Emily Abt attempts to build bridge of communication about former
welfare recipients with her debut documentary, Take It From Me.
It started as most New York stories start --
at a party. My friend, Danielle, suggested going to a party for
some documentary. The liquor was flowing and the party was like
a Benetton ad -- multi cultural, twenty something and upper middle
class (or really close.) It was in honor of a film by Emily Abt,
some girl I was in film school with. As she got on stage with
her blonde blunt haircut and her tank top, she spoke about her
film: Take It From Me, a documentary about former welfare recipients
trying to get by in New York City. She seemed a bit harried but
focused. Three years of her life was in that piece. She would
tell me later that she looked back at that night in horror. But
this party was exactly what her life was like, part of the reason
she became a filmmaker. "There was a real lack of communication
and understanding between these disparate social groups and what
I want to do with all my work is try to create a bridge, some
kind of understanding. I think that's what really good art does,
it widens your circle of compassion and broadens your sense of
community." I thought that was a lot for a 25-year-old filmmaker
to do but that is part of a longer story.
Take It From Me is a documentary about four women
struggling with the transition from welfare to independence. The
film was conceived while Emily was working at CaseWorks, an organization
that places welfare recipients into jobs. During that time, President
Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility Act, which abolished
Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and replaced it
with Temporary Assistance For Needy Families (TANF). The new legislation,
which includes strict time limits and work requirements, has been
shaping the lives of current and former welfare recipients in
profound ways. For the most part, however, society at large has
not taken notice. While she was a caseworker, she found 200 women
jobs but still did not feel she was doing enough. "I wasn't
getting into their stories as much as I wanted to."
decided that she wanted to document the experiences of her clients
in some way but had never worked in film before. To gain some
experience, she went to work on Boys Don't Cry for six months
as an Extras Coordinator. She learned about the process and while
working there got the bug. "I knew I wanted to be Kim (Pierce),
[the director of the film]. I knew I didn't want to be anybody
else [on a set] but her."
While working at a downtown documentary film
company and waitressing to pay bills, she would go to Bushwick
or Parkchester at night to interview her former clients. "A
lot of them were really excited to talk to me because they know
about all the stereotypes. Nobody's harder on the poor than the
poor themselves." She interviewed forty women to find the
four we meet in the film. "I just wanted to learn more about
the stories that got these women into these situations (that they
Iyoka and Valentina, two of the women featured
in the film, were former clients of Emily's. "Valentina made
a hell of an impression on me. I mean she is a fucking survivor!
It was really hard to edit her footage because everything she
said was so interesting, so honest, so clearly delivered."
Her awe of Valentina is evident in the film. Valentina exemplifies
the frustration many women experience in the face of all the responsibilities
that single mothers have to deal with on a daily basis.
Iyoka and Louis are a young couple whose apartment
was destroyed after a fire, leading them to go on welfare. Their
story is compelling because it shows how a young couple with a
child weathers the storms of poverty while also trying to keep
their marriage together. One of the best scenes in the film is
when they have an argument where Louis mentions his problems with
Iyoka making more money than he does. "After a year or so,
different people have different relationships with the camera
and with Iyoka and Louis, they almost used the time when we would
film as therapy sessions. Something Iyoka would tell me later
was that that conversation was one that they had never had but
that she had wanted to have with him. I mean that was a real victory
for me in terms of access just because they were not paying attention
to us at all and they were having a very real, very revealing
discussion about their relationship."
friend, Jen, who is featured in the film, is the caseworker who
introduced Emily to Abby, a beautiful young woman whose two boys
have been taken away from her and put into foster care because
she is unable to provide for them. Her story is the most harrowing
because she is such a loving mother who has simply been unable
to overcome a serious lack of resources. She needs a home for
her children but cannot make enough money or get help from the
city. Abby's story comes across the best because it is the most
cinema verite. You see horrible things occur in her life as they
One such scene was the last time we watch Edwin,
one of her three sons, going back to his foster home after a visit.
He is screaming and clawing at her in the middle of the street.
