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Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Noel Anaya of YR Media Is Helping To Change Our World

An Interview With Edward Sylvan

I see myself as a filmmaker, and I like to take on projects that have positive social outcomes. That’s what got me into film. There aren’t a lot of big names or big voices that actively talk about foster care in the film industry. We know they’re out there, but you don’t see them using their platform to promote real change. With a topic as big as the welfare of children, it’s insane it doesn’t have the gravity that it should have. Any work that I do, I try to make sure it can be a template and that it’s enlightening. I don’t do it for money or for recognition — I do it for the people coming after me so that they’ll have something to stand by. I want to clarify the issues and build out that culture.

As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Noel Anaya of YR Media.

Noel Anaya is co-producer of YR Media’s Unadopted — a documentary based on his own experience that looks at the age-old question “What happens when you’re “too old” to get adopted?” Noel uses multimedia as a medium to produce quality storytelling primarily about foster care and his own life. His Story “After 20 Years, Young Man Leaves Foster Care On His Own Terms,” as heard on NPR, won an Edward Murrow award, a Third Coast Festival award, SPJ James Madison Award, and an NYF Radio Award. Noel plans to receive a BA in Media Communications and wishes to keep on telling stories on social topics.

Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?

I was separated from my family at the age of 1. I was in the child welfare system until 21 when I essentially aged out. At one point there was a plan to have my siblings and I adopted together, and it never happened. I started being an advocate for children in the foster care system because at one point I wanted to be a therapist, but I thought I’d make a bigger difference advocating through social media, which got me into multimedia storytelling. I started speaking out publicly, and people picked up on my ability to communicate and articulate important issues, so I stuck with it.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

I’d have to say it’s the lack of willingness of agencies and court officials wanting to open up and work with you as a filmmaker. At the time YR Media made Unadopted, it was unprecedented to film in family court, or for people who are emancipating to go through the process of obtaining court case files and actually share — let alone broadcast — their stories and the system for what it is. Both times I tried to film in a courtroom I was stopped or my equipment was confiscated, and I had to have a judge or lawyer’s support to get it all back. I thought it was really frustrating.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

I originally went to Scotland to start filming “Unadopted,’’ and even though it got a bit too broad (we ultimately narrowed our focus to the California foster care system), I was able to interview Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland. She was one of the first true leaders I had the chance to interview and was just really cool. I initially thought that, as a big politician, Nicola and her team were just there for the publicity. But she was very inclusive with me and really helpful and, even though I was a foreigner, she was really cooperative with what I was trying to do.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’m still working with YR Media, and it’s amazing to contribute to all of the amazing work they’re doing to lift the voices of young people in underrepresented communities and empower them to be change-makers.

I’m also still actively advocating for children in the foster care system. For example, I’m in early development in producing a feature-length film about young adults in foster care (which is very different from teenagers in the system — the focus of “Unadopted”). I’m also working to develop a graphic novel with a friend that will have ties to this new film.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

Harvey Milk is a big one. He was a man living in San Francisco pushing for something that was really taboo and ultimately was killed for it. I see a lot of parallels between Harvey and myself in fighting for social issues that are not necessarily mainstream topics, and he made a big impact. Foster care is sadly a taboo topic, but it is a social issue that really does impact so many people — even if not directly. I always find myself channeling Harvey’s unwillingness to quit when it comes to being selfless and doing something that truly matters.

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?

I see myself as a filmmaker, and I like to take on projects that have positive social outcomes. That’s what got me into film. There aren’t a lot of big names or big voices that actively talk about foster care in the film industry. We know they’re out there, but you don’t see them using their platform to promote real change. With a topic as big as the welfare of children, it’s insane it doesn’t have the gravity that it should have. Any work that I do, I try to make sure it can be a template and that it’s enlightening. I don’t do it for money or for recognition — I do it for the people coming after me so that they’ll have something to stand by. I want to clarify the issues and build out that culture.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?

This is something I’ve been confidently exploring more recently. “Unadopted” was my brainchild, but originally I wanted my younger brother’s perspective. — about his own story since he was in the system much longer. I wanted him to be a writer to better know himself because he is lost). I really pushed because he has this amazing, unreal story, but it wasn’t going to happen for a lot of personal reasons. I had to be the one to snap my fingers and make it happen or else, it never would. At the end of the day, it was a really empowering experience.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I still get a ton of messages across all social media, and it actually can be positively overwhelming sometimes. I wish I could reply to everyone. I get a lot of people telling me how our stories overlap, how I gave them perspective on their life then and now