FULL FRAME: ‘Tough Love’ film looks at parents trying to get kids back
Full Frame Documentary Film Festival opens Thursday, and several new films will premiere for the hundreds of filmmakers and fans of documentaries. Among them is “Tough Love” by filmmaker Stephanie Wang-Breal, whose previous feature documentary, “I Love You, Mommy,” was nominated for an Emmy Award.
The Herald-Sun spoke with Wang-Breal by phone from New York before she arrived in Durham for the screening at Full Frame this week. She made “Tough Love” because of questions at screenings for “I Love You, Mommy,” which was about Chinese adoption. Viewers asked Wang-Breal to look at domestic adoption from foster care and how hard it is to adopt from foster care. She found that a lot of foster parents didn’t want her to talk to birth parents, but it ended up being birth parents and the child welfare system that Wang-Breal focused on for “Tough Love.”
Filmed in New York and Seattle, “Tough Love” tells the stories of two families. Young newlyweds Hannah and Philly live in New York City and are about to have a baby. They live with his mother. Hannah does not have custody of her two older children, just visitation, after being charged with neglect. Hannah is navigating the system to get her older children back, including affording a place to live to accommodate everyone.
The film’s other focus is Patrick, a single dad who had also been charged with neglect but is going through everything required to get his life back on track. He is part of Seattle’s Family Treatment Court, which is shown in the film. Patrick’s daughter Natalya is in foster care with a family who also wants to adopt her. All the parents’ love for their children is evident in “Tough Love.”
Wang-Breal said she hopes the film will help build better relationships between foster families and birth parents, who do not usually communicate. She thinks it would be beneficial to everyone. She filmed many parents, but a lot of parents couldn’t withstand the presence of a camera, she said, and it took time getting access.
Hannah and Philly have seen “Tough Love” already and will attend the premiere at Full Frame and be there for the post-screening discussion Saturday.
Wang-Breal has also submitted the film to Seattle’s film festival, where Patrick lives. The field producer in Seattle was Evan Briggs, whose filmmaking career was sparked in Durham.
It was the spring of 2000, and Briggs was about to graduate from Duke University with a degree in literature. She had planned to go to law school, but decided it wasn’t for her. Still, she wanted to be involved in some way with justice issues. She was with a friend at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke, and saw a photo essay on display depicting poverty in Durham.
“I remember realizing that moment, documentary was a very powerful tool for social justice,” Briggs said in a phone interview this week from Seattle. It was a lightbulb moment, she said, and she saw film as a way to blend art and advocacy.
“I didn’t have any idea where to start. My Duke peers were going to law school, med school or to work in investment banking,” she said. So her first step was to volunteer at Full Frame, then called Double Take. She did some publicity and data management, and saw some films.
After graduation, she moved to San Francisco and interned in film while working side jobs, but her career didn’t take off until she went film school at Stanford University in 2006. It was a turning point in her career, and now she works in Seattle, which has a “really great film community.” She also directs videos for Facebook’s marketing department.
Full Frame will be the first time Briggs has been back to Durham, and she’s looking forward to going to Cosmic Cantina as well as attending the festival. She is also working on her own first feature length film and is excited to make new connections at Full Frame. Both Briggs and Wang-Breal said Full Frame has a reputation for being a filmmaker-friendly festival.
Briggs said that “Tough Love” is a complicated film to make because the topic is so sensitive. She had preconceived notions of parents whose children ended up in the child welfare system but filming changed her mind. She’s grateful the point-of-view of birth parents is shown in the film. Circumstances in which children are taken away are often poverty-related, she said.
“Stephanie’s intention was not to sugarcoat it, but to give them a fair shake,” Briggs said.
“It was really intense and really heartbreaking in some moments. It was an emotionally draining film to work on, in a good way,” she said.
WANT TO GO?
WHAT: “Tough Love”
WHEN: 1:30 p.m. Saturday during the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. Screening will be followed by question and answer session with filmmakers.
WHERE: Cinema 1, Durham Convention Center
301 W. Morgan St., Durham