“Mom & M,” the first feature-length documentary from assistant professor Jena Burchick ’11, explores family, queer love and adoption
Having her first feature-length film screened at the Maryland Film Festival (MdFF) is a dream come true for Jena Burchick ’11, an assistant professor of electronic media and film (EMF) at TU.
Burchick recalls volunteering at the MdFF in 2009 as an undergraduate EMF student. “I was carrying tickets for directors and guests, without any thought in my mind that I would ever be one of them,” she says. “I feel immense privilege and pride to screen my first feature film in my hometown.”
In “Mom & M,” one of 20 features in the 2021 MdFF lineup, the Richard family explores the complexity of marriage; what happens when one partner comes out as transgender while caring for an ill child. The film screened on May 23 followed by a Q&A with Burchick and moderator KJ Mohr.
The 23rd-annual MdFF, of which the Department of Electronic and Media is a community sponsor, showcases work by a variety of Towson University faculty and students through May 27.
EMF alumnus Tyler Davis ’12 served as cinematographer for the opening night film, “Strawberry Mansion,” alongside a crew of many EMF students and alumni. Included in the Balti-Shorts program, which kicked off the festival, was “Diary,” a short film produced by EMF alumnus Thomas Faison ’17. And the Opening Night Virtual After Party video included the production work of alumni Faison, Nick Gorey ’18, Ryan Clark ’18 and Miles Engel-Hawbecker ’14.
“I've always been interested in being an activist and ally for the LGBTQIA+ community, and I wanted to create something that helped me dive deeper into becoming a better ally through visual activism,” Burchick explains.
Initially, she envisioned a short film highlighting transgender artists in the Baltimore community. But after meeting Elise and Nikki Richard during the casting process, her plans changed.
“Once I met them and filmed with them and met Sansa, their daughter, I realized their story couldn’t be captured in a short film,” says Burchick who made up the crew of one during filming. “I shifted gears and decided I would follow them for a full calendar year, filming from August 2018 to December 2019.”
By embracing what she calls “collaborative filmmaking,” Burchick empowered the Richards to tell their own story in the documentary by incorporating short videos shot with their iPhones as well as childhood home videos they provided.
“It was very important to me to keep asking myself, 'How do I share the lens so it’s not just my inherent bias as a cisgender person telling a transgender story? How do I allow space for Nikki and Elise to author part of their own narrative?'” she explains.
After filming wrapped, Burchick brought in Tyler Peterson ’17, founder of production company Lux Daze Media, and Mei Lin Lau Man ’17 as co-producers to help with marketing the documentary.
“Part of my process in filmmaking is also continuing being a teacher and a mentor simultaneously,” Burchick says. “I thought what a good opportunity for a young production company to get a feature film under their belt and to continue collaborating in that mentorship capacity. And I just love the fact that it was TU alumni that could be represented in the film.”
She has brought her TU students along throughout the entire process, sharing early variations and trailers along the way.
“I think it's so vital for them to see us as professors in all the phases of production. As a mentor it's important to show them we're not just a perfect finished product. There's a process,” she says. “Their projects are semester based, so for them to see something I've been working on for three years is helpful for them while they are undergraduate students.”
Burchick hopes viewers appreciate the privilege of being invited into the Richards’ living room. “Think about how much we could learn about the would if we were able to sit in each other's living rooms—about understanding gender roles, understanding family structure and what it means to choose your family.”
“Mom & M” has been screened at the Translations Seattle Transgender Film Festival, the Indy Film Festival in Indianapolis, the Docs Without Borders International Film Festival and will participate in the Lake Travis Film Festival in June.