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DOC NYC 2022 Women Directors: Meet Alexis Neophytides – “Dear Thirteen”

Alexis Neophytides is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and educator based in New York City. Her work centers around community and how we find meaning in people and place. She is the co-creator, co-director, and producer of “Neighborhood Slice,” a public television documentary series that tells the stories of longtime New Yorkers who’ve held fast to their corner of the city despite gentrification. She produced and directed the series “9.99,” for which she won a NY Emmy. Her short documentaries “Doctor Kong,” “Coney Island’s for the Birds,” and Vimeo Staff Pick “Ethan 2018”  screened at festivals worldwide. “Dear Thirteen” is her first feature length documentary. She is a Sundance Institute Documentary Film Grantee for her second feature, “Fire Through Dry Grass,” currently in post-production.

“Dear Thirteen” is screening at the 2022 DOC NYC film festival, which is running from November 9-27.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

AN: “Dear Thirteen” is a documentary portrait of this newest generation coming of age in the modern world – one I hope is uplifting and hopeful and authentic to the young voices it portrays. The film weaves together stories of nine 13-year-olds from France, Australia, Mexico, Nepal, and the United States. Through their eyes, we see how pressing global issues – gender identity, religion, race, economic status, and immigration – are shaping, and being shaped by, young people.

In Australia, Evie, a trans girl, begins her medical transition with confidence and optimism; in France, Oren prepares for his Bar Mitzvah while reckoning with anti-semitism in his hometown; in Brooklyn, Madeline finds joy and creativity on TikTok while contending with the pressures of the pandemic; in Mexico, Fany dreams of breaking the mold as a female boxer while navigating her parents’ separation.

We were really lucky to work with Dan Deacon, a truly amazing musician, on the score. His dreamy soundscape underlines the complexity and beauty in the transition into adulthood.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

AN: I taught documentary filmmaking to 13-year-olds for nearly a decade. Those years only confirmed my feelings about this age – it is transformative and deeply magical. Beyond the hormones and physical changes, it is the age we start to become aware of the larger world around us, and begin to solidify a worldview that will carry us forward into our adult lives. It is a pivotal time to be exposed to new perspectives and different ways of living, to confront stereotypes and challenge previously held views.

Despite the universality of this time, I never had quite the right material to show my students. There are so many wonderful documentaries about important topics, but I found very few that were told from the point of view of young people themselves. And so I made this film for my students, to give them a chance to see their own experiences on screen reflected back to them, and to live for a few moments in worlds they had not known before. I suppose in the end it also became a love letter to my 13-year-old self.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

AN: One thing that was really important to Trina Rodriguez — my long-time collaborator and editor/producer of “Dear Thirteen” — and me in crafting the film was to have our young film participants speak for themselves. We didn’t want any adults to speak for them. In fact the only adult commentary in the film is my own, which we hope acts more as a guide through the different stories rather than an older person interpreting their thoughts.

Young people are often portrayed in the media in a somewhat negative light, or in one-dimensional stereotypes. We really wanted to show our young protagonists authentically, as they each were: complex, full of hope and in a lot of ways, deep thinkers. I’d love for people to feel hopeful about this new generation after they watch the film! I know that’s how we felt in making it.

Another hope we had for the film was that in watching, older viewers might be transported back to this time in their own lives and remember what it felt like, the things that were important to them, the possibilities that still existed in their minds and to maybe walk away with a little bit of that optimism. I’d like to imagine that this film will be a bit of positive energy put out into the world.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

AN: The biggest challenge was sticking with it. Making an independent film can take so very long! For us it was a five year long journey from concept until the world premiere, with a lot of ups and downs along the way.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

AN: This was a truly independent film through and through. We were lucky enough to get a substantial grant at the very beginning that really propelled the project into being. We had a few small independent donors who believed in the film along the way that kept us going. Throughout this whole time period I was working other jobs and scrounging frequent flier miles to travel, so it was a scrappy affair!

And finally, earlier this year we received a grant from the NYC Women’s Fund for Media, Music and Theatre, which really came at the perfect time and allowed us to finish the film.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

AN: I’ve loved stories and storytelling since I was a little kid – I always had my nose buried in a book. The road to filmmaking for me was not a clear, direct path but in the end I think it came back to a love of stories, and curiosity about life and real people.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

AN: Best advice: Always pack snacks in your camera bag.

Worst: Don’t show your work to the people in it until you are finished with everything. 

I cannot believe this was the mentality in our industry for so long! These days there is a push for greater transparency between filmmakers and their film participants. I heard someone recently describe the documentary landscape as the Wild West when it came to filmmaking ethics, with no real rules or guidelines for folks to follow.

Thankfully there is a big shift happening in our field and some really important work being done by groups like DAWG (the Documentary Accountability Working Group) that offer guiding principles for non fiction filmmakers to look to throughout their filmmaking process.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors? 

AN: One of the biggest challenges for me has been navigating making work while also needing some outside approval to make it happen, whether that’s in the form of funding, film festival acceptances, sales executives, etc. It’s really hard to wait around for gatekeepers to let you in while trying to keep your energy focused on creating. 

My advice would be to try not to focus too much on one person’s opinion of your work. There are lots of ’em out there! And if one door doesn’t open, try to be malleable enough to bend towards other opportunities. There really are so many different paths towards making meaningful work.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

AN: One of my favorite films is “Cameraperson,” directed by Kirsten Johnson and edited by Nels Bangerter. I love that film so much – the rhythm of it and the way they wove seemingly disparate vignettes together into something so meaningful. I watched it many times for inspiration while we were thinking about how to put our film together.

W&H: What, if any, responsibilities do you think storytellers have to confront the tumult in the world, from the pandemic to the loss of abortion rights and systemic violence?

AN: Documentary filmmakers are uniquely positioned to tell important stories that can shift public opinion. Stories about pressing topics are undeniably crucial, and yes, I think we do have a responsibility to use the tools and power we hold as storytellers not only to document what is happening in as truthful a way as possible, but to effect change. 

I do also believe that there is value in films that are not specifically issue oriented. Any opportunity we have to broaden the way people think and show life from different perspectives helps to create greater understanding and a more inclusive culture.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

AN: While there are more resources available to support underrepresented voices these days, I would offer that beyond funding initiatives, our industry should challenge the way we think about filmmaking more holistically. Listening to and giving space for new voices requires time, and resources to support that time. I think it demands some radical rethinking of the way we support filmmakers and the structures around them.

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