By Carol Colmenares
Her big smile strikes you when you first meet Barbara. But this, of course, would be meaningless if it wasn't followed by a genuine desire to listen and understand. I first met her, in passing, at a celebratory event at Women Make Movies, a non-profit media organization supporting the production, promotion, and distribution of films made by and about women. She stood among the crowd, welcomed everyone, and smiled. Caring, open, and understanding are some of the words people use to describe Barbara.
As we began to search for advisors for our new project, EnhAccess, Barbara was recommended by a colleague, and the choice couldn't have been more fitting.
I hadn't heard about Dicapta until you and I connected, and when I heard about the amazing work that you were doing, I wanted to be a part of it.
Dicapta recently spent some time getting to know Barbara.
Where does your story begin?
How far do we go back? I was born and raised in Miami, Florida, but I have lived in New York since 1996.
Barbara grew up in Coral Reef, now Palmetto Bay, a pleasant suburban neighborhood within stone’s throw from Miami. The youngest of three until about twenty years ago, Barbara’s career path could have taken her to a field in education or law, but in her own words, “as soon as I discovered film, sometime in my teens, I knew that I wanted to do something in it.” Luckily, her parents trusted her to follow her own interest.
How did that discovery come about?
I was visiting my grandmother, Lawana Walters, one summer. and I wasn't a huge reader, but she left a stack of books by my bed.
One of them, a biography of Vivien Leigh, the protagonist and larger-than-life star of Gone with the Wind. Barbara’s imagination was sparked by the amazing strength and determination of this actress, this woman, who refused to live on no other terms but her own. Without missing a beat, Barbara picked up Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, another example of strong women ahead of their time.“Through that biography (Vivien’s), I read about all of these works of literature,” and soon enough, Barbara found herself watching old Hollywood movies, especially adaptations of her favorite books, like the 1943 Jane Eyre film starring Orson Wells and Joan Fontaine. “And I think that that is where I first fell in love with that story.”
Thank you, grandma!
Yes, she was also very much into theater and music and film. She had a profound impact on the things that I would learn to love as I got older.
Would you say that literature led you to film?
Absolutely because studying literature, you're breaking down a story, you are, um, analyzing text, you are understanding character. But to me, the great joy of doing film and literature was to really think about ``How could these amazing stories translate to film?
Barbara graduated from NYU with a degree in Cinema studies and English literature. Since then, she has worked in various capacities in film, in production companies, and as an independent producer, she has worked for networks and non for profits. Barbara was an executive at Showtime for many years as the Director of Original Programming. Prior to her current job as the Film Program Officer at the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Inc., Barbara worked at the non-profit media organization Women Make Movies, guiding and helping many independent filmmakers “cross the finish line.”
You have held many hats in this industry; which one is most fulfilling?
I would say the mentor role is what I enjoy the most, when I can brainstorm with a filmmaker and either confirm something that they're thinking about or maybe help them think about something in a different way.
It’s easy to think Barbara’s mentoring style is a natural personality trait, but she is quick to acknowledge her previous bosses who led by example.
My first boss at Showtime, he could not have been more kind and, and generous he was very much a mentor and watching him, I saw the kind of person that I wanted to be.
Barbara relates a story in which an emergent filmmaker was having a hard time finishing her documentary. The main subject had pulled out, and the filmmaker had already invested several years into the production. It was through kindness and empathy, two guiding principles in Barbara’s life, that helped them find a way to make the work meaningful.
“I didn't have a lot of suggestions but we set up a time to talk. And in the course of our conversation, I maybe just helped her realize that she was not the first filmmaker that this had happened to and it was right to respect the subject's wishes to no longer participate.”
The film was eventually completed, but not in the original format, which was a feature-length.
“That was a really meaningful conversation to me because, at the end of it, she felt better about where the project had ended up, the work that she had done, and realized that it was still important and that she still had something to contribute with the work that she had already done.”
That is the one thing about this industry, it’s never a straight line from start to finish, right?
“I sort of had this idea that there was one path to follow, and it was going to be straightforward.
And one thing leads to the next thing leads to the next thing. And if I have learned anything, it's that there is actually no one path. Each experience, even if it feels like it's diverging, gives you more, more experience, more knowledge, that only helps you get to the next thing.”
This is a fantastic segue into our next topic about your relationship with media accessibility previously and in your current position.
Of course, I was very, very familiar with closed captions, but audio description, not as much.
I was also very much aware from the distribution end that closed captioning was a required deliverable for a lot of broadcasters. And that's wonderful, but the audio description was not something that I ever read in a deliverable contract.
Fortunately, the media landscape has been progressively changing. There is a willingness and commitment to understand and provide accessibility for all. One of the most impactful actions in raising awareness has been adding questions in grant applications and Requests for Proposals (RFP’s) that specifically ask about serving different audiences.
In our grant applications, we added a question, are you making your media (film, exhibition, etc.) available to visually or hearing impaired audiences? I think just asking that question puts the thought into their head that they should, if they haven't already thought about it, they should.
And most people answer YES. Perhaps the next step is making sure people know that we're talking about both Closed Captioning and Audio Description.
Being unfamiliar with Audio Description, how do you think you arrived at formulating this question?
I'm not sure why it came to me or how it came to me. I'm glad it did. I think part of it has to do with my work at Women Make Movies, which I think was probably the biggest growth that I've experienced as an adult; being exposed to so many different topics. Having to think intersectionally about accessibility in all its forms. Thinking about who is telling the story from whose point of view are we telling a story, who is the audience for a story?
So to me the question was just organic. It was just, it was one that needed to be asked, because it's important.
And because at the Claims Conference, we believe that our films and the work that we're doing should be accessible to any audience, to as many people as possible.
We’re at the end of our time with Barbara. We briefly talk about the challenges of parenting a 10 year old girl and a 3 year old boy, balancing life, and work and how striking it is to let them lead and show us the way. She lovingly says that she’s proudest when they make choices that are kind and empathetic. I am not surprised; the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
Barbara and her husband have a goal to visit all 50 states. They have traveled hundreds of miles to fly-fish in Montana or explore the beautiful State Parks in West Virginia. They are up to 46, with Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon, and Idaho still on the list.