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Filmmaking Becomes a Classroom

With "Hollow Tree," HGSE student and film director Kira Akerman makes filmmaking an education journey
Kira Akerman with Hollow Tree protagonists Mekenzie Fanguy, Tanielma Da Costa and Annabelle Pavy
Director Kira Akerman (center, right) with "Hollow Tree" protagonists (l-r) Tanielma Da Costa, Annabelle Pavy, and Mekenzie Fanguy
Photo: Courtesy of Kira Akerman

Hollow Tree, a documentary by Learning, Design Innovation and Technology (LDIT) master's student Kira Akerman, follows three teenagers coming of age in their sinking homeland of Louisiana. For the first time, they notice the Mississippi River’s engineering, stumps of cypress trees, and billowing smokestacks, and their different perspectives — as Indigenous, white, and Angolan young women — shape their story of the climate crisis. In Akerman’s process of “filmmaking as a classroom,” she facilitates a learning experience for these three young women and involves them in a boundary-breaking learning journey. They ask questions and shape the narrative, challenging traditional, extractive storytelling methods. Through Hollow Tree — which was screened at HGSE this week as part of the Swamp Capitalism Event Series, an interdisciplinary project of History Design Studio Fellow Robin McDowell — Akerman inspires conversations about climate change, environmental justice, and historical awareness. 

Recently, Akerman discussed Hollow Tree, her passions for filmmaking and education, and the process of producing her recent project. 

Kira Akerman
Kira Akerman

How does your background in education intersect with your interests in filmmaking and climate change?
For many years, I have worked with Ripple Effect, a New Orleans-based educational nonprofit dedicated to teaching "water literacy" in K–12 education. I am a storytelling consultant, and I recently made a short film to anchor a curriculum about New Orleans’ flooding. I also am a consultant for Tulane University's Center for the Gulf South (NOCGS), an interdisciplinary, place-based institute that focuses on New Orleans and the broader Gulf South region. My films Station 15 and Hollow Tree evolved from my experiences of climate change in New Orleans and ask how we learn to live here, as the city continues to sink, and hurricanes and flooding increase. The executive directors of NOCGS and Ripple Effect have also been asking this question, as well as many of my other New Orleans friends, colleagues, and collaborators. My films emerged from this intellectual and existential engagement with my community, and model place-based, interdisciplinary, and intergenerational learning about water. 

In a Southern Cultures essay, you wrote about the concept of “filmmaking as a classroom.” What does this mean, and how does this inform your work?
"Filmmaking as a classroom" describes my practice of documenting experiential learning and observation. My filmmaking team redistributes narrative power to the young women in the film via a process of co-learning. The young women's questions drive the film forward. Once the film is complete, the young women attend screenings and are part of Q&A’s. Hollow Tree is intended to be a widening circle of learning, and in turn, ever-widening actions.  

I have attempted to create a filmmaking process for the young women in my film — and their communities — that benefits them. My process is, in part, an effort to remedy exploitative practices in art and politics like extractive storytelling — storytelling that doesn’t respect the humanity or needs of the community whose story is being told.  

How does the film explore the history and current environmental issues along the Mississippi River?
Hollow Tree invites three young women, who did not previously know each other, to learn with me, my filmmaking team, and their respective communities. They travel to different sites along the Mississippi River, where they engage in dialogue with engineers, activists, and Indigenous leaders. As I encourage the young people in my film to notice their surroundings, they begin to imagine Louisiana's past — its history of slavery, Indigenous dispossession, and colonization — and, by extension, Louisiana's future. 

The film does not have a single message or tell you what to think. Instead, it models observing one’s environment and connecting with one's community, respecting that knowledge comes in many forms, and not just from academic spaces. 

Master's student Kira Akerman

At Harvard, have you experienced any classes or meaningful moments that impacted your work as a filmmaker?
The Ed School has helped me to find the language to translate my filmmaking into an educational space and to articulate the learning design of my films. As a student in LDIT, I have taken two courses with Professor Karen Brennan, both with an emphasis on learning design, and courses with Professor Jarvis Givens, and Harvard Professors Brandon Terry and Henry Louis Gates Jr. It has been an important exploration into how scholars and scientists teach climate change. 

Serendipitously, Dr. Robin McDowell is a History Design Studio fellow at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research this year. Robin is a friend from New Orleans, and she also appears as an expert in Hollow Tree

McDowell was part of the Hollow Tree screening at HGSE and also led a connected workshop, correct? 
Yes. She led a pigment making workshop at the History Design Studio following the film screening. The pairing of a Hollow Tree screening and pigment-making workshop was piloted during our shared artist’s residency at Tulane University's Small Center. I often pair workshops along with Hollow Tree screenings — for example, in the Houma Medicine Wheel Garden, through climate storytelling, and pigment making — that deepen the learning experience of the film. It is meaningful that we are able to replicate this experience at Harvard — thank you Dean Long and the History Design Studio!  

How do you hope Hollow Tree will contribute to conversations around climate change, environmental justice, and historical awareness? 
Hollow Tree is a model for communities everywhere to confront the climate crisis. The film suggests that if we can recognize the long colonial histories of injustice that persist today — and shape our own homeplaces and learning environments —we can begin to respond differently and with repair. 

What message would you like viewers to take away from Hollow Tree?
The film does not have a single message or tell you what to think. Instead, it models observing one’s environment and connecting with one's community, respecting that knowledge comes in many forms, and not just from academic spaces. That young women and young women of color can learn about their engineered environments and reimagine them. That infrastructure shapes our social and emotional worlds.  

Are you working on any new projects? 
Yes. I’m evolving many of the ideas of Hollow Tree into a new project. Stay tuned!


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