Elizabeth Lo shows us what mother’s day is like for children who have parents in prison
8th November 2019 by Will Stewart
Elizabeth Lo’s Mothers Day means a visit to prison. A personal tale of families that have been split up due to being caught in the criminal justice system. I’m always keeping an eye out for films on this subject matter, because it’s closely related to the film we’re making at the moment. In this case I think the film works because it simply documents the reality of a situation that most family’s couldn’t bare to imagine. The director, Elizabeth Lo, has made a series of films about socially sensitive issues, and I’ll be showing some more soon.
I was lucky enough to catch up with director Elizabeth Lo to ask her some questions about the making of Mother’s Day. If you’d like to see your film on MadeGood.tv, then please feel free to make a submission.
MadeGood – Please tell me a bit about yourself as a film maker, and how you got into short docs. Most (if not all) of your films seem to tell a story of social injustice- is this something that drives you as a film makers?
Elizabeth – I’ve made several films that explore marginalisation through different vehicles, like Hotel 22 (2015), Bisonhead (2016), Mother’s Day (2017), and now Stray, a film I’m currently working on. Whether these films are about the homeless seeking shelter on public buses; a Native American family trying to assert their treaty hunting rights in a land that prohibits it; children traveling long distances to visit their incarcerated parents; or stray dogs observing a society in flux – they all probe what it means to live under the weight of oppressive hierarchies. But more importantly, they examine the ways in which people and beings persist and survive even as they’re relegated to the peripheries of society. I don’t know where it comes from, but my long-term goal as a filmmaker is to constantly question established, toxic, stratified ways of seeing – whether Eurocentric or anthropocentric – and to continually push the boundaries of the cinematic medium in order to challenge unequal states of personhood – to use film to expand viewers’ circles of moral and perceptual consideration beyond their own class, culture, and even species.
MadeGood – How did you find out about the organisation that facilitates bringing children to visit their parents in prison, and what compelled you to make this film?
Elizabeth – I was interested in using public transportation as a way to physicalise and visualise social inequities. It was always something I noticed when I was living in New York traveling along subway lines, and when I moved to California, I was interested in finding parallels – which lead me to discover the work of the Center for Restorative Justice Works and the annual bus trips that they organised for children to visit their parents in prison. While many are aware of the staggering problems resulting from the nation’s incarceration rate, few consider the impact it has on the children who grow up parentless as a result – those boys and girls who are raised with only brief meetings of their parents in the place of a real relationship. I made “Mother’s Day” with my co-director R.J. Lozada to remind us of the steep price an entire generation of youth – and by extension, our nation – has to pay because of systems that remain broken across America.
MadeGood – Did you have any issues with access, from both the prison, and the families in the film? Just the thought of trying to get permission to make a film like this in the UK, where I’m from, fills me with dread!
Elizabeth – We worked with the Get on the Bus program to get access to film with the families and worked with California’s department of corrections to get access to film in prisons. It was less difficult because we were working through an organisation that already had a pre-existing relationship with the prisons and the backing of the New York Times. I also assume that the particular prisons that have chosen to work with the Get on the Bus program are proud of this collaboration.
MadeGood – What’s your working relationship with your team, and how did you assemble it? Are you hands on in the production, or do you trust in your colleagues completely and concentrate in directing only?
Elizabeth – I met my co-director R.J. Lozada during graduate school while we were both studying at Stanford. He’s always been deeply involved with issues around mass incarceration and the justice system in America, so I knew he’d bring a perspective and intimacy to the film that would elevate it. We were both very hands on and would sometimes film together and sometimes film separately over multiple weekend trips surrounding the Mother’s and Father’s Day season. I always trust myself and friends and collaborators like R.J. to film with judgment and also a sense of artistry (that helps convey this judgment) because of our shared worldview and love of film.
MadeGood – You’ve quite rightly had some really fantastic success with this film, a slew of documentary film festivals including Tribeca Film Festival in 2017. How did you go about promoting this film, and what advice would you give to other short doc makers trying to get their work seen?
Elizabeth – Mother’s Day was created through a grant from The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund and made with the support of New York Times Op Docs, so the paths for the film’s distribution were pre-determined, in a sense. I think going online through platforms with built-in audiences is the best way for short films to reach people beyond the film world and have an impact in ways that you don’t expect a short film to.
MadeGood – What are you working on next?
Elizabeth – I’m working on my first feature-length documentary, which follows stray dogs as they wander through a city overhearing different human conversations.
MadeGood – Thanks Elizabeth! Good luck with the feature, can’t wait to see it when it’s done.