By Lori King
Her Sony HVR camera stood on a tripod in the center of the room as Detroit Free Press photojournalist Mandi Wright prepared to cover a news conference. A lesbian couple from Hazel Park, Michigan, were announcing that they were filing a federal lawsuit to overturn a state law that prevented them from mutually adopting their five children.
Wright and Free Press reporter David Ashenfelter were the only media there. So they covered the news conference, and Wright recorded an emotional video of April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse explaining their case and their family.
That video in 2012 began a long-term project that became “Accidental Activists,” a 79-minute documentary that captures the drama of a single court case that challenged and defeated all gay marriage bans in America. In June 2015, the Supreme Court struck down such bans, allowing same-sex marriage in all 50 states.
The movie is both polished and gritty and mostly a mixture of DSLR and iPhone stills and video footage. It shows what still photographers can do when they have a solid story and the support of an editor who encourages strong visual storytelling.
In this case, that editor is Free Press photo and video director Kathy Kieliszewski, who encouraged Wright to stick with this story throughout the family’s long fight for marriage and adoption equality.
When the project became big enough to become a long-form documentary, Kieliszewski came on board as editor and producer of the film. As artistic director and a programming board member of the Freep Film Festival, she knew the film would have wide audience appeal at the festival.
The festival sponsored by the Free Press — Freep, for short — began four years ago when Kieliszewski and executive director Steve Byrne wanted to show films
Kieliszewski strongly believed there should be a stage for those films, but Detroit didn’t have a film festival. So she and Byrne began planning. It took a year to convince the newspaper that it was something worth doing, but the paper finally signed off on it in 2014.
The festival started modestly but with success. One of the opening-night movies was Free Press executive video producer Brian Kaufman’s documentary “Packard: The Last Shift,” about the demise of the auto manufacturer. Kieliszewski said it was a huge success at that first festival, screening to more than 1,000 people at the Fillmore Detroit.
“The festival lets people know that the Free Press is a powerhouse in video,” Kieliszewski said. She said it was also good for brand awareness because people didn’t know the newspaper did film projects.