When Faith Adiele was growing up, no one in the family album looked like her. That can happen when your mother is of Nordic descent and your father is Nigerian. It was tough being black in a small, overwhelmingly white farming town in Washington state. But eventually, Adiele's ethnic heritage made her just the ticket for PBS. "They were looking for a biracial girl," she says wryly.
Adiele was already a rising young writer; the 2002 phone call from PBS set her up to become a filmmaker, too. Adiele's segment of the documentary My Journey Home, detailing her family history and a visit to her father, in Nigeria, highlights the Sept. 12 installment of the Film Kitchen screening series. Also featured are short works by Michele Senko and Joseph Wilk.
PBS contacted Adiele at the end of her tenure at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, as she was preparing to teach at the University of Pittsburgh, where she's now an English professor. My Journey Home took her and a camera crew both to her tiny hometown of Sunnyside, Wash., to see her mother, and to Nigeria, where she reunited with her father and his family ... and where most of the community saw her as white.
Working with noted producer Renee Rajima-Peña (Who Killed Vincent Chen?), Adiele was to write and deliver the narration for her half-hour segment. As a writer ... her books include the memoir Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun ... Adiele is primarily inspired by film and photography. Ironically, that proved a challenge. "The first difficulty they had with me was my writing was too visual," she says. The producers already had the pictures; they told her, "We need you to actually say what you felt."
In preparation for the project, Adiele had attended the Sundance Film Festival with Lisa Freeman, the assistant editor with whom she'd work, to view other first-person docs. Adiele ended up suggesting her Journey Home segment's third act, in which she invites 60 people for her mom's birthday party. (PBS was also lured by the promise of shooting Sunnyside's annual Lighted Farm Implement parade.)
Adiele hated the rough cut of her segment, which emphasized what she calls "the tragic mulatto thing: 'She can't live with one foot in the black world and one in the white world.'" She says she persuaded the producers to include more historical context, including the attempted Biafran secession in Nigeria as well as the American civil-rights movement.
My Journey Home was first broadcast in April 2004, Adiele's segment complementing profiles of Vietnamese-American writer Andrew Lam and Armando Peña, a Mexican-American.
"Forty minutes after it aired, I started getting e-mails from complete strangers ... from all around the world," Adiele says. "It did what I wanted to do, which is start a dialogue."
For Adiele, being on the filmmaking team was an essential part of the process. "I wasn't that interested in being the subject, but I was interested in the writing," she says. "If I'd just been the subject, I would've hated it."
Eleven years ago, Michele Senko began suffering seizures. While the Aliquippa native has since controlled the problem with medication, she'd long hoped to make a film about the experience, telling how it feels to lose control and be aware of it at the same time.
Senko, 38, had studied video production at the undergrad and graduate levels. But only last spring did she forge ahead with the project, after taking a class at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. Her five-minute piece "Seized" will screen later this month at Erie's Great Lakes Independent Film Festival; it premieres Sept. 12, at Film Kitchen.