Producer’s Diary: ‘Fire Through Dry Grass’ (August 2019–October 2023)
In August 2021, in my work as Director of Film Impact and Innovation at Peace is Loud, I had a conversation with Fork Films’ former Chief Creative Officer Kat Vecchio about their upcoming grantees. All of the films sounded compelling, but she highlighted one in particular, Fire Through Dry Grass, which embraced a participatory model between seasoned documentarian Alexis Neophytides and one of its protagonists, self-taught filmmaker Andres “Jay” Molina. Alexis and Jay co-directed and collaborated with the film’s participants across all phases of production. At the time, I suggested to Kat that the team should share their learnings about this process with the documentary community.
Two years later, I’m happy to do just that—in this piece detailing the extraordinary collaboration that occurred on the film, and in a case study that delves further into the team’s embrace of care, community, and impact. The case study also includes key takeaways that might be applicable to other filmmakers, protagonists, and funders.
I joined the Fire team in January 2021 to help strengthen their foundation of equity, safety, and representation and lay the groundwork for an impact campaign. The role quickly expanded and gave me the incredible gift of witnessing the team’s deep love and commitment to each other, as well as the shared mission of justice and liberation that fuels their work.
This piece, and the case study, can’t possibly capture the full complexity of making a collaborative film with a team of more than 20 people. Instead, I think of it as a window into some of the benefits, challenges, and learnings from the team’s decision to forge an alternate filmmaking path and prioritize the community over the individual.
2016: OPEN DOORS and Reality Poets are founded
Jennilie Brewster began visiting Coler Rehabilitation and Nursing Care Center on Roosevelt Island and spending time with a group of its residents, including Andres “Jay” Molina, LeVar “Var” Lawrence, and Vincent Pierce. She set up a nonprofit initiative called OPEN DOORS, grounded in mutual care, respect, and friendship, and raised money to support the group’s creative education. Inspired by a visiting artist, they started writing poetry and named themselves the Reality Poets. Over time, the group expanded to include more Coler residents, including Francene Benjamin and Peter Yearwood, who also became the Poets’ manager.
August 2019: Alexis + Jay begin collaborating
Jay wanted to learn how to make motion graphics, so Jennilie found him a filmmaking mentor, Alexis Neophytides, a former Roosevelt Island resident who, in addition to co-creating and co-directing the documentary series Neighborhood Slice, had also designed a filmmaking program for The TEAK Fellowship, where she taught for nine years. OPEN DOORS hired her to work with Jay on bringing his projects from conception to reality.
I used to watch a lot of live TV, so I would see commercials with graphics, and it was always in my mind—how do you do that? I started researching and learned After Effects is one of the tools you need. I found YouTube tutorials that guide you through teaching yourself, and when Jennilie saw my interest in that she bought a subscription through OPEN DOORS. I taught myself Premiere Pro, After Effects, and Photoshop.
In August 2019, Jay had gotten a grant through OPEN DOORS to work with a filmmaker, so I went over to meet him and we hit it off.
She helped me a lot with a lot of stuff. I did a project in which I animated some of my poems. After each line of the poem, she wrote down possible images that I could use, and I found images from the internet and manipulated them into something that reflected a poem. She also filmed interviews with the Reality Poets about our work with OPEN DOORS.
We did storyboards together for his visual poetry, and I helped him film stuff. He wanted to make a film about the Reality Poets. Then the pandemic happened.
March 2020: COVID hits Coler
When the pandemic hit New York City in March 2020, the city began housing COVID-19 patients in a shadow hospital, the Roosevelt Medical Center, within Coler’s walls, while simultaneously placing Coler’s residents under lockdown.
We couldn’t meet in person, so we had Zoom meetings twice a week to talk about what we were going through. The hardest was when someone died. We were missing people from the group, and no one would tell us the truth about what was going on.
We were just thinking about—how the hell are we gonna survive this? We were in survival mode, not thinking about everything it takes to make a movie. We just wanted the world to know.
