“A Club You’ve Always Wanted To Be a Part Of”: Abigail Disney and Kathleen Hughes on DCTV Firehouse Cinema’s Inaugural Film The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales
Founded in 1972, DCTV (Downtown Community Television Center) has the distinction of being one of the rare permanent cinema landmarks in NYC. Housed in a striking firehouse on Lafayette Street in Chinatown, the non-profit media center has long been the one of the most prominent documentary production and film education centers in the country. After a storied legacy of hosting various educational programs, folding-chair screenings, master classes, panel discussions and Chinatown-specific community events, on its 50th anniversary the building will now finally house its own specialized cinema.
“We don’t make films for ourselves, we make films for people to see them,” said documentarian Jon Alpert, who co-founded DCTV with his wife and fellow documentarian Keiko Tsuno. “It doesn’t make a difference how good you are as a filmmaker. If [the film] winds up in your sock drawer, then you failed.”
Firehouse: DCTV’s Cinema for Documentary Film is the ostensible solution for such “failures,” which Alpert contextualized as a shortcoming of the broader cinematic landscape. “This theater is part of the vertical integration for the filmmaking community, because it’s really hard for documentaries to get into theaters,” he explained. “It’s hard to have the experience of sitting in a beautiful room like this. The picture looks really good, it sounds really good. It’s been 50 years in the making.”
With 67 fixed seats, 4K projection and 7.1 surround sound, Firehouse provides an opportunity for documentary filmmakers to screen their films in a specialized community space.The space itself has been constructed with materials donated by renowned documentarian Hart Perry from his forest in Germantown, New York. Rustic strips of wood line the cinema’s walls, and colorful lights seep out as halos from under these raised boards.
It’s equally important to Alpert and Firehouse programmer Dara Messinger that the theater have a wider reach outside of its New York City setting. “We serve the tri-state area first and foremost,” said Messinger. “But during the pandemic, we did virtual screenings and workshops. It’s really great, it does a lot for accessibility and connects you further than your own city. Jon was already passionate about this pre-pandemic, but the theater is going to have a lot of interactive features, so that a filmmaker in Shanghai can still talk to us in this space.”
DCTV has come a long way from its origins, when screenings were held in a dilapidated mail truck that Alpert bought from the post office for $5, equipped only with two 21-inch black and white Carlson monitors. Their original audience was made up of pedestrians on their way to the subway, navigating blaring car horns and police shakedowns—suffice to say, building a formal theater space has been a long time coming. “It’s always been a multifaceted organization,” said Messinger. “Between all of the educational programs and resources that we’ve had, to now have this exhibition aspect just comes full circle in supporting documentary artists.”
More than anything, Firehouse’s long-awaited opening is the product of a lifetime’s worth of work—and a whole lot of collaborative passion—geared toward exemplifying the art of non-fiction storytelling. “I’ve committed my life, and this organization, to making and celebrating documentaries,” Alpert added. “I really do believe that as an art form it is something that can impact our society and make it better. Documentaries are a very, very important tool. This is a place where that tool can be even more effective.”
Opening to the public on Friday, September 23, Firehouse’s inaugural film is Abigail Disney and Kathleen Hughe’s The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales, a documentary that uses Disney’s family ties as a way to examine the ever-widening economic chasm between CEOs and the minimum wage workers that keep their businesses running on the ground floor. Four employees (known internally as “cast members” in Disney corporate lingo) at Disneyland in Anaheim, California reveal the dismal poverty wages provided, which force them into an eternal state of financial and mental distress, with the threat of hunger, homelessness and hefty student loans eternally looming closer after each meagerly-paid shift.
Disney and Hughes spoke to Filmmaker over Zoom, getting into the weeds of their shared directorial process, discussing the lasting impact of the late Barbara Ehrenreich and highlighting their joy in their film being the first to screen at DCTV’s Firehouse Cinema. The film will screen from September 23-29 at Firehouse and will be available on VOD starting on the 23.
