Faith Pennick was so impressed with the documentary Hoop Dreams she decided to become a filmmaker herself. At the time, she didn’t know anything about the art of filmmaking; had no connections, and not nearly enough money.
“I had to do it,” she says. “I literally had an epiphany walking out of the theatre. Hoop Dreams was the most amazing cinematic experience I’ve ever had. The way the story unfolded, the way the stories were told. I just fell in love with that movie. If I could be a part of a film that has a fraction of the brilliance of Hoop Dreams, then that’s what I wanted to do.”
Pennick, a Chicago native, didn’t have material resources but she was committed — and her timing couldn’t have been better. She saw Hoop Dreams in 1995. The 90’s were the heyday for American independent films. “You had films like The Usual Suspects, Pulp Fiction, and, obviously, Spike Lee with his films,” she says. “A lot of great American film makers came out with really compelling work. I was going to see all of them, so it was something I was vibing off of anyway. Then I saw Hoop Dreams, and I just said, ‘Yeah, I need to do this.’”
In 2007, Pennick’s dream came true when her first feature-length film, Silent Choices, a documentary about black women and abortion, won the Henry Hampton Award for Excellence in Documentary Film Making at the Roxbury Film Festival in Boston.
It was a long road from the theatre in Brooklyn where Pennick first saw Hoop Dreams to the Roxbury Film Festival. She credits her drive and spirit to her mother, who was a single parent who raised her and her sister and took in her own mother. During that time, Pennick watched her mom go to college, then graduate school, and finally law school. She helped found the Greenhouse Shelter, the first battered women’s shelter in Chicago.
“My mom accomplished so much that she was my blueprint,” says Pennick, “There’re a lot harder things to do than make films; seeing her do what she did in her life…I think Black women can accomplish pretty much what they put their minds to. I saw her do what she had to do and she worked very hard. I definitely get my work ethic from her.”
About a year after Pennick decided she wanted to become a filmmaker, she enrolled in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. She chose Gallatin because there, she could design her master’s program. She created a course of study that enabled her to study both business and filmmaking. Her master’s thesis was on the financing, marketing, and distributing of African-American independent films.
After she graduated, Pennick answered a call by Third World Newsreel, an alternative media and arts organization, to make a film about the aftermath of 9-11 from a minority perspective. The result was a short film, her first, entitled …and Justice For Whom? where she examined civil liberties post 9-11. “You make shorts as a calling card,” she says. “A way to show funders and people in the industry that you can direct a film and work with actors.”
It took about six years to make Silent Choices, and four-and-a-half of those years was spent raising money. “Money,” says Pennick, “is the number-one challenge for filmmakers. It can cost as much as $300,000 to make a broadcast-quality, feature length film. And with today’s political climate and economy, it’s harder to do than ever. You raise some money…you shoot. You raise some more money…you shoot some more. It’s a constant cycle of going to independents, having fundraisers, and going to foundations.”
During the making of Silent Choices, Pennick worked full time and shot film during evenings and weekends and whatever other time she could take off. “It was like having two jobs,” she says. “Part of the sacrifice I made was that I ended up leaving New York because it’s so expensive. I moved to Chicago to live with my mother for two-and- a- half years while finishing the film. That was pretty much the only way I could get it completed.”
Despite the obstacles, Pennick recognizes filmmaking as a powerful tool that can initiate positive change. She made Silent Choices to give Black women a voice on the issue of abortion. The film examines the issue from perspectives of both pro-lifers and those who support a women’s right to choose. It includes expert interviews as well as the stories of three African-American women who had abortions.
The film’s genesis was a remark by a friend that abortion was a White women’s issue because Black women have more important things to worry about. “I was floored by that comment,” says Pennick. “Even if you don’t believe in abortion, I don’t see how you can’t say abortion is not an issue African-Americans should be concerned with. That comment stuck with me. The reason I called the film Silent Choices is because there’s a profound silence among African Americans about abortion. It’s still a third rail for a lot of people.”
Pennick wants the film to get people talking and have a greater awareness of how the issue affects the Black community. According to the film, almost 32% of the abortions performed in the country a year are on African-American women. Pennick also hopes the film will lift some of the shame attached to the issue, that African-American women who have had an abortion will see that it’s not necessarily a bad or evil thing.
The Roxbury Film Festival was the first to screen Silent Choices after a number of others turned it down. “That’s why winning the best documentary award at the Roxbury Festival was so inspirational to me,” Pennick says. “It reminded me that, ‘No, you’re not nuts, you made an important film, you made a good film.’”
Pennick recently attended NARAL Pro-Choice America’s 35th anniversary celebration of Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in America, where along with other individuals, she was recognized for her outstanding achievements.
Currently, Pennick is looking for an agent and gearing up to make her next film, a documentary about plus-sized women who are happy with themselves. It will be finished, she says, in spring 2009. She hopes the critical success of Silent Choices will give her the cachet to make it easier get her next film made. “At the end of the day, you’ve got to have that passion for the story,” she says. “You’ve got to want to tell that story because it’s so hard to do this for a living. Passion and conviction is what’s going to see you through.
Silent Choices is available for purchase as an educational video from New Day Films.