April 2020: Fire Through Dry Grass originates
When a COVID patient was put in Jay’s room with him, he and Jennilie had the idea to document and share what was happening to try to save the Poets’ lives.
A couple weeks into lockdown, as OPEN DOORS had moved our programming to virtual, the Poets were talking about their experience—Covid patients coming in, no separation, no PPE—and a lightbulb went off in my head: We’re in an unprecedented historical moment where they've shut everyone out of nursing homes, and I’m getting video footage from people inside living through it. The world needs to see this. Jay and I had a conversation about making a film and bringing Alexis in as his co-director. I said, “Alexis won’t be your teacher, she’ll be your partner—do you want to invite her to help tell this story?”
They put a patient with COVID in my room. I was feeling stressed out, like, these people don’t really give a fuck. They don’t care about my life. I called Jennilie and talked to her about the situation, and she noticed my anxiety. She said, “Jay, let’s make a movie.” I was like, “I can’t make a movie.” She said, “Why don’t we invite Alexis?” That’s when I said, “Yes, definitely, we’re gonna get this done.”
When they called me, I didn’t hesitate, because I was worried about Jay. We wanted it to be a quick turnaround and get something out to show what was happening in there—to save their lives.
Jay brought the idea of documenting everything to the Reality Poets at an OPEN DOORS meeting. We wanted people to know about the neglect and abuse, but not only that—what the staff was going through too.
We started having ideas of things to film besides Zoom meetings. Anything I could film on the inside, I filmed. Anything we needed to film on the outside, Alexis filmed.
I pulled three hours from all the Zooms Open Doors had filmed, and then our first editor, Diana Diroy, came in, and we put together a 15-minute selects reel. Then Jay did some early animations since he’d been doing that in his visual poetry. We submitted it to Field of Vision, and they gave us our first grant. It was amazing to have validation that other people cared about the story. We thought we were making a short, but from the beginning, Jay was like, “I think we have a feature here.”
July 2020: Nursing Home Lives Matter launches
OPEN DOORS and the Reality Poets launched the Nursing Home Lives Matter movement, advocating for all those living and working in long-term care, with a mission to end racism and ableism in long-term care. In response to the Poets’ living conditions, Nursing Home Lives Matter demanded the removal of Coler’s CEO, open lines of communication between residents, staff, and administration, and the implementation of safety protocols. In response, the president and CEO of New York City Health and Hospitals emailed Vince and set a meeting.
When Coler first had one positive patient, I remember thinking that they would set up a plan for us, but I didn’t know they were setting up a plan to bring COVID patients in. People started dying around us, and I was like, “Damn, somebody gotta speak up.” It made me go hard. I wrote a petition and we had an article in Mother Jones, but no one was listening until two travel nurses, who were white women, wrote to the New York Post. Then everyone started contacting us in support of Nursing Home Lives Matter. Once the community got behind it, I realized it could be a movement.
Some days I wanted to just break my window and jump outside. Vince fought for us. Coler’s CEO told us we couldn’t leave, and Vince kept going back, pushing, writing emails, saying, “You have to let us out. We need to breathe.”
Winter 2020: The film becomes a feature
The team applied to the ITVS open call for funding and was accepted, and the film evolved from a short into a feature. Executive Producer Sara Bolder also secured a large donation from an individual donor. Jay, Alexis, and Jennilie formed an LLC for the project to accept the money they raised for the film. The Reality Poets had questions about where the money was going, especially since the ITVS contract prohibited the team from paying the Poets out of this production budget solely for participating in the film.
The vision changed as we went. When we started reviewing the footage, I planted the idea that we had to make a feature to show the path each of the Reality Poets went through before we got to Coler.
Initially we had a small budget, but that changed when we contracted with ITVS and it shifted into a feature, which was great. But it was a crash course in how to make a film under duress.