Filmmaker: As co-directors, you actually had very different roles in the fabric of the documentary itself. Abigail, this film is filtered through the lens of your family history and how the Disney company has effectively prioritized profits over people. As a result, it makes sense that your presence in the film is tangible. Meanwhile, Kathleen continues to capture subjects and shape the film from behind the camera. Can you both speak to these distinct positions you took in crafting the film, and how you were able to balance those different duties as co-directors?
Disney: I mean, they weren’t that distinct. All of the thinking and the emotional work, we did together. We really were co-conspirators and God, I needed Kathy so badly, to check some of my not-great impulses and tell me when I was wrong. Kathy has a much longer history in terms of technical skills. I rely very heavily on her. Everything would be upside down if it were on me. The meat of the film is really Kathy and me struggling it out, together.
Hughes: Then there was our editor, of course, who was the third partner. Sometimes that was really interesting too, because we had a big three-way conversation. But I think that what Abby just said is true. When we were actually filming, I saw Abby as one of the participants—I’m not allowed to say characters anymore—in the film. In a way, the hardest thing, if I can pull the curtain back a little bit, was getting Abby to show some of her personal life. She didn’t want this to be some kind of gossipy Hollywood or “let me show you my dirty family linen” [story]. We really wanted to talk about the economic issues. We really wanted to move the film in that direction. I think where I had to convince Abby a lot of times was, “Let’s go sit with your sister Susan. People really want to get to know you in this film.” I feel like that’s something I contributed, because I think if Abby had her way, she might have faded into the background a little more. She hates getting her picture taken.
Disney: I really do! You know, there’s Michael Moore, front and center of all of his films and ideologically guiding them along. I don’t know if the world is ready for a woman to do that yet. I’m also very aware that as a woman with a famous name who inherited money, there are a lot of people who are prepared to hate me. It’s a little hard to push myself forward, because I know that there are always going to be people who are just locked and loaded.
Filmmaker: I had a feeling that perhaps Kathleen had pushed you in front of the camera a little bit more. It does, like Kathleen mentioned, make the viewer really identify with the story, because it’s really compelling to see privileged people challenging the norms of these institutions. It’s not something that you’re really accustomed to seeing,
Hughes: The workers in the film are really brave, because they’re risking jobs. That’s really amazing, but in her own way, I think Abby is really brave to use her family name and family story to make a larger, very noble point. I mean, you saw the reactions that people in Congress had to what she was saying. It’s not an easy road.
Filmmaker: There are hundreds of thousands of Disney employees between the two parks, yet you choose to focus on Disneyland, specifically, and four distinct employees. How did you settle on these specific subjects, and why focus solely on the Anaheim park?
Disney: There’s only so much you can fit into a film, right? If you take a really large bite, then you spend all your time chewing it. You don’t get to breathe, and you don’t really get a chance to know people. I think films are more like jewels—you should cut them perfectly and let them be in all of their glory. A lot of people wanted to work with us, but didn’t want to take the chance. We needed people who really felt certain about their participation. We wanted people with different kinds of experiences. Artemis has more housing insecurity, Ellie is young and doesn’t want to take on a lot of student debt and is doing everything that society tells her to do. Ralph and Trina are trying to raise a family. So, it was four different segments of the ways in which we’ve really kind of crushed low wage workers, and made it difficult for them to rise. The most important thing was, were they totally certain that they could handle the risk they were taking?
Hughes: In terms of Anaheim, we did some preliminary calling and conversations with people down in Florida at Disney World. What we found, unfortunately, is that the story was very similar down there. You’d find people who can’t find adequate housing, who are going to food banks, who are working two, three jobs, sometimes sleeping in their cars. That didn’t make it easier to not go to Orlando, but we realized we could tell the whole story in Anaheim.
Disney: Honestly, there was a little more fear in Florida.
Filmmaker: Florida and California are very different landscapes.
