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95Lives_250Tanya Sleiman is a documentary filmmaker with an MFA from Stanford University. She currently teaches at Diablo Valley College in California, and recently taught with NYU Tisch School of the Arts in Cuba as the 2011 on-site Program Director for documentary production.

Sleiman’s 2008 visual essay, A Chronicle Of Concrete, was screened in international festivals and broadcast on PBS. She also produced Iraq in the USA, a vibrant collective portrait of Iraqi refugees in America. In 2008, Sleiman began examining Helen Levitt’s legacy, sharing a short film project at the Cantor Arts Center for In a New York Minute: Photographs by Helen Levitt (April, 2011). She is currently at work on a longer film about the photographer called 95 Lives.

While Sleiman calls herself an “ordinary person,” it is clear she is anything but. Here are some of her insights on Helen Levitt and changes in the field of photography since Levitt’s day.

PWP: How did you get interested in film?

Two sources were my fuel for film: Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive launched it and New York’s international and experimental scene sealed the deal. I was in my 30’s when I discovered it was for me. Earlier as an undergrad, I pursued social sciences at Berkeley, where there happened to be an amazing art house cinema space, The Pacific Film Archive. I didn’t know it was world-class then. I only knew it was another amazing resource on the campus. I went to the PFA whenever I could to watch art films as a “break” from my social theory studies. Watching a film was always a window to another world, another set of metaphors for life. I loved it. Yet in my years of undergrad studies, I never imagined I’d be someone who would make films. I thought I’d be a diplomat or a policy maker or educator or social justice crusader. Something responsible, something that made a difference. To me, film and photography were hobbies, not professions. I didn’t take a single art history class. I took painting–for fun. Art was on the level of dance for me. Something you do to unwind and explore, not something you make to change the world. After undergrad, I moved to Damascus, Syria, to study Arabic literature and language. There, I continued to watch international cinema, with films from the Arab Middle East as well as any cinema that came to town through the cultural centers of India, Spain, and France. Still, I didn’t think I’d make or study film.

(Continue reading on the Professional Women Photographers’ website)