The second day of Filmfort 2022, the annual film festival in Boise, Idaho that is part of the popular Treefort Music Fest, opened with “Smile Little Ladybug.” The documentary short film tells the sometimes dark and always thought-provoking story of three generations of optimists and creative activists. Although the film explores subjects including anti-Semitism and racism in the American South, it is bright and gives viewers room to breathe and explore its topical nuances and inspired set design. And it does all this in only 16 minutes and 40 seconds, demonstrating the power of visual storytelling in the hands of capable filmmakers.
Andrea Zoppo is a clown known as Miss Ladybug, who followed in her mother’s clowning footsteps. Both women were inspired by Andrea’s activist grandfather, Herbert Kohn. When Herbert was 12 years old, Nazi soldiers came to his home and took his father. His mother found a way to secure the release of her husband and get the family out of Nazi Germany and to the United States.
As Executive Producer Sarah Fanchon Cohen explained during the post-screening Q&A, Herbert’s guiding principle was the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, which loosely translated means “repairing the world.” He dedicated his life to this after arriving in the Jim Crow South where he realized that he’d escaped one major persecution to find himself in another—one in which he was confronted by the fact that he was almost complicit with another kind of persecution, one directed not at him and his Jewish family but at their Black neighbors and fellow state and regional residents. Andrea and her mother extend Herbert’s legacy of making the world a better place by bringing joy to others through clowning. Miss Ladybug especially appears to embrace Herbert’s belief that it’s a privilege to change the world.
INTERVIEW WITH ‘SMILE LITTLE LADYBUG’ EXECUTIVE PRODUCER SARAH FANCHON COHEN
I caught up with Sarah after Filmfort to learn more about her involvement in the project and to talk about the filmmaking team’s goals related to ‘Smile Little Ladybug.’
What was your aha moment, the thing that made you realize that films could help you take your passion for people and education and use it to maximize your voice and contribution?
In 2015-2016 I was a Fulbright grantee through the U.S. Department of State, through which I taught at a teacher training college in Bogota, Colombia for a year. Before that, I had been teaching special education, middle and high school in the South Bronx, NY and wanted experience working in higher education and at the international level. When I got that opportunity, I started learning more about cultural diplomacy as viewed by the Department of State but also realized that when there’s true cultural exchange, it must be as horizontal as possible. The exchange itself is temporary, but hopefully, the effect—the transformational impact—is lasting.
In May of 2017, I was at a very niche conference for alumni of State Department exchange programs. There were thirty of us who had used inclusive education in a number of ways—from all over the U.S., all ages, and different kinds of folks. We shared about our own best practices and then we were invited to submit a proposal for a small grant on that theme.
We learned about film and the idea of digital storytelling—how it works, the tool itself. And there are a lot of different mechanisms and formulas for what the idea of digital storytelling really means. But there, I started thinking about my work in Colombia where there had been a civil war for the last 5+decades. I was working in the capital where the conflict—although it’s been going on for all these years—was not as visible. Yet, there were so many internally- displaced people who have been affected by the conflict throughout the country. I wondered how I could connect those dots for people who were about to go into classrooms. These educators were going to have many students in their classrooms who were impacted by the armed conflict but who had never witnessed it or lived it themselves necessarily.
So, I thought, Why don’t I go to them, to people who have experienced it, and share their stories, using digital storytelling to connect the dots for those teachers? That was my aha moment for sure. Thinking I could be the facilitator for bringing this story that will help improve inclusivity and cultural understanding just by facilitating getting that story from point A to point B.
That’s when I applied for and received that first grant from the State Department, and in 2017, I went to interview three activists who had been directly impacted by the Colombian armed conflict and then brought them and their stories and debuted the film in a dialogue with those teachers in training. And from there the model was born, and I’ve now repeated it a number of times.
In n February, I led a team in Namibia on a grant from the U.S. Embassy in Windhoek, where I partnered with Hand2Mouth Theatre to combine our models of devising theater and digital storytelling. We co-led workshops with Namibian theater artists and produced a short documentary about the process.
This year I also co-created a hybrid project in Nigeria for people with visual disabilities, reducing barriers to accessing employment by sharing their stories about how they became visually impaired, showing their employable skills and then connecting them with employers by using a film and a training, the same film and training methodology.
So, it’s been an ongoing journey but has always been in tandem with my other work in inclusive coaching and facilitation, and education strategy. I see it all as a packaged deal. I love this style of project and this model has been really effective.
Do you feel like short films work better for these things because you get in and get out or for some other reason? Or is it just a practical funding reason?
