In 2010, award-winning documentary filmmaker Brad Leitch was conducting volunteer peace work for a human rights organization in Northern Iraq. It’s a trip that catapults his decision to amplify social issues and causes through filmmaking.
Given his background and skills in video production, Leitch was part of a storytelling project at an Internally Displaced Persons camp. Yet due to increasing levels of violence—in what would later become ISIS controlled territory—a decision to cease filming was made.
“There is power in the hands of a storyteller with a camera and how you use it has real consequences for real people,” says Leitch. “Our decision to not go forward with that story, in that moment, was because of deep concern for the community and the participants involved.
But for the Vancouver filmmaker, there was more to uncover—another story to tell. On the day before being leaving Iraq, Leitch met a local who survived the 1988 Halabujah Chemical Bombings, who also ran a museum commemorating lost those affected by the political crisis and tragedy. Capturing roughly one minute of interview content, the man equipped Leitch with a DVD of footage visually detailing the atrocious aftermath of the bombings; he asked Leitch to use the footage to create something for sharing with the people back in Canada.
“I felt a responsibility and obligation to respond to that request, to share this with others and to honor the story of the man who shared his story with me,” says Leitch. “Eventually I finished the video, and put this no-budget, grainy film on YouTube thinking nothing would really happen with it.”
But the project didn’t go unnoticed by the public, garnering the attention of a museum curator in New York. The finished film is now featured in a permanent exhibit on mass atrocities at the Canadian Museum for Human Right where visitors can heed and learn from an important moment in history.
To learn more abut Leitch’s commitment to his community and filmmaking prowess, we sat down to chat more. Read on below.
Marmoset: We saw you studied Peace and Conflict Transformation, how do you think this helps shape or guide your contents purpose?
Leitch: At the same time I was working on the Halabjah chemical bombings video I was working for my B.A. in Peace and Conflict Transformation. I had a class at the time called Trauma and Recovery and the university professor allowed me to create this video as part of an assignment. It was the encouragement I needed to process the material and then to create something with it. Peace and Conflict Transformation at its core is very creative work. The degree forcused on everything from interpersonal conflict to large scale social change movements. Whether a conflict or dispute is between two next-door neighbors, or warring nation states, there is no simple method or easy formula to building peace and transforming complex conflict at a structural, cultural, relational and personal level.
During my studies, one of largest Indigenous led social movements in recent years was springing up across Canada called Idle No More. I quickly found myself in this movement, educating myself in teach-ins and walking alongside others in marches and sit-ins in in downtown Winnipeg. Eventually I would be invited to take my camera into some of this work, working alongside First Nations across Canada.
M: How does this type of education and background influence your work today?
Leitch: My degree in Conflict Transformation affects so much of my work: from how I deal with the practical and logistical challenges of film production, down to how I shape and edit the very content and purpose of what is being created. I love thinking about my process as a filmmaker. Many of the short documentaries I’ve worked on are low budget community funded projects that are commissioned by local community members who invite me to come tell a story with them. This contributes to a collaborative process.
As I’ve grown more work as a documentary maker people see some of my past work and approach to subject matter. When I’m invited to come tell a story with a community they’ve often had a chance to see something of my past work and I think that has contributed to building trust as seeing my approach to storytelling and conflict and engaging local issues that can be complex. I often find myself working with people who have a shared vision towards resolving conflict in the spirit of peacebuilding, truthtelling and restorative justice.
M: What’s a project where your documentary made waves or helped further progress?
Leitch: I tend to make very local films, made for a very local audience. And I love that. That being said, a documentary I directed and produced in 2015 was called Reserve 107. We had a budget of $6,500 to make this film, which included equipment and crew (myself and my wife Adrienne), three weeks of production and a lot of volunteer hours to take it to its finish.
Music was important to me on this project so a third of the budget was spent on music; this was my first project working with Marmoset. Reserve 107 tells the story of a landless Indigenous community in Canada, the Young Chippewayan First Nation, that is seeking justice for 30 square miles of Reserve Land that was stolen by the Government of Canada and given to a group of Mennonite and Lutheran settlers in the early 1900s.
Indigenous rights and title to land remains a taboo topic for many across Canada, it remains a huge source of mistrust in communities today and has even led to violence at times, but in the small town of Laird, Saskatchewan, the former land of Reserve 107—an old injustice is providing new opportunities for dialogue—friendship and a fierce determination to right the wrongs of a past.
