Award-winning filmmaker Judith Helfand and Wayne State to host free virtual workshop on first-person storytelling and crisis

Helfand is this year’s Bob Allison (Allesee) Endowed Chair in Media at Wayne State University, which is presenting the three-day event in partnership with Freep Film Festival

The College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts’ Department of Communication joins forces with Freep Film Festival to host Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Judith Helfand, the 2020 holder of the Bob Allison (Allesee) Endowed Chair in Media, for the three-day virtual workshop The Power of I — First Person Storytelling in Times of Crisis, Oct. 22-24, 2020.

For more than 30 years, Helfand has explored the power of first-person narrative in her own work, examining health and environmental crises through themes that are at once personal and universal. During the 3-day virtual event, Helfand will take workshop participants behind the scenes of her highly acclaimed documentary films A Healthy Baby Girl (1997), Blue Vinyl (2002), Everything’s Cool (2007), and Cooked: Survival by Zip Code (2018) and her most recent work, Love and Stuff (2020), to examine narrative strategies, editorial decisions and messaging that take audiences far beyond the headlines, particularly in times of crisis.

“The workshop will tackle questions that I’ve been asking throughout my career,” said Helfand. “What brings you into a story? What cuts through the stats and the numbers? What gives your audience access so that they feel, imagine, reimagine and connect deeply with your story? What is the role of humor, irony, and juxtaposition? What is behind the power of ‘I’ to explore systemic crises, to tell stories about disasters and to offer audiences the chance to act before it's too late?”

Workshop presenters also include guest filmmakers from Detroit and around the globe, as well as Detroit-based journalists, bloggers and still photographers. They will explore the power of first-person storytelling in print, radio, film and interactive media, while providing emerging nonfiction storytellers the chance to share their works-in-progress as they strive to shape their stories and craft their first-person voice, style and tone.

“As we reckon with the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism, this workshop could not be more timely,” observes Juanita Anderson, head of Media Arts & Studies in the Department of Communication. “Helfand has gathered an amazing group of talented content creators for this workshop who are reimagining first-person storytelling to address these critical issues in ways that engage, enlighten and inspire.”

Participating organizations include the Detroit Narrative Agency, Memria, the Asian-American Documentary Network (A-DOC), WDET-FM, Documenting Detroit and the Detroit Free Press.

“We’re thrilled to continue our educational partnership with Freep Film Festival by presenting this event in conjunction with the Bob Allison (Allesee) Endowed Chair in Media,” said Katheryn Maguire, chair of the Department of Communication. “Bob Allison had an amazing broadcasting career, spanning nearly 60 years in both radio and television. The Bob Allison (Allesee) Endowed Chair in Media honors Bob's long legacy by allowing us to bring in renowned media professionals to work with our students and the Detroit community. This three-day virtual workshop is the perfect capstone to Judith Helfand's time with us as the 2020 Chair.”

Participants currently pursing Detroit and Michigan-based projects that explore current and ongoing crises (e.g., water, COVID-19, police reform) are strongly encouraged to participate and bring their works-in-progress for workshopping. 

The event is free and open to students and professional film and media makers, journalists, public health and crisis communication specialists, and community organizers. Registration is required at, and participants are encouraged to partake in the entirety of the event to fully experience presentations and feedback sessions. Space is limited, and expected to reach capacity.

There will be extra capacity for three film screening programs, which will be open to the general public who register for these films. The workshop’s Oct. 22 opening night features The Feeling of Being Watched, director Assia Boundaoui’s first-person documentary on the impact of surveillance. On Friday, a shorts program features films addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. The workshop concludes Saturday Oct. 24 with a public screening of the Oscar-nominated documentary Strong Island, along with a post-film discussion featuring Helfand and the film’s director, Yance Ford.

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About Judith Helfand
Judith Helfand is best known for her ability to use her quirky sense of humor and irony, first-person storytelling chops and the power of transparency to tackle some of the most pressing issues of our time – from reproductive technology, corporate malfeasance and toxic chemical exposure to the climate crisis, the “politics of disaster" and deep grief. A committed field-builder and educator, Helfand co-founded Working Films, one of the nation’s first non-profits dedicated to engagement in 2009, and Chicken & Egg Pictures, a non-profit film fund dedicated to supporting women documentary directors with strategic grants and creative mentorship in 2005. Helfand is on the Social Documentary faculty at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and is currently a visiting professor at the Columbia Journalism School where she is teaching documentary filmmaking

About the Bob Allison (Allesee) Endowed Chair in Media
In 2002, Detroit radio legend Bob Allison commemorated the 40th anniversary year of his signature program Ask Your Neighbor with a generous $1.5M gift to Wayne State University's College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts to recognize and facilitate scholarly and professional achievement in the Department of Communication. At the time, Bob stated it was “the best way to give back to a business that has given so much to me.” The endowed professorship allows nationally and internationally acclaimed media professionals to work directly with students on campus each year through classes, workshops and community events.  The endowed Bob Allesee Visiting Professorship in the Department of Communication has brought many accomplished professionals to share their knowledge with media arts students, such as Star Wars film editor Richard Chew, award-winning documentary filmmaker and MacArthur Fellow, Stanley Nelson, and acclaimed director, writer and producer, Julie Dash.

About Freep Film Festival
Freep Film Festival is a documentary-focused festival produced by the Detroit Free Press, Michigan’s largest news organization, in cooperation with its business and events arm, The festival specializes in films with strong connections to the issues, people and places in and around Detroit and Michigan, but also books top documentaries on a wide variety of topics. In addition to screening films, Freep Film Festival embraces the journalistic and community-minded mission of the Free Press, hosting in-depth discussions after most films to encourage conversations that spin off the issues raised on-screen. The festival is hosting a mini virtual event the first week of December 2020. That lineup and the festival’s 2021 dates will be announced soon.