When I originally got into filmmaking I was thinking about how I could use a small amount of funding to tell an impactful story that brings the people with the stories together and the teachers together to discuss what we saw and talk about the theme. Embodying the idea of this horizontal dialogue and the concept of popular education, where every voice has an equal weight in the room. So, the decision to do short films was made for practical reasons. And I don’t think that you necessarily need the feature length to capture folks’ attention or to hear a story in a compelling, new way that they might not have considered.
What was it about this project that made it a must do for you?
In creating grant-supported projects, I’ve often hired male directors or male project collaborators, which has been great. But I wanted to experience working on an all women-identified team. At the same time, I wanted to be involved in a film project that I could offer my own lens, a project I could jump in at a different point in the production in the sense that for this, the original idea for the film was not mine.
This project with director Laura Asherman and producer Michele Lombardi was really interesting and important to me specifically for the theme of the film. A lot of it is, as you saw, around ideas of Jewish identity and Jewish identity in a larger American context and what it means to come from a legacy of suffering but also to be transplanted to or living in a world that’s still full of suffering even if it’s in a different kind of way. And how do you transfer what you’ve learned from your own suffering and be aware of and help with ongoing suffering that you’re witnessing in the community in which you now live? How do you make that better?
So, I loved getting to show that through this intergenerational story and saw how this could foster intergenerational and inclusive dialogue and bring up additional conversations about a topic that has certainly been discussed at length over the last 70 years.
Was there anything that surprised you about this project, and how has it changed you and how you see your work moving forward?
What continues to surprise me is how relevant the story of the Holocaust still is today. It’s still very present and in a lot of folks’ lives and family stories. We also continue to witness massive injustice today in the U.S. and around the world. So, the universality of this story continues to surprise and delight me. Working on this project reinvigorated my commitment to telling true stories about people’s lived experiences, and my belief that film is an incredibly powerful format because the story doesn’t stay in the world where it was shown. It can be shared anywhere at any time in perpetuity. So, the impact is limitless.
How are you and Forage Films using ‘Smile Little Ladybug,’ and how can people connect with you to start a conversation about the themes explored in this film in their community?
One of the cool things is that Miss Ladybug herself is collaborating on classroom curriculum to bring this to different kinds of organizations. I encourage people to reach out if they wonder how our family stories impact the way we envision making the world a better place.
We see the film as an in-house offering for community and religious organizations and in classrooms. The whole team is really excited about that.
Film festivals are also a great way for us to gain exposure and be on the circuit with other folks who have made amazing films. Using ‘Smile Little Ladybug,’ we’re working to build a conversation series. Facilitating conversations is what I’m passionate about and what this film is about.
THE FILMFORT AUDIENCE RESPONSE
And the film was a conversation starter. During the post-screening Q&A, the audience, Q&A facilitator and self-described “film festival circuit clown” Ali Giordani, and Cohen engaged in an exploration of personal and inherited trauma and how it can be the catalyst for compassion, self-actualization, and community service.
If you’re part of a church, synagogue, or any other type of community organization that might be looking for family-friendly programming, you can connect with the filmmakers to schedule a 15-minute film screening and 30-45 minute post- screening conversation by clicking here. You can also follow Sarah and Laura/Forage Films on Instagram: @sarahfanchon and @foragefilms.
THE FILMMAKING TEAM
‘Smile Little Ladybug’ was directed by Laura Asherman, an award-winning filmmaker whose production company, Forage Films, specializes in documentaries.
Producer Michele Lombardi got her start in horror but is now “focused on her passion for creating documentaries that explore the intersection of technology, society, and science.”
Film editor Ace McColl works across genres and has edited for Netflix, Vice Media, Discovery Channel, and Tyler Perry Studios. She describes her artistic expression as “experimental.” Asherman, Lombardi, and McColl are based in the Southeast.
Executive producer Sarah Fanchon Cohen interviewed above and film composer Kristina James are based in Los Angeles, California. James was the first recipient of The Chimaera Project’s film composing mentorship program and was mentored by renowned composer Bear McCreary. She “stands firm in the purpose to connect, educate and awaken people through the power of music and storytelling.”
This group of talented female-identifying filmmakers are living out their values through their art and through ‘Smile Little Ladybug’ show how short films and film festivals such as Treefort’s Filmfort can create a safe space to explore difficult topics and encourage meaningful conversation. Miss Ladybug summed it up the message of the film and the emotion it elicits best when she said, “Sometimes we just need to put on our heart-shaped glasses.”
Header and all ‘Smile Little Lady Bug’ promo images from Seed & Spark film campaign
Filmfort photos of Sarah Fanchon Cohen by Tatiana