When our film was finished, it gave me great pride to see Indigenous and non-Indigenous community members take this film and hold their own screenings and continue to tell their story. The film participants were awarded a peace medallion for their work together and the film has picked up a few awards with over 200 screenings across Canada and around the world—including a screening of the film at a convention in Namibia with ten thousand participants. Also, the film participants and myself were invited to our nations capital by a Cree senator to have a screening of this film on Parliament Hill just weeks before Canada’s 150th anniversary. It was a powerful experience to see it play in parliament, and to witness the participants afterwards tell their story and speak truth to power in the very halls of power.
M: Have you ever been surprised along the way when filming a documentary?
Leitch: I’m always endlessly and marvelously surprised, by the people, by the issues, by my own lack of knowledge and awareness, by the politics and complexity and tragedy and beauty of the human experience. It’s why I love what I do. It keeps me messy as a human, keeps me on my toes, to keep thinking, and learning and listening.
I have conducted well over five hundred interviews in the last ten years and after the on camera interviews I spend a significant amount of time again in the edit just listening to people and their stories and experiences. Sometimes when those stories involve a participant’s very deep trauma it can be difficult material to work with. Other times you hear a story once or twice and you think wow that is profound. Then you hear it a third time and suddenly hits you in a new way and you are breaking down in tears alone in your small dark edit suite.
M: What’s some advice you’d pass along to your fellow filmmaker?
Leitch: Don’t worry about not being the expert of the story. Don’t be afraid of not knowing something. Some of the best research and learning happens by just showing up and being present with people. Find ways to nurture your curiosity in your daily life by asking everyone around you second and third questions—because the first question is for niceties, but your follow up questions to people’s answers are when you start to get into the deep and interesting experiences of people.
M: When it comes to using music in your films, what’s your approach?
Leitch: I feel very strongly that music is my voice in the work I make. One clue into what I as the filmmaker feel about the content in any given moment can often be revealed by the music selection.
I can be picky and easily spend days on the Marmoset website finding exactly the right sound that I want. There’s an excellent selection of music that’s high quality and curated from a pool of amazing talent. Marmoset makes music licensing easy. Everything is clearly described to walk you through the process of finding the right music, identifying particular genres and sounds, to purchasing and obtaining the right license for your needs. And if you still have questions, I would encourage filmmakers to get in touch with Marmoset—as I have over the years. They have an amazing, hands-on team who are super friendly and quick to respond to any questions you have. These are some of the many reasons I come back to Marmoset again and again on the projects I work on.
M: We love how you utilize your skills as a filmmaker to focus your documentaries on important issues entwined within the community. How would you define documentary filmmaking as a tool and practice?
Leitch: There are many reasons why I love storytelling and filmmaking. With some of these commissioned documentaries around particular local conflicts, what I love is that these films demonstrate the potential for meaningful change, that there are deep lessons and recipes and ingredients for peacebuilding and social transformation in each one of the films I make. I love the idea of having these films be like tools in the toolbelts of peacebuilders and activists and just ordinary people wanting to work for a better world to undo poverty, suffering, racism, oppression and violence wherever it is in the world.
Brad Leitch is the producer and filmmaker behind Rebel Sky Media — a Vancouver based agency providing clients with videography, producing and editing services.
Y La Bamba’s Luz Elena Mendoza offers her story as the closing chapter in Marmoset’s Our Artists, Their Stories series.
As a first generation Mexican-American, Mendoza exudes profound appreciation and honor for her culture throughout her music — her work is an extension of her heritage, a call to openly celebrate her people’s language, history and journeys.
Read on to learn more about the woman behind Y La Bamba.
Marmoset: How do you think your culture shapes who you are — not only as an artist but wholly as a person?
Mendoza: I can answer this in so many different ways. When I think of my culture, I think of my parents, I think of my family. The food I eat, the deities and saints we worshiped, the art that was and continue to form out of necessity to express trauma. A way to celebrate life. My mom and dad continue to work hard… they would say “como burros” meaning “like a donkeys” It kills me. It just destroys me.
My blood screaming the name of survival. Therefore who I am as a person today has been influenced by my ancestral knowledge. That has allowed me to create as much as I can out of nothing which becomes everything.
M: As a first generation American, how do you think this impacts your life in present?
Mendoza: It has given me the privilege to come closer to a deeper understanding of myself in this reality we call life.
M: Has your family encouraged your pursuit of music?
