Within the comfortable confines of Ithaca, New York, Patricia Zimmermann, professor of screen studies and co-director of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF) at Ithaca College, theorizes and teaches students about international film history and analysis, documentary and new media. Since 2011, Zimmermann has taken her work globally as an envoy for the American Film Showcase, a special project of the U.S. State Department.
Zimmermann has now been named an envoy by the State Department for the seventh time as part of the showcase, which was established to bring independent American documentaries and narrative films around the world. This initiative is designed to provide international audiences a view of American society from the unique perspective of independent filmmakers.
As an envoy, Zimmermann gives lectures on her books, moderates discussions with documentary filmmakers and leads workshops related to documentary, new media and film festivals. Since she’s not a filmmaker like many other envoys in this program, her work doesn’t focus on how a film was produced, but rather on the ideas and concepts that spark discussion and debate and the meanings of the forms and structures of the works.
Before traveling to a country, Zimmermann conducts extensive research and background reading for six to eight months. “This is about how one creates and facilitates audience engagement around ideas that are often suppressed, repressed or marginalized.” she said. “I have to develop a sense of what the current issues are in those countries, because I will adjust what I might show or talk about so I can facilitate a meaningful dialogue. My presentations and lectures have to be sculpted and targeted.”
Many of the regions Zimmermann works in have been involved in substantial political transition, and independent filmmakers play a crucial role in telling stories the international media ignores.
“In many of the countries I work in, communications and media isn’t about access to technology,” she said. “It’s about ideas, concepts, human rights, civil society, the environment and other very urgent issues. Most of the people I’ve worked with produce work by any means necessary. These are countries with great political urgencies, and they’re all fighting to create civil society and democracy.”
While working in Ukraine in 2016, Zimmermann met a 21-year-old filmmaker and activist named Alexandra Chuprina. Rather than introduce herself as a filmmaker, Chuprina identified herself as part of the ‘Babylon ‘13’, an independent media collective in Ukraine reporting on the political revolution, Russian occupation and civil war currently underway in the country. Chuprina’s story deeply impressed Zimmermann, since Chuprina and her colleagues didn’t have access to high-end media production technology – but instead produced much of their work from their iPhones and cameras wrangled from other sources. Chuprina is one of the many young filmmakers who have captivated Zimmerman during her time as an envoy.
“Overall, the most powerful experiences I have had in China, Guinea and Ukraine have been with young people under the age of 25,” Zimmermann said. “People who have hope that their countries could secure freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom to have a demonstration, and who have passion. I look at these young people and they do not harbor fantasies that media can change the world in a larger sense, but are motivated by the belief that media can change our lives in specific places, a more scalable vision. For them, it is not about awards in festivals, but about forging a domain where media can open up ideas.”
As co-director of FLEFF, Zimmermann said many of her discussions with international filmmakers center around how to run and produce an engaging film festival. With an increasingly divided political world, Zimmermann believes events like film festivals are crucial to ensuring discourse, discussion and debate continues.
“Spaces for public dialogue about ideas that matter and are controversial are diminishing around the world, and festivals are a place that can bring people together with very diverse viewpoints to talk about ideas and matters of significance,” she said.
Since she began working as an envoy, Zimmermann said she has received full support from the administration and her colleagues at Ithaca College.
“I think the support speaks to the best parts of IC, which honors its academic and intellectual contributions to the world. The institution really does see itself as engendering, joining and propelling international conversations,” she observed
Zimmermann said her time as an envoy has reaffirmed her work related to documentary and new media. Her time in Ukraine also allowed Zimmerman to produce a piece of literary non-fiction about the country’s fertile black soil. The work was published in “AFTERIMAGE,” a renowned film and media journal.
“It really renews my sense that ideas and media truly matter to create vital and energized public spheres for important and significant conversations,” Zimmermann said. “It affirms for me why I got into media, writing and scholarship in the first place.”