by Shannon Rae Gentry
Wednesday February 6, 2013
Issues of global importance, race, gender, as well as economic and environmental justice have all been addressed by Working Films, an independent media organization focused on “linking nonfiction film to cutting edge activism.”
Founded in 2000 by Robert West and Judith Helfand, Working Films began in West’s home in Charlotte, N.C. and has since been based in Wilmington for more than a decade.
Before starting the organization, West said he wanted to help connect filmmakers, their films and the people who would want to help realize the social, health or environmental change their stories prompted.
“Audience engagement seemed like a real missing piece,” he said. “And that was really the focus of Working Films…”
However, last September, West was diagnosed with Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM), a rare aggressive and terminal brain cancer.
Despite the shock this news brought to the Working Films community, West has been sharing his journey via the Caring Bridge health social networking website and in an interview, Monday, Feb. 4, said he remains positive about his future, as well as the organization’s as he steps down.
“My energy, while it has refocused, remains very positive,” he said. “Priorities shift, and even though I love this organization I really thought what’s best for me and for Working Films was to have an exit strategy.”
While West has played an intricate role in developing Working Films as a nationally and internationally known organization focused on social change, he said his efforts were not unaided.
“I’ve worked with this team for a long time, and we were never that much of a hierarchical organization,” he said.
“I have two strong leaders that have taken the helm, and I have stepped away with no regrets and no real worries that the organization will not survive and remain strong and healthy.”
As Working Films has often collaborated at the local level, such as with the Cucalorus Film Festival and its Work-in-Progress program, interim co-directors Anna Lee and Molly Murphy said they want to continue to bring the work they do nationally and internationally into play here in the area.
“We like the idea of rooting in our home state and having more of a presence,” Murphy said on Saturday, Feb. 2. “We actually just submitted a proposal to focus a state by state effort in N.C. around education and work to address climate change.”
Lee said they plan to move forward with the Working Films mission with the Reel Engagement Fund and project initiative in honor of West’s work, which focuses on a statewide approach and changes in policy.
“We wanted to honor that legacy. He has touched so many people’s lives at Working Films,” Lee said on Feb. 2. “People kept asking what they could do, and we wanted them to be able to channel that and support the organization as it moves forward … the ‘Reel Engagement’ work is going to be the core of the strategy moving forward.”
To continue on the path that West has set, using documentaries to make social change by sharing them with educators and communities, Working Films board of directors chair Reggie Shuford said on Friday, Feb. 1, that his primary role right now is supporting this transition as much as he possibly can.
“Robert has been such a visionary … and we are absolutely committed to making sure that his vision is achieved,” he said. “The primary things are ensuring fiscal and financial stability of Working Films, as well as making sure that its mission is achieved and the work is continued to be done at such a high level.”
Shuford is also the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Pennsylvania. As someone who grew up in Wilmington, Shuford said he is proud of the local organization’s achievements.
“I think it’s a hometown treasure. It has national and international reach [and] it’s been a tremendous ambassador for Wilmington,” Shuford said.
Shuford also said that he has absolute confidence in Lee and Murphy, who have developed with Working Films.
“I have seen them grow into focused, effective and capable leaders of this organization, and were before this situation occurred,” he said. “I can’t think of two better people at this juncture to assume that role.”
To make a tax-deductible donation to the Robert West Reel Engagement Fund or to learn more about Reel Engagement projects at Working Films, visit www.workingfilms.org
To stay up-to-date or contact Robert West, visit www.caringbridge.org/visit/robertwest