Mendoza: In a few ways yes, in a lot of ways no. My parents were strict out of generational and conservative habits. Having dreams as a girl was truly hard to achieve due to misogyny. My friends, family, mother and brothers are always there in their own ways.
M: Have there ever been moments you’ve considered quitting music — what kind of wisdom would you pass along to those facing similar challenges?
Mendoza: Yes every other day. Nurture your loved ones, those who lift you up and hold you accountable. Those are your people.
M: Where does that desire to put yourself and your music out there come from?
Luz: My family, immigrants who are fighting for there lives, to support Queer POC communities — for those who have gone through domestic violence, for the missing and murdered indigenous women, for the children who are dying in the dentention centers, my family and my friends. To heal.
M: Could you share what community means in your life?
Mendoza: Family is everything.
Thank you to Y La Bamba and other Marmoset artists for sharing their origin stories with us — and thank you to our readers for being part of our community.
Some of the most important stories in music come straight from the artists themselves. It’s one of the reasons we’re taking a little extra time and care to connect with those behind our roster of music — because there’s value in uncovering the architecture of an artist’s work; honoring the pieces that define their journey into becoming an artistic creator.
“Our Artists’ Stories” collection celebrates our artists’ backgrounds and explores what community means to them. Today, we present Daniel Gomez of QUITAPENAS — their music overflowing with vintage inspiration (spanning the 60’s to 70’s to 80’s) woven with the sounds of Colombia, Brazil, Peru and more.
We talk with Daniel about community and his climb into music. Read on for more.
Marmoset: Looking back on your earlier years, what was something (or someone) that inspired you to create music?
Daniel Gomez: Being a child who couldn’t sit still or do one thing for too long helped me find creativity. Music was one of the only things I could really focus on for a long period of time and still feel calm, along with a sense of accomplishment. Seeing some of my uncles play at family parties and hearing stories of them playing gigs made the idea of playing music a real possibility.
You could be a real, normal person with family and friends — you didn’t have to be a famous talented superstar on TV. Also, just supportive family and friends who showed me a lot of love and excitement as I progressed.
M: How does your background tie into your culture and how do you think it’s helped shape who you are?
Daniel: We are children of immigrant parents so we were fortunate enough to have a multicultural household. We were able to be part of a culture that celebrates family values, hard work and storytelling with the privilege of growing up in America while also being immersed in pop culture.
On a personal level, it’s helped fuel our empathy and understanding for others; it helped develop a wonder for other cultures beyond just our own. As musicians, I think the fact that family gatherings and celebrations always included loud music, dancing, conversations and late nights really influenced why we play music. When we perform and connect with the audience, we feel at home — we feel like we are all one family enjoying a special moment in time together.
M: What was your family’s role in supporting your music?
Daniel: Family and close friends have always supported and encouraged the band’s journey both as individuals and as a group. They support by buying merch, providing a space for us to rehearse, cheering us on at shows and just sharing our existence and our music with people they know.
From time to time you do get a discouraging comment and those can feel heavy. Being a musician is hard and it isn’t for everyone. It does take a lot of time and attention, it can feel hopeless and frustrating. It is, however, very healing and inspirational — you sometimes need people to try bring you down as a reminder why you are making music in the first place.
M: Have there ever been moments you’ve considered shifting away from music? What kept you going to pursue it further?
Daniel: Yes, of course. Being a successful musician can be challenging. It’s hard when you’re young while trying to balance life, school, work and family. It is hard when you are an adult and trying to find time between a full-time job, children and friends and other adult responsibilities.
As musicians you hit plateaus like writer’s block and lack of inspiration. You ask yourself, ‘is it worth it?’ or ‘what’s the point?’, ‘where is this going?’ — but as long as you have those answers and continue growing, then you always find yourself doing what you feel the most passionate about. We’ve been fortunate to have received a lot of that goodness, also the fact that [the band] has always been friends makes it easier to keep going.
M: How would you describe some challenges you’ve face along the way, both as an artist but also on a personal level?
Daniel: One challenge is keeping all of us involved and finding time to keep create music. There are a lot of lives to consider, it can be challenging coordinating to meet in one space and contribute what we can. Another challenge is keeping an audience's attention — trying to stay relevant in today’s social media madness. There is so much content at everyone’s grasp, it gets harder to stand out and keep the music and vision fresh.
M: What’s something you would pass along to a fellow artist facing similar challenges?
