotten struggle to the front page of The New York Times.
But while the film is structured around the court case, our approach is deeply human and personal, and we are focusing on the stories of the plaintiffs, to understand what they experienced under the dictatorship, and to follow them on their journey in the lawsuit. Just like our previous film, “Made in L.A.” (www.MadeinLA.com), it is quite an intense, lengthy process. There are thematic parallels to our previous film too, as both deal with intense personal journeys of breaking silence and overcoming invisibility.
What do you look for in developing projects and how do you convey what will make a film work to your students?
We really want to see projects that work in two ways. First, the story, plot, characters and cinematic potential all have to be there. We want to be surprised, intrigued and awakened. But we also want to see films that have layers and subtext, and thus we are constantly asking what a film is trying to say, why a story is important, and how a very specific story, with all of its beautiful details, can convey something bigger or universal.
Vision and passion are infectious, and we’re also always watching to see what each student will bring to their story that is special. In short, we ask: why are you the right person to tell this story? Beyond that, of course we want to be sure that each project is based on a solid foundation of research and that students have spent time developing and becoming passionate about their projects.
What sorts of questions are you encouraging them to ask about Madrid?
We really encourage students to look at Madrid, and to consider its history, its architecture, its people, its neighborhoods, and its place in the Spanish imaginary. We hope that they will come to see Madrid with a documentarian’s gaze and challenge assumptions embedded in mainstream representations of Madrid and Spain. How do certain neighborhoods or streets represent how Spain itself is changing? What demographic trends are taking place in Spain right now and how might one represent them? What little, off-the-beaten path stories might help unlock Madrid’s past? What stories point the way towards its future? What aspects of Madrid do even Madrileños overlook? And how does our position as outsiders impact our choices in representing Madrid?
Is there anything else you would like to add?
We just want to express our special thanks to NYU Madrid former Director, James Fernandez, who spearheaded the development of this course, to current NYU Director Robert Lubar, and to everyone at NYU Madrid, NYU’s Office of Global Programs, the Department of Journalism, the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, and the College of Arts and Science, all of which have supported the vision for this course and have invested in brand-new equipment and all of the resources needed to make this a reality. We join them in the excitement of seeing the films that our students will create each semester!