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Community Centers: Animal Collective

Suzanne Guillette MFA '05

How many directors does it take to make an award-winning documentary film? In the case of the Meerkat Media Arts Collective, the answer seems to be 12. The group, founded by several Sarah Lawrence grads, made film history when they created a feature-length film using a consensus-based decision-making process.

The result of this experiment in art-making is Stages, a documentary chronicling the development of a theatre outreach project at a lower Manhattan community center, where urban youth and older Puerto Rican women co-wrote and produced a play about their life experiences. All 12 Meerkats received co-director credits, and every single creative decision about the film was put to the group.

While it sounds difficult—wouldn’t it be easier for a single person to make the decisions?—for the Meerkats, the inclusive, if lengthy, process is precisely what makes their projects worthwhile.

“We wanted to create a collective environment, one where we could work together toward a larger creative vision,” says Jay Sterrenberg ’05, one of the group’s founders.

Like many of the Meerkats, Sterrenberg’s coursework at the College was “a politicizing trajectory.” He studied economics and sociology in addition to film and theatre, and his experiences abroad—which included a service learning trip to Nicaragua and a semester in Bolivia—profoundly changed his post-graduate aspirations.

“I went from aspiring to be a Hollywood director to wanting to make non-fiction, social-issue documentaries,” he says.

After graduation, Sterrenberg and classmates Elliot Liu, Alexis Powell, and Sally Bergom—plus Eric Phillips-Horst ’04—moved into neighboring buildings on West 107th Street. Along with other SLC friends, they started meeting regularly, recognized their creative potential, and named themselves after the small, communal mammal.

For their first project, the Meerkats created a short in two weeks for a Film Racing Festival. Then they made 15 shorts in 15 weeks.

“It was incredibly empowering to have 10 people on the same page,” Sterrenberg says.

Their chance to make a feature-length film came in 2006. Alexis Powell was working with the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, which was starting an intergenerational theatre outreach project, and they asked if she would be interested in documenting the process.

The Meerkats spent a lot of time discussing how the actual decision-making process would work. They would meet weekly to view the highlights of recent footage and discuss developing themes.

We wanted to create a collective environment, one where we could work together toward a larger creative vision.

“When there is a difference of opinion about a proposal, we discuss it and amend it until everyone at least agrees that they feel comfortable trying it out,” explains Zara Serabian-Arthur ’06. “If we try it, and it doesn’t work for people, we talk about it again.”

All members shared in the creative process, whether or not they had filmmaking experience. For example, Serabian-Arthur and Tal Bar-Zemer ’05, both educators who worked in the College’s theatre outreach program, put their facilitation skills to good use in the production process. Liu and Josh Davis ’04 wrote the musical score for the film. Others with graphic design and Web experience created an online presence for the film once it was finished.

The result? Stages premiered in 2009 at the HBO New York International Latino Film Festival, where it was honored with the “Best Documentary” award, as well as the “Audience Choice” award. The film has been touring the festival circuit, appearing in Toronto, Los Angeles, and Nashville.

Says Sterrenberg, “Even after using this exploratory method—focusing on process as much as product—we made a real movie that found a home.”

This fall, the Meerkats are celebrating their fifth anniversary. The group now has 15 core members and 20 regular collaborators extending far beyond the Sarah Lawrence community. The group comprises teachers, musicians, writers, farmers, activists, educators, and filmmakers. Not all members work on all films these days, and all projects now have a “driver” who sees to logistical details, but the collective process is still thriving.

Serabian-Arthur is pleased that the consensual approach has proved its worth. “You can use it to create beautiful, functional work,” she says, “as long as you’re working with a group of people with a strong shared vision, the capacity to really listen to each other, and a deep sense of trust.”

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Four of the many SLC alumnae/i in the collective: Alexis Powell, Jay Sterrenberg, Zara Serabian-Arthur, and Tal Bar-Zemer