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StreetWise Feature: Art As Activism, Jen Marlowe, Author, Filmmaker and Playwright

Thu, Jan 5, 2012

Jen Marlowe

Jen Marlowe is an author, documentary filmmaker and playwright. She’s covered war-torn Sudan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Also, she’s fighting to eradicate the U.S. death penalty. Marlowe is completing a book that she co-wrote with Martina Correia, the sister of Troy Davis; Davis was executed after serving 20 years on Georgia’s death row for the murder of a police officer.

And though Marlowe’s lens switches focus depending on the project, her end goal remains the same—to build a more just world.

I first met Marlowe in 2006, at a screening of Darfur Diaries: Message from Home, held at Chicago’s DuSable Museum. Recently, we chatted about Marlowe’s continued art and activism.

Temple Hemphill: It’s been a while since we’ve seen each other in person… Back then [2006] you were focused on the Darfur crisis. Why did you, eventually, become focused on Southern Sudan?

Jen Marlowe: My connection to the Southern Sudan issue began in 2007, when I accompanied three young men on their first homecoming trip back to Sudan. One of these young men, Garang Mayuol, happens to be a Lost Boy who lives outside Chicago.

TH: How did the three men find you?

JM: I had done the film [Darfur Diaries: Message from Home] and written the accompanying book Darfur Diaries: Stories of Survival. And these men were planning their first homecoming trip back to Sudan. They had the foresight to know the progress they were trying to accomplish, which was building a school, drilling wells and getting a clinic off the ground, would be strengthened if they took along a filmmaker who could docu¬ment the projects. They also knew a filmmaker would help them with their other goal, which is to continue to educate Americans about the situation in Sudan.

TH: How do you follow information about social justice issues?

JM: I read a lot especially about issues that I’m following. Also, I find alterna¬tive news sources that are trustworthy. Often, mostly, it is not mainstream U.S. media sources that I turn to; I use a lot of alternative media sources. For example, Democracy Now! gives me an overview of what’s happening in the world. Then, for issues that I work much closely on, I have specific sources I follow. And being on the ground always is the most effective way to learn about an issue I get into whether it’s related to Palestine/Israel, Sudan or the U.S. death penalty… Also, I use [social media] as a political and organizing tool much more than as a social tool.

TH: Do you have a mastermind group of Chicago activists/friends?

JM: I have friends and contacts in Chicago. [However], I don’t have a particular community of activists that I work with in Chicago… or in any spe¬cific geographical location. My com¬munity is global.

TH: How impactful is the Occupy movement activism that is occurring in Chicago and across the country [and world]?

JM: I’ve tried to visit sites in different cities I’ve visited or passed through. Part of what the Occupy movement is doing is fundamentally shifting the discourse in the U.S. about privilege and access… In many ways, it’s about re-visioning how our society can orga¬nize itself and, then, inserting some of that vision into the discourse. It’s not a short-term movement with short-term goals. It’s a much more profound undertaking.

TH: How did you get involved with the Troy Davis case?

JM: In July 2007, I heard Martina [Correia] [Troy Davis’s sister] speak on Democracy Now! right after Troy survived his first execution date; on that occasion, he came within 22 hours of execution. I had never heard of Troy’s case before [seeing Martina speak]. She talked not only about her fight and struggle for her brother’s life, she also talked about her own struggle. She talked about be¬ing diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in 2001, and being given six months to live. At this point, in 2007, she’d already survived six years and had been beating the odds.

So, I began investigating online. And like with so many other issues, our mainstream, corporate [U.S.] media was [under-reporting the Troy Davis case]. When I began my own investigation, online, there was a lot to be found about Troy’s case. Like with so many issues if you do the digging and ask questions you can find information… I read more about the case and realized it looked to me to be an egregious violation of justice.

On one of the websites, I found an address for Troy in prison. I wrote to him to express support and solidarity. I didn’t expect to hear back from him, but I did.

My relationship with Troy and the whole family deepened and grew… Also, what deepened and grew are both my knowledge about and my commitment to ending the U.S. death penalty system.

TH: When you connect with subjects and their families on a personal level, how is your objectivity impacted?

JM: [Without pause] I never claim or try to be objective. My goal is to tell stories that are important to be told. I’m not trying to write a book that’s an objective look at the Troy Davis case. I’m trying to make sure that Troy and Martina’s story, from their perspective, have a platform to be heard. Saying I’m not worried about being objective isn’t the same as saying I’m not worried about being truthful and honest. I strive to have a great deal of integrity and honesty in everything I write and film… I am com¬ing in with a point of view and with a perspective rooted in human rights and in concepts of social justice.

TH: “Objectivity” is an ongoing discussion with film documentarians….

JM: Everyone has a lens and a perspective through which he or she looks at situations… I think the most honest thing to do is to own biases rather than to try to mask them in the notion of objectivity. One example, perhaps, is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict… Everyone scrutinizes it for whether it’s balanced or objective. However, when a situation is inherently unbalanced, the effort to portray it as balanced is actually skewing the reality rather than presenting it.

TH: I have a co-worker who just announced she’s a “new” community activist. Do you have any ad¬vice for a recent activist?

JM: The most important thing to do is to get deeply engaged in the issues we are facing in the world. The engagement may happen at a local or global level, but it’s all interconnected. I see all these different movements as part of a larger struggle towards shifting our world to one that is more equitable. And whether activism happens at age 18 or 80, it’s incredibly valuable.

TH: What does the good life mean to you?

JM: It [the good life] is being en¬gaged in a larger struggle towards creating a world that is just.

TH: If you’re ever in Chicago, my house is your house. Safe Travels.

JM: Thank you.

To read more about Jen Marlowe’s advocacy work, visit the following websites: www.donkeysaddle.org, www.rebuildinghopesudan.org, and or www.darfurdiaries.org. Send e-mails to Marlowe at donkeysaddle@gmail.com.

Written by Temple Hemple,
StreetWise Contributor

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