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Faculty Friday: Joan Brooker-Marks

Joan Brooker-Marks is a writer and filmmaker with an extraordinary passion for Documentary. As she has pushed herself to discover the form in new ways, she has brought the Film Department with her, helping to create our outstanding undergraduate Documentary program. A Silent Truth is her bravest film yet.

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Brooker-Marks in class.

Early in my tenure at SVA, I began exploring the documentary process. In both writing and filmmaking, my interest has always been in human portraits — the extraordinary in ordinary people, especially at a time when mass media is primarily concerned with the exploitation of ‘celebrity’. At about the same time, new technology — digital cameras and editing software — began to make what was once financially impossible, possible. That was 15 years and five films ago. Though each of those films was a remarkable journey of it’s own, the most recent — released for streaming this week — was a truly a trip into the heart of darkness. The Silent Truth began as an investigation into the sexual abuse of women in the military. Seven years ago, we were starting to hear rumblings in the military community that sexual assault was becoming a huge problem among the troops. Little did we know how pervasive it was and how horribly the Pentagon would handle it. In fact, much more time and energy was spent trying to bury the truth than address it. My investigation into both sexual abuse and it’s cover-up led me to Colonel Ann Wright, who told me LaVena Johnson’s story. LaVena was one of about twenty-four female troops that had died in what the army terms as ‘non-combatant’ deaths, which, in several cases, were characterized as suicides. Additionally, many of these ‘suicides’ (although not all) were women who had been raped. svajoan2 Some of these families, including LaVena’s, offended by the difficulty of obtaining information, and the poor quality of that information, rejected the Army’s findings. So, with precious few resources, La Vena’s parents began to investigate on their own. The army obfuscated and made it absolute hell for these families. Even with FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) it was often impossible to obtain all of the relevant documents. Sadly, there is only one instance in which a family was able to get the truth from the military: that was the murder of Morganne McBeth. The army initially ruled her death as ‘accidental stabbing’, then ‘self-inflicted stabbing’, and then finally admitted that two fellow soldiers were involved, but were just ‘horsing’ around. For the McBeth family there was at least some closure, but unfortunately for the Johnsons and others, it’s doubtful the truth will ever be known. For the families, this is life-long devastation – never knowing how your child really died – and at the same time recognizing that the military does everything it can to deny justice for their children. This is most clearly evidenced in the case of Pat Tillman, a visible and highly public figure (a NFL all-star who joined the elite Army Rangers). If his family can’t get the truth from the Army, who can? Still, the stories must be told.
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Brooker-Marks on a panel with Larry Flint, whose First Amendment cases are the subject of her last film.

My own documentary work has been closely aligned with the development of the Film Department’s documentary program and has become a critical part of my own filmmaking. Helping our young documentarians develop projects — guiding them through the long and often frustrating process of piecing together their stories — has been an amazing collective journey into all aspects of the human condition. From the light hearted to the emotionally wrenching, the exploration of non-fiction storytelling has forced me to constantly re-examine the world around me and to acknowledge that not all questions have answers.In the past five years I have seen incredible work from our students, in classes ranging in size from ten to even twenty young non-fiction filmmakers. We have students from our discipline go on to screen at such notable venues as Full Frame Documentary Festival, Big Sky, SXSW, and even nominated in the Student Academy Awards documentary category. Additionally, many of our doc students go on into the professional documentary world, as directors, cinematographers, and editors – or all of the above. It is incredibly rewarding and informative for me to be a part of this difficult and

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