I stand by the decision because the benefits to the community far outweigh the cost to my own sense of justice, but in that moment when we made the LLC, I felt like I was making a deal with the devil. In a sense, I was going to own Var and Vince and Pete’s stories, and the reason it was going to be in my name instead of theirs was that I was in the position to make it happen. We talked about all of this with them, and they were like, “Yeah, make the film,” but it wasn’t talked about enough. At the same time, I could’ve kept doing this work for another ten years and would not have brought as much money to OPEN DOORS. I believe in reparations as more than a thought experiment—what does actual redistribution of wealth look like? I’ve had benefits in my life from white privilege, and it’s important for me not to benefit from the sale of the film. If we’d had more time to talk about these things from the outset, it would’ve helped in the long run.
At some point, people started having questions—we’re bringing in all of this money, and more kept coming. Where is it going?
I didn’t realize how confused everyone was gonna be. This was a real learning point for me. We explained what ITVS was, and I thought we were talking to everyone and filling them in along the way, but it wasn’t enough. I didn’t realize that we needed to start the conversation all the way at the beginning. To the Poets’ credit, they said something. I think not moving to the speed of the film world is really important, but that was something we didn’t have any experience with at that point. We didn’t assume that everyone in the group knew everything, but as Jennilie says, repetition is key. Sometimes one conversation is not enough.
It wasn’t communicated the right way in the beginning, but once the concern was brought up, they really explained what they were aiming to do. That conversation helped us at a time because we said, “Before shit happens, we gotta sit down as a team and explain what’s happening from the beginning.” We nipped things in the bud before they started brewing.
Later Vince said, “This is what happens in families. You have conflict. Then you make up and get over it.” It also lit a fire under us to figure out how else we could pay everyone and create more opportunities for people to have a role in making the film. We went into action around those uncomfortable feelings.
One big takeaway is that it’s okay to fuck up. It actually helped build trust on the team, that the Poets could say something and we could all talk about it and apologize and discuss how we could do things better. That’s important in all relationships.
December 2020: The community rallies to protect the Poets
After hearing that COVID patients might be housed inside Coler again, Nursing Home Lives Matter held its first rally, with the Roosevelt Island community, elected officials, and press in attendance. On the same day, NYC Health + Hospitals announced they would not bring COVID patients to Coler’s facility.
April 2021: Lockdown is lifted
After 388 days, thanks to the Nursing Home Lives Matter movement, Coler lifted their restrictions and residents were finally able to leave the nursing home.
October 2021: M’Daya Meliani joins the team
The film’s original editor, Diana Diroy, left the project due to a prior commitment, and M’Daya Meliani came on as editor.
January 2022: Peace is Loud joins the team
Peace is Loud joined the project to support the team’s health and well-being, and to lay groundwork for the film’s impact campaign.
July 2023: World premiere
Fire Through Dry Grass had its world premiere at BlackStar Film Festival and won the best feature documentary award. The festival, which uplifts the work of Black, Brown, and Indigenous artists, was a shared space to recognize not only the trauma the Poets endured but also the power they hold.
When I saw myself in the film, I felt bubbly inside. I said, “Oh my God, really, that’s me?” Never in my wildest dreams could I have known it would become this.
This was the right place to premiere. The audience’s standing ovation, their reaction to certain parts of the film, and the fact that they were people of color who might come from communities like ours told me that they understand the struggle. The whole theater just erupted at the end of the film. We saw how important this issue is for people, how it’s still relevant for them. It was healing for the Poets—the support we received at BlackStar was just the thing we needed for our confidence.
Fall 2023: Theatrical and broadcast premieres
The film premiered at theaters in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and on POV on PBS stations across the United States. Fire Through Dry Grass makes its national broadcast premiere on the award-winning PBS television series POV on Monday, October 30, 2023, at 10:00 PM, and is streaming on PBS.org and the PBS App until January 28, 2024. You can read the film’s full case study here.
Stephanie Palumbo is a documentary impact strategist, film producer, and organizer. She is Director of Film Impact and Innovation at Peace is Loud, where she helps the documentary field prioritize care for film protagonists. She also oversees the organization’s filmmaker workshops and impact campaigns that use documentary films as tools for people-powered movement building.