This week, I participated as a mentor in the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) Academy. This year, the Academy took place in Santa Fe. It was, as in past years, an exhilarating experience. There is nothing more exciting than trying to help young, emerging filmmakers, full of enthusiasm and creative excitement, to launch great, stimulating projects. This year’s selected projects ranged from a film by a grandmother from New Mexico, who used the making of empanadas by four generations in her family as a tool to explore their Latina identities, to the haunting story of an abused Colorado woman, Virginia Gonzales. Her husband kidnapped their three daughters despite a police restraining order and got into a shootout with the police in which he and all three girls were killed. The film follows Virginia and her transformation from a survivor of domestic violence to a passionate activist who is now challenging the United States at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an international tribunal under the Organization of American States.

On the first night of the conference, Juan Mandelbaum, a producer, filmmaker and mentor in this year’s Academy, screened his riveting and beautiful film, OUR DISAPPEARED. The film is about Juan’s personal journey to Argentina, his homeland, to find out what happened to college friends during the repressive military rule of the late 1970’s. For me, the most moving part of the film involved Juan’s interviews with the children of friends that had been murdered. The children were infants when their parents were kidnapped and killed. Miraculously, they survived. Ines, for example, was only a few months old when her mother, Mimi, (one of Juan’s colleagues at a progressive summer camp they ran for poor neighborhood kids,) took her to the zoo. When Mimi saw the approaching soldiers she left the baby on the grass and went directly to the soldiers knowing full well what was at stake: torture and death. This brave move, against all her instincts as a mother, saved her daughter. Ines was picked up and raised by strangers. After a long and amazing journey, today she is a passionate young lawyer in San Francisco. It was riveting to see young men and women who were saddled by fate with a horrible legacy, trying to articulate their understanding of what happened and its meaning to their lives. It was exhilarating to watch how they were empowered by those horrors, transforming tragedy into hope.

It was precisely during that scene in the film that my cell phone rang. Embarrassed and annoyed, I of course turned it off immediately.

After the screening I listened to my voice mail message. It was from Mark Stroman’s daughter, Cassandra! It was the first time that I heard Mark’s daughter since I began the project almost 5 years ago.

Interviewing Mark on Death Row, I learned how important Cassandra is for him and how badly he wanted to see her at least once before his death. On this site, Shawna, Cassandra’s mother, wrote:

I can understand the very mixed feelings that people have for Mark Stroman. I myself spent five years with him and we have a child together who is now 15 and has not seen him since she was three years old. She is also a victim in this tragedy. I myself have cried for the families left behind of the people he killed, but mostly have spent years trying to explain to our child this tragedy. Shawna left Texas, where “many people grow up taught to hate” and settled on the West Coast.

For the past 5 years, I have been trying to get in touch with Shawna and Cassandra, so you can imagine how emotional Cassandra’s call was for me. I am still haunted by the coincidence of the timing of her call. Still under the impact of the film, I heard on the other side of the line, a mature, confident, amazingly honest and perceptive young woman. Cassandra, now 16 years old, told me that her dream is to pursue documentary filmmaking. She even researched potential colleges in her state with film programs!

In the future, I hope Cassandra can contribute her thoughts, feelings and impressions to this site and make her first, tentative steps into filmmaking by contributing some of the ideas and images she will capture to the film. I, for one, am excited to be her mentor! I have no doubt that despite this horrible tragedy in her family she will be empowered by it as she forges her own life, injecting our lives with her hope and optimism.

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