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Social Work Graduate Films PBS Documentary: 'A Brooklyn Family Tale'

By Jo Kadlecek

Murray Nossel

Most students in the School of Social Work don't usually rely on video cameras to conduct their fieldwork. But Murray Nossel, PhD SW '01, is not just a social worker; he is also an artist and filmmaker. So when two of his professors told him about the Center for Family Life in Brooklyn's Sunset Park, Nossel knew he what he had to do.

Nossel first visited the Center in 1996 when he was completing his graduate studies at Columbia. After coming to the United States in 1990 from his home country of South Africa to pursue playwriting, Nossel found a job as a caseworker to earn a living. He had been a practicing clinical psychologist in South Africa so he knew it was a vocation that -- as his refugee grandparents had always taught him -- he could always fall back on while he developed his art. His three years in the social system here, however, made him question the field entirely. He turned to graduate school in hopes of revitalizing his desire to help people.

That's when two professors -- Brenda G. McGowan, Ruth Harris Ottman Professor of Family and Child Welfare, and Peg McCartt Hess, professor in the School of Social Work and associate director for Research and Scholarship at the Institute for Families in Society at the University of South Carolina -- encouraged him to use his talents and experiences at the Center in Brooklyn. Because they were already conducting a four-year study on social work practice at the Center, they suggested Nossel do ethnographic research there. What Nossel didn't anticipate was that the experience would profoundly affect both his views and his art.

"The first time I visited the Center and met the two sisters who ran it, I was blown away," Nossel says. "What they were talking about and who they were being was completely authentic in terms of their practice. They operated from a set of explicit values and that impressed me."

So Nossel asked Sister Mary Paul Janchill and Sister Geraldine Tobia if he could video tape them in their work with families. The two sisters -- both graduates of Columbia's School of Social Work who had moved into the neighborhood to found the Center for Family Life -- believed they could strengthen the troubled community by supporting its children and families. Though the gang violence did not stop overnight, eventually many gang leaders such as "Stingray" and "Cisco" Santiago turned to the Center for Family Life as an alternative to the streets. Sister Mary Paul and Sister Geraldine gave Nossel carte blanche to film the Center's after school art programs as well as their interactions with families in the community.

For the next four months, Nossel took his video camera to Sunset Park. Instead of using a tape recorder to document the work -- which most anthropologists use -- he felt video would capture particular elements otherwise lost. Nossel filmed daily life at the Center in its various activities, interactions and care.

Then Nossel showed his raw footage to Hess and McGowan, who immediately saw its potential as a documentary. They encouraged him to put together a thirty-minute pilot with the possibility of showing it to representatives from foundations. Nossel used his VCR to splice together a demo tape and secured some funding. As a result, he spent the next three years following one family in Sunset Park who had been involved with the Center for two generations. In the process, he also developed the social work tools he'd learned through his graduate studies from associate professors such as Jacqueline Denise Burnette and Barbara Simon.

"The ethics of filmmaking were constantly challenging for me," Nossel says. "As an instrument of knowing, I had to immerse myself in the situation. As a clinician, it was difficult not to intervene in what I saw [as I was filming]. I wanted to help. But I was wonderfully equipped for that because the social work program trained me and gave the lens through which to approach the situation with the distance it required."

The scene from 'A Brooklyn Family Tale' features Sister Geraldine and Luis.

The result is "A Brooklyn Family Tale," a one-hour documentary produced by Nossel and award-winning filmmaker Roger Weisberg and scheduled to air on PBS Oct. 24. The film -- which won a Cine Golden Eagle and Platinum Award for best theatrical feature documentary at the Worldfest Houston International Film and Video Festival -- chronicles the struggles of the Santiago family and their unique relationship with Sister Geraldine. As the parents watch their teenage children drop out of high school and become parents themselves, viewers witness Sister Geraldine's remarkable efforts and persistence in helping this family stay together. During the third year of filming, Sister Geraldine became terminally ill with cancer but chose not to reveal the severity of her illness to the family, continuing to counsel them even from her hospital bed. The film ends on a bittersweet note at a memorial celebrating her life. Each member of the Santiago family reflects on the meaning of Sister Geraldine's life, her selfless lifestyle, and her ability to help people realize their fullest potential

"A Brooklyn Family Tale" is also part of an educational outreach campaign that coincides with the release of Hess, McGowan and Michael Bostko's book, "Nurturing the One, Supporting the Many: The Center for Family Life in Sunset Park," published by Columbia University Press this year. Classroom resource materials draw from both the book and the film and are being distributed to colleges, universities, social service agencies, and community groups.

"I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to study the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park and to share the lessons learned with others who are committed to serving families and children," Hess says. "We hope that the voices of those who use the center's services and of the center staff members, who bring the center's service model to life, will inspire and instruct others. As others have emphasized, the center's programs so clearly illustrate what can be done with and for at-risk children and their families."

Nossel couldn't agree more, who in addition to working currently on other documentaries, recently completed his doctoral dissertation about the anthropological implications of time in social work practice at the Center for Family Life and is also on the adjunct teaching faculty at Columbia's School of Social Work.

"The reason the film happened at all was because I didn't need any convincing that the Center was doing something great. It was," Nossel says. "It was constantly evident. So it's a film about a family and a center, but the center is inseparable from the families it serves. It doesn't see itself apart from family life in Sunset Park. As Sister Geraldine told me, when an individual loses hope, the community steps in and maintains hope for him or her until he can hope for himself. That's the role of community."

Published: Oct 21, 2002
Last modified: Oct 18, 2002

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