"I was shooting that scene and my hands were shaking, my
eyes were full of tears, it was terrible, it was really, really
sad shit and people on her block are looking at me like, 'You
fucking bitch. How could you shoot this?' There are a couple of
feats of access that I'm really proud of but that day was fucking
awful. That was a horrible thing for me. I mean, my identity is
really wrapped up in being a good person, a helper but there were
definite times where I was not a case worker, I was a film maker
and I had to realize for myself that there's sort of a greater
good going on. It's not the nicest thing to stick a camera in
someone's face when they're really upset but you do it as a film
maker, as a journalist, as a documentarian because you realize
that the greater good is to get the story out. (Pause) You just
have to be really unapologetic about it."
But what is the greater good? As Emily sees it,
the women are doing a public service by letting the public see
what is going on with welfare recipients. Still, when the film
is done, the women are still struggling and Emily gets a film
career out of the deal. I asked if any money changed hands and
she promptly said no and took a pause. She knew where this line
of conversation was going. "It's a really tricky thing. I'm
a white privileged girl. They've seen my apartment. I have a nice
place. I'm in a completely different financial situation than
they are. I would read in documentary books that you are under
no circumstances supposed to pay your subjects or lend them money,
really try and not let money enter into the picture at all
but it does. A couple of situations arose with Valentina's daughter.
She would call me and tell me the kids were hungry. And I was
like, 'Fuck this!' and I would go buy a bunch of groceries and
I'd chuck my ass up to the Bronx and try and come through for
them because I felt somewhat indebted to them for the time they
were spending with me and knew and cared about these children
so I wasn't going to sit around and let them suffer. But you have
to be very wary about letting yourself be manipulated at all because
it happened a second time and she did have food and I felt like
a real sucker and let my feeling be known and it didn't happen
again. Part of the reason we did the soundtrack was because we're
going to have a portion of the proceeds from that go to the women
in the film and their families because I really feel like they
did this really great public service and they should be rewarded.
Now it can't come out of my pocket because I don't have it like
that but I'm gonna try and raise some money for them."
Teresa was the final woman. When asked about
her, Emily took a deep breath, paused and finally replied, "I
didn't have nearly as good access with Teresa as with the others
which was very evident." Teresa is a middle-aged woman who
struggles unsuccessfully to get a waitressing job. Her part of
the film is significantly smaller than the other women's. "When
I went into this, I said there has to be a white woman in this
film. My co-producer felt adamant about this as well. We just
wanted to give a really good cross-section of the welfare population
and Teresa was an awesome choice because she dealt with the mental
illness thing. 50% of the welfare population has some kind of
mental illness so it's a very important thing to deal with."
Teresa's mental illness however is undiagnosed.
It is something that is apparent when watching her but is not
something that she herself seems to be aware of. In Teresa's last
scene in the film, Emily confronts her about her mental illness.
It is the last time she lets Emily film her. I asked Emily what
she thought would come out of confronting her. "What happened
with Teresa? I think she really didn't want me to see certain
things about her and Simon (Teresa's son). I think it was too
much for her. She wouldn't return my phone calls. I went to her
house on several occasions. I made major efforts to keep contact
with her. I saw her in the street and she wouldn't speak to me.
It was really sad for me . . .It's a sensitive thing. People feel
stolen from if you get footage that makes them uncomfortable."
Two weeks after our interview
in Union Square Park, Take it From Me aired on P.O.V. on PBS.
The piece has garnered praise from The New York Times, People
Magazine, and The Hollywood Reporter. It is clear that the documentary
has hit a cord with a lot of people and Emily's star is on the
rise. I wondered if she was happy with how it all turned out and
spoke with her later about it. She brought it all back to the
original idea behind the project. "A lot of politicians tout
welfare as this huge success. What I'm trying to say is just because
someone moves off of welfare doesn't mean that that they're moving
out of poverty. The fact remains that 1 in 6 children in the US
remain in poverty. That's the same as 1979. We can do much better
as a country."