Alice Apley (NYU Anthropology and Culture & Media, PhD 2000)
Dr. Alice Apley has served as Executive Director since 2011 of Documentary Educational Resources, the company that champions the creation, circulation, and preservation of documentary film and media that amplifies underrepresented voices, and inspires understanding about people, cultures, and identities of the world. In this role, she oversees curation, marketing, exhibition and stewardship of DER’s catalogue of nearly 900 cross-cultural, art, and community-based documentary films, and leads the organization’s filmmaker services and fiscal sponsorship programs. Prior to coming to DER, Alice spent over a decade consulting for educational media producers and museum teams, conducting research and evaluation studies, producing video case studies, and contributing to project design and development. She has served as a panelist for NEH, NSF, and NOAA among other funders. Her film production work includes co-directing Remembering John Marshall, about the anthropologist and well-known filmmaker who started DER and was a foundational figure in ethnographic film; and director of short videos for the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Alice has a Ph.D. in Anthropology and a Certificate from the Culture and Media Program from NYU where she completed a dissertation, “The cultural management of upward mobility in Botswana (2000) and a short film, African Wrap (1995). Dr. Apley has served on the Editorial Board for the Peabody Museum Press at Harvard University and as a Board Member for the Society for Visual Anthropology (2009-2011).
Interviewer Cara Ryan is a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at NYU, and graduate of the Program in Culture & Media.
Cara Ryan (CR): What brought you to the Culture & Media Program?
Alice Apley (AA): After college, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana in southern Africa and got very interested in anthropology and in how to convey a cross-cultural experience. When I moved back to New York I started doing video work. I took a course at Global Village, which doesn't exist anymore, but it was a community educational video space. They provided courses and had a film festival. I was putting together part-time jobs, doing any kind of video work I could find, including working for a news magazine program about South Africa during the final years of Apartheid. There was a media ban. Information was not getting out about what was happening in South Africa, and it was getting very violent. We were getting hi-8 videotapes that were smuggled out of the country and cutting half an hour programs that we then would have to cajole PBS to put up on the national feed (they were sometimes resistant because the time code of the hi-8 tapes was not up to the standard of broadcast) and local channels would choose whether or not to broadcast it. We were working through WNYC which used to have a TV station. I realized that I was less interested in approaching film through journalism and wanted to do something more focused on cultural and systemic issues. Once I learned about the NYU Culture & Media Program, which was then called the Ethnographic Film and Video Program, I applied.
CR: When did you first start getting interested in John Marshall? Was that during your time at NYU or were you already interested in his work?
AA: It was when I started at NYU, from the first class where that I saw his films. As a Peace Corps volunteer I was an agricultural science teacher at a middle school in Botswana. Most of the students were Tswana, not Ju/’hoansi or from another San community, but in the village that I lived and worked in there was a big sign that said “Molepolole: Gateway to the Kalahari.” The dirt road started there and we had students who came from remote villages and it was very clear that there was this other population. Botswana is very Tswana-defined. The Ju/’hoansi and other San groups are largely marginalized but they're also very present in the national identity. One of my first encounters with a self-identified San person was when I was traveling with students in the desert. Another teacher and I had started a wildlife club at the school, and we took a group of students to a game reserve. One of the government ministries was offering these trips; if we raised the money for the food, they would provide everything else to bring students to the nearest game park or game reserve. The idea behind it was that tourism was a booming industry and the students and even the Batswana teachers at the school, had never traveled to any of the game parks. Most had never seen an elephant, or a wildebeest, or a giraffe, which were such draws for international tourists. We visited the Khutse Game Park and the ranger was Montaga, a San man, who regaled the students with his lion encounters over a campfire at night. I remember how fascinated the students were with Montaga and his stories. While I never traveled to Nyae Nyae or Tsumkwe (where John Marshall worked), John Marshall’s films were immediately familiar to me. I was blown away by his ability to convey so much of the environment and the mannerisms and the pace of life.
CR: Following the Culture & Media program, what was the next phase of your career and what drove you into it?
AA: One of the other jobs I had in the period between the Peace Corps and NYU was teaching video to middle and high school students. And during graduate school, I had a part-time position at WNET (Channel 13) in the Foundation and Grants Office, where I began to learn about the world of the National Science Foundation and other large federally supported film and media projects. When I finished at NYU, I worked for an educational research firm that did consulting for museums and filmmakers, or other media makers who had gotten large grants. I did things like focus group testing with rough cuts and impact studies. It fed into my long-term interest in how to use film and media for learning, even though it was usually a very different kind of filmmaking from the ethnographic media I had studied at NYU. This work was a way of exploring that and applying social science skills to thinking about how to measure impact, which can be problematic, but was interesting. I did that for a while and as I got to know different clients, I got more involved in actually shaping the grant proposals and the projects. I did that for about 10 years and then the position at DER (Documentary Educational Resources) opened up.
CR: How did you break into the world of DER?
