Making Documentaries to Help a Troubled World
Andrea Kalin’s latest documentary, Partners of the Heart, recently opened in Los Angeles to rave reviews and has been selected to air on “The American Experience,” a PBS showcase for the best documentaries in the country. Her career is skyrocketing. Yet the founder and executive producer of Spark Media in Washington, D.C., is more excited about the ripple effect of her work on a troubled world than about her mounting success.
Kalin, who has been winning awards for her documentaries for 15 years, focuses on social change. She has plane-hopped through Bangladesh, Cambodia, and the Philippines to document the changing economic status of women. She has trekked through Latin America, her camera recording valiant efforts to deal with street violence and domestic violence. Her films have captured droughts, hunger, and the traumas of refugees. Kalin’s aim is for each of her films to “grow legs” and reach people beyond the viewing room.
Partners of the Heart, her most ambitious project, took eight years to complete. After it makes its rounds, many will know the story of white surgeon Alfred Blalock and black lab technician Vivien Thomas who, in defiance of entrenched racism, teamed up to become pioneers of modern heart surgery.
“This story reflects the social risk of discrimination,” says Kalin. “If racism had won out, what would have happened? These men broke open the field of heart surgery. Up until then, doctors were saying the heart was the seat of the soul and medically off-limits.” In her zeal for exposing young people to the issues her work highlights, Kalin took on a group of Howard University students as interns during filming and helped arrange for students from two high schools to view the premiere.
As a young woman, Kalin worked as a researcher for the Israeli Embassy and, after making Aliyah to Israel at age 22, as a reporter for Radio Israel. She returned to the States to marry her sweetheart, Marty Kalin, and then went into television, on the Capitol Hill beat for WNVC in Northern Virginia and as an assistant producer for Metro Media (later Fox TV).
Even Kalin’s exposure to the most crass and commercial aspects of visual media never erased her fervor for social change. A meeting—and subsequent work relationship—with acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns was a turning point, making her realize how much she could accomplish “being behind the camera rather than in front of it.” The revelation gave birth to Spark Media, which now boasts a staff of five and an impressive roster of funders and clients.
A native Bostonian and the mother of eight-year-old son Yoni, Kalin grew up in what she calls a “tribal” family. She was much influenced by her Greek grandmother. “On our birthdays, my grandmother’s blessing to me and my sisters would be, ‘May you be a woman of valor,’” she recalls. Kalin has done her best to live up to this pronouncement.—Lisa Gitlin
Lisa Gitlin is a freelance writer who lives in Washington, D.C.