Amanda Danziger: Independent Filmmaker

Amanda Danziger: Independent Filmmaker
By Ann Wlazelek

Amanda Danziger was on a mission in Rwanda when her future as a filmmaker came into focus.

A student at Drexel University at the time, the Allentown native decided she’d rather work at an orphanage in the East African country than do an internship in digital media. She bought a $300 video camera to chronicle the experience for the people who financed her trip, started shooting and fell in love with her subjects and movie-making process.

“I now realize how powerful it can be,” Danziger said of filmmaking. “It was so interesting to share the kids’ voices… I thought it was cool that you could bring them back home with you in a way and feel their personalities.”

Danziger turned the footage into a 30-minute documentary and the start of an award-winning career. After Rwanda, she went to Calcutta, India, to film women living in poverty for her senior project. And after graduation, she spent two years creating a full-length feature about four teenagers living in the projects of Philadelphia.

That film, titled “The Backyard Philly Project,” tells the story of troubled youth who find hope for a better life at The Helping Hand Rescue Mission. Invited to the mission by Adam Bruckner, a former professional soccer player who runs Helping Hand’s youth program, Danziger volunteered there for two months before deciding to tell the teens’ stories.

“Even though I filmed in a third world country twice, I thought America can be like one too,” she said, “with people trying to hide or put under a rug and pretend [homelessness] doesn’t exist.”

That film, titled “The Backyard Philly Project,” tells the story of troubled youth who find hope for a better life at The Helping Hand Rescue Mssion.

She even allowed the youth to shoot some of the scenes.

Finished in the summer of 2012, “The Backyard Philly Project” already has won awards along with its producer. Danziger was named Philadelphia’s “Filmmaker of the Year” in December, which put her in competition for a national title. In August, her documentary took a Philadelphia Geek Award for Best Feature Length Indie Film of the Year from a Philadelphia blogging site, and, in November,  “Best Film” and “Best Documentary” awards from ArtsQuest’s Greater Lehigh Valley Filmmaker Festival. One of the ArtsQuest judges, originally from the Lehigh Valley and a friend of Danziger’s older sister, called Danziger’s work impressive.

“I had no idea she was making films at all,” said Ishai Setton, now a Los Angeles filmmaker and assistant editor of the popular TV show Glee. He voted for Backyard Philly in both categories, saying the documentary “tells an important story and does so with a lyrical beauty and a lot of heart.” Of the accolades, Danziger, 25, said, “It’s a nice feeling to be recognized, especially when you are doing work like this and feel no one cares.”

Documentaries – defined as factual accounts of people and events – are Danziger’s preferred medium, she explained, but not necessarily what everyone wants to watch. The challenge of attracting viewers appeals to the 2006 Parkland High School graduate, who, as a senior, produced a Christian band concert when administrators first objected to the show’s religious nature. Danziger convinced them otherwise, raised $4,000 to pay the band and put on the show for 800 in the high school auditorium.

She switched from Penn State University to Drexel for the challenge as well and found the entertainment and arts management degree program satisfactorily intense. Business classes, including statistics, physics and economics, helped Danziger create her own production company, called Ferasha Films, after the Arabic word for butterfly.

Upon graduation in 2010, she started a still photography and freelance videography business to help cover the costs of filmmaking.  Her view of the world and desire to work for a cause, she said, was inspired by her Egyptian parents, especially her father, Dr. Wagih Ibrahim, an Allentown dentist.

“Dad came first with nothing in his pockets,” Danziger said, calling him “very inspiring.” Before he was able to set up a practice, Wagih worked “random, crazy jobs,” she said, and learned English to earn enough money to bring his family to America.

Danziger’s mother Eva Michael is a family doctor in the Chambersburg area who went to medical school in Egypt but did her residency at Sacred Heart Hospital in Allentown. “I felt very privileged, having my dad, mom and sisters and having the experiences of traveling the world,” she said. “I even got to visit the country my parents grew up in.”

Making documentaries, she said, is one way to bring important, overlooked stories to life and to encourage others to act. First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, where Danziger works part-time as a singer, guitar player and videographer, provided the impetus for the Rwanda mission. And although her work in Calcutta was not mission-related, her contact was a woman she knew from church. And, Backyard Philadelphia came about because Danziger wanted to contribute to the depressed neighborhood she could see from her small studio apartment, 20 floors off the ground.

Danziger does not know where her next documentary will take her or what subject to zoom in on, but she is not afraid. “I like taking risks,” she said. “Risks are fun. I might not have a story at all. It’s a scary thing to do but I love the thrill.”

If she’s not holding a camera at a wedding, the new mother of twin boys Juda and Noah can be found snapping shots of them around the house she and husband Ariel share in South Whitehall Township.

Her goal for the next five years: focus her unique lens on making Ferasha a “successful, independent, non-profit organization” for independent filmmakers.

To see some of her work or to host a screening, visit FerashaFilms.com

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