AA: In those years between NYU and DER, I made a couple of short films, including a film about John Marshall (Remembering John Marshall (2006, Alice Apley & David Tamés, 16 min). I had gone to the premiere of A Kalahari Family (2002, John Marshall) at the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston, and it was like “oh my God there's like a whole community in Boston that knows and loves John Marshall’s work!”. When the opportunity presented itself to make a short film about John after he passed away, I jumped on it. Through that experience, I got to know more about DER, and when the previous executive director decided to retire she let me know about the position. The DER Board then did a national search and a year later they hired me.
CR: Could you tell me more about what drove you to make Remembering John Marshall and what you wanted to portray in the film?
AA: DER was having a 35th anniversary celebration at the Museum of Fine Arts. One night was planned as a tribute to John Marshall and the film was made specifically to be shown at that event. When I had seen A Kalahari Family years earlier, I was immediately struck by the inclusion of John’s voice. After years of watching all his earlier films, in which [for the most part] he is outside the frame entirely, I was just so struck by his presence. So, I wanted that short film to revolve around who is John? The idea was to structure it around his emergence from behind the camera, both in A Kalahari Family and in this short film.
We were so fortunate to find real story tellers among his friends and family. For instance, there's a story that Sandeep Ray tells about working with John in the editing room and how he would be watching the footage and cursing at the camera person for not doing this or that, and that was just exactly what I remembered from visiting him in the editing room years earlier. He would be storming around and shouting at the screen in Ju/hoansi. So that was the kind of thing that I wanted to capture: who was this person and how is it reflected in his films, and to pivot around these historic films, where he was not in them, to this moment where he's revealed. I realize that there is a deeper critique that can be made of the Marshall family and their role in colonialism. But I thought this recognition of the family history in A Kalahari Family was significant. So that was the idea for the film.
I was really proud of how much information we were able to pack into 16 minutes. The film had to be short to show along with The Hunters at the MFA, so we used the film clips to show the transition in his filmmaking in regard to reflexivity. We made that film in two months, but in fact, I had spent years doing the research it was based on.
CR: What motivates you and what's your favorite part of your job?
AA: That's a good question and it's a good thing to remember when I’m weighed down by the stresses of running a small nonprofit organization. The things I love about it are the films and the filmmakers: finding and promoting new works and thinking about how we ensure the longevity of the films and the relevance of the older works. It’s all about the films and the filmmakers. And now we've got this Indigenous Studies Initiative which is a way of foregrounding our 300 or so films that document different indigenous communities. DER films have always been appreciated in the communities they document, but we’ve put most of our effort into outreach to the world of anthropology. Now we’re really thinking about: how are these films valuable for the communities? What can we do to make them more accessible? And how can we create new dialogue around these works? That's really exciting to me.
CR: There have been many critiques made of the anthropological project and ethnographic film. Has responding to these critiques been a part of your role as director at DER?
AA: Yes, very much so. The Indigenous Studies Initiative is the first significant step in the thinking about, how do we indigenize, decolonize and rethink what role DER can play in the 21st century. It's disconcerting because I don't have all the answers, but it's also exciting to see the reception that we've had to the reparative cataloging work that we've done online; both updating the culture group names and mapping the films and communities visually through an interactive map. This allows us to map the films in the DER collection without reference to colonial borders. We’re looking now at how do we reach out to tribal libraries, archives and tribal colleges to let them know these films are available and that we’d like to support new dialogues around these older works. And we’ve been learning a lot about other initiatives involving the recontextualization of ethnographic films. We've reached out to a number of indigenous studies faculty and to other collection managers and the response we've gotten has just been tremendous. So that's really exciting.
CR: What advice might you give to Culture & Media students who are hoping to pursue a career outside of the traditional boundaries of the academy?
AA: For me, I explored a lot of different avenues through part-time jobs in film and media so that I was able to find a path along an educational media trajectory that ultimately, led me back to the edges of academia and anthropology. All of the grant writing skills I got along the way, and knowledge of the larger landscape of educational media and museum projects … all of that was really helpful. I think that there are pros and cons to stepping outside of academia. In a way, academia offers a more straightforward career path and stability, assuming that you can get to the point of tenure. If you step outside of that it's not as straightforward.
CR: Are there specific elements of the Culture & Media training that you've applied in your career?
AA: The training in how to think about films about cultures, communities and people has been invaluable. it's just such an incredible perspective. Knowing about production as well as the issues of cultural representation and the relationships between the filmmaker and film participants—all of the pieces that are interrogated during the Culture & Media program. I feel like the documentary community more broadly is just catching up to many of the things anthropological filmmakers have been talking about for a long time. For instance, the issue of documentary film ethics has always been at the forefront of the Culture & Media program. Those are issues things that are in the limelight right now, with people thinking about Black Lives Matter and indigenous issues and calls for “decolonizing documentary”.
CR: Is there anything else you would like to share?
AA: I’d like other Culture & Media graduates to know we are always open to considering their films for distribution. We also have a fiscal sponsorship program. Because we’re a 501(c)(3) nonprofit we can accept grants from foundations that will only grant funds to non-profits; and we can also accept donations on a tax-deductible basis.
CR: That's good to know. If there are NYU students who are interested in this that's good for them to have on their radar.