Daniel: Work hard and keep going. Stay inspired and curious. Stay learning and evolving. Pay attention to the world around you and help those who need it. Build communities and work together with as many people as you can.
M: Can you share where your desire to create music comes from?
Daniel: The desire to put our music out there comes from being fans ourselves. We were at one point just listeners and students taking in the music and poetry around us. It helped us get through life and find happiness in what we do — we hope to show people they can do the same and continue the tradition of storytelling and dancing.
M: Looking back at your arrival and where you are now presently — how would you describe your journey?
Daniel: I would describe it as exciting and humbling. It’s helped me conquer fears and grow as a person, it’s helped shape other aspects in everyday life. Our musical peers and other artists in our community have also been very influential in helping us continue our journey and shape our contribution to this story we’re telling.
A music licensing agency in Portland, Oregon, syncing music to picture and curating music for filmmakers — and all content creators — is the simplified version of what Team Marmoset actually does. But beyond the scope of our music services, there’s a community of artists and clients who make our purpose so enriching.
Talking to our artists every day, we’re the biggest fans of not only their music, but who they are as people too. Now more than ever, representation matters; it’s why we choose to celebrate our artists, their journeys and their backgrounds.
In our second chapter of our artists stories series, we’re passing the mic Fritzwa. Hailing from New York City’s Lower East Side and jumping into new music ventures in Los Angeles, Fritzwa shares her upbringing, her heritage and culture with us. Read on to learn more about the hustling, incredibly talented and kind-hearted Fritzwa.
Marmoset: Looking back on your upbringing, what was something that inspired you to venture into music?
Fritzwa: I’m a child of immigrants, my parents come from Ghana and Sierra Leone in West Africa. My father as teen and young adult was in a band called The Flames; he was the one who introduced me to jazz and classical music where my mother introduced me to American songs. She really loved the classics, being brought up in a British colony.
There’s a big infusion of what my parents grew up on and what influenced them. In Ghana there’s a music genre called “hipline”. A lot of the rhythmic inspiration I have is from that and West African tradition sounds. It’s a privilege to be born into a situation where you have no choice but to be influenced by things that come from somewhere else.
I’ve learned a lot about hip hop, rock, jazz, and took piano lessons — I grew up in New York, particularly East Village, there was a cultural melting pot of art.
M: How do you think your heritage and culture has shaped who you are in your personal life and as a musical artist?
Fritzwa: My mom is from Sierra Leone, a place where African people were brought back to after slavery. Even though I am African, I am still African American by way of my ancestors coming back and having gone through that. My mother speaks creole, and I’ll include that in my music too. That’s how she speaks at home and how she speaks to my father — so I’ll pick up on these things to include in my music.
My heritage has influenced my current culture in the way I dress, the way I speak, even the way I traverse in the world. It also gives me a sense of respect and admiration for the African diaspora as a whole because of the historical experience that is shared. I’m open and receptive to any cultures, particularly from Africa, because I realize it is super rich and important.
M: Do you have close ties to your family’s traditional culture?
Fritzwa: I come from a big family and we have a very familial culture. We’re very very close. Growing up, I had many cousins in West Africa and in other parts of the world like London and Sweden. They would come to America for school, college, or boarding school and because I lived in New York, it was the epicenter.
My home was the place where we would haveThanksgiving, where people would come for breaks. So I’m really close to my cousins who grew up in Ghana. A lot of the slang and music they liked or would think is cool transferred over to me. I also go home to Ghana almost every Christmas.
The close ties to my family and culture had a big influence on everything for me. Even the way I dres — I like to wear prints and super vibrant colors.
M: Have you ever faced challenges along your journey as an artist?
Fritzwa: I am hyper aware of how things work in the world and I do my best to combat challenges I face with my allies and my strategies. I believe that if your music is good, if it’s rooted in love and positivity and your relationship with the craft of music is good — then you’ll get to where you want to go, with the right persistence and diligence.
M: What place does community hold in your life, as a person, an artist and a first generation American?
Fritzwa: It’s one of the most important things. I have always been one of two — one of two black people at school, or camp, or work. So to have a space that invites comfortability and people with the same experiences, who have your best interests at heart, it’s important for that to mirror back that you.
Also, a lot of the opportunities I’ve had are because of programs that were created for underrepresented people of color. As a DJ, I’m thankful for communities that come out and creates the vibe. I love being apart of something that brings people together. Without the people around me, my family and friends, I would not be where I am today.