Disney: Yeah, in terms of worker’s rights, those are very different states.
Hughes: Anaheim is also where Abby went a lot as a child.
Disney: I grew up there.
Filmmaker: We touched on this a bit earlier, but I think that from a worker’s perspective, this documentary is incredibly powerful and downright true. Life is getting worse for the working class, and I think it’s heartening to see more and more union activism making strides for better pay and conditions. However, there is a large swath of the American population that just doesn’t want to believe things are as bad as they are because they aren’t experiencing these financial and social struggles. Can the tide truly change through gradual policy efforts or is something more drastic needed for a real awakening here?
Disney: I do think that we’re actually in the middle of an awakening. It’s just not everybody understands that they are awakening from the same nightmare. So when you hear the rhetoric of the folks on January 6th, about big business and elites, they are not wrong. Their analysis of why and what to do about it might be different from mine, but we are so much closer than we think we are. Both sides—if you want to say both sides, there are more than two sides—have come to the same conclusion. It is not working for everybody else, just for the corporate elite. What’s needed is leadership. We need good leaders who will help people understand that they’re really more together than they think they are. I don’t know how we get there, but there’s also so much to be done at the incremental level. Not even just legislative—there are changes in rules and regulations that can be made with the stroke of a pen. We can fund the IRS, which has been eviscerated, and the antitrust mechanisms inside the government. Re-empower the NLRB, so that unions get the support they need. There are a million things that need to happen. There are structures we’ve deliberately decimated that need to be rebuilt. I think that the electorate is coming around to this. The federal sub-minimum wage is $2.13 an hour. If you put one fair wage on a ballot—which is basically bringing up the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers to the minimum wage for everybody—whether it’s statewide or locally, it has never lost. Sometimes it wins by more [votes] in places where Trump has won. So, this is not a left-right issue. This is everybody’s issue.
Filmmaker: Mentioning tipped workers, I wanted to bring this quote up because I’ve been thinking of her writing so much—
Disney: Barbara Ehrenreich.
Filmmaker: Yes, who just recently passed away. I love this quote from Nickel and Dimed that’s been going around. I’m sure you’ve read and book and have probably heard this quote a million times, but I wanted to put it in the context of this film:
When someone works for less pay than she can live on—when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently—then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The “working poor,” as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.
I’m curious if her work informed this film in any way, or if she made a particular impact in either of your careers as non-fiction storytellers advocating for the rights of the many as opposed to the privileges of the few.
Hughes: That’s a beautiful summary of the conversation we’re trying to kick off with this documentary. Abby has been spending a lot of her time in recent decades trying to rebalance the system, trying to make it a fairer system, since way before we made this film. Barbara Ehrenreich—I think anybody who read any of her work or watched her on television could walk away feeling like we all need to contribute to a larger re-engaging with the community.
Disney: My heart is so broken, losing Barbara Ehrenreich. She was extraordinary. That quote is really all you need to read to understand why, because she could take an issue that was all up in your brain and make it about your heart. That’s what we’re trying to do in this film, say with the Gwendolyn Brooks poem at the beginning. We are each other’s business, stop using business as a way to get around what’s personal, because you and I know that what’s personal matters more. I read [Nickel and Dimed] when it came out, and it really did change my thinking about everything. Barbara Ehrenreich was really finding her way to these issues by talking about women, because they come home, they hold the families together. They are the glue in this country in so many ways. In many ways, she took me by the hand—intellectually, spiritually, emotionally—and led me into a lot of things. It’s because of her that I learned what the words “living wage” meant. She informs so much of what I do. What she raises there around being a donor hits me so hard, right in my chest. I try to be a donor, but what she’s talking about is women who are forced to be donors, which is a very different situation. I’ve never given enough away that it actually affected me. People who are philanthropists never give enough away that it actually affects them or touches them in any way. It’s unheard of, frankly. The word philanthropy comes from the [Greek] word “love of human beings.” That’s genuinely what philanthropy is_to extend yourself on behalf of others. It’s why I made this film, because who am I not to be at risk? I just said this to somebody, but what kind of Disney princess would I be if I didn’t step up for people who aren’t in my position?
Filmmaker: It’s paradoxical that the media company that teaches children the most inherent values that we grow up with—to share and be decent and love indiscriminately—is also the source of so much pain for the people that it employs.
Disney: I’m going to steal that from you and tattoo it on my forehead.
Filmmaker: On a lighter note, I definitely want to highlight the use of animation in the film, which I found very clever and engaging. It feels like Disney animation that’s made a bit more robotic and crude, which translates so well to the film’s theme of this company acting coldly and callously toward its workers. Can you speak about utilizing that design motif in the documentary?
Hughes: The animator’s name is Sean Donnelly. He has a company called Awesome + Modest, and he is both. He’s really awesome, and he’s pretty modest. As a teammate, he was really just working right alongside us trying to get it right. Before we even knew how we were shaping the film and who was going to be in it, Abby knew she wanted animation.
Disney: There’s this really great book I read that talks about the economy in terms of how we think of things very visually, which is why “trickle down” works, why “bootstraps” works. We tend to take really complex ideas and contain them in our heads in very simple visual metaphors. If you can take those, draw them out and show that they make no sense, then you have something very powerful. It would take so many words to get across what a stupid idea [pulling yourself up by your] bootstraps is. That’s part of the reason why I wanted to use animation. I also just have really affectionate memories of looking at storyboards and watching people bounce ideas off each other. Talk about something that doesn’t lend itself to an individualistic way of thinking about work—animation is the most collegial, most collaborative, most amazing team-based thing. It’s the most fun thing in the world when you’ve got a bunch of people on a roll.
Hughes: It really helped. In a way, we were a little more limited because we were editing and finishing the film during the pandemic. So, being able to say, “Oh, we’ll just animate it” was kind of fun.
Filmmaker: I’d also love to speak about your film being the inaugural screening at the new Firehouse DCTV documentary cinema in Chinatown. Abigail, I know in the past you said that early on in the pandemic, it was really difficult for you to not have these in-person screening experiences. How did you become involved with the opening of the theater?
Disney: You make a film because you know that something really important happens in that darkened room. When you really lose a sense of who you are and where you’re sitting, there’s something really magical about what happens when the lights come up and there’s this opportunity to be in community about what just happened. I don’t think there’s anything quite as powerful. When you start out as a documentary filmmaker, you’re thinking in terms of what you can change in people’s hearts. From my first film Pray the Devil Back to Hell through Armor of Light, I sat and watched hearts change. All of the arguing and rational conversation in the world was never going to move people the way a film moves people. Years ago I had never heard of DCTV. They invited me to screen Armor of Light down there, and it was like a big, giant lovefest from the second I walked in there. So when I heard that they were opening a theater, I was so excited to get like-minded people together—people who really understand documentary, who really understand the special, amazing power it has. It’s such an honor to be the opening night film. It just feels so right to land there.
Hughes: To be the opening night film at DCTV is amazing. They are the heart and soul of real documentary filmmaking. They’ve committed themselves to doing the kind of filmmaking that is hard to do, and they obviously love it so much. They educate children, they bring in the community, they work with other filmmakers. It’s almost like being invited to a club you’ve always wanted to be a part of.
Disney: By the way, the second film they’re showing, Reid Davenport’s I Didn’t See You There, is such a great example of everything a documentary should accomplish. It takes you right inside of how he sees the world, you get to see the world through him. He’s a really extraordinary guy.
Filmmaker: I mean, you both have also done a lot of great things through your production company Fork Films, including funding for a lot of great recent documentaries. Cameraperson and Strong Island, for example.
Disney: That’s the real Disney superpower I love having: being able to help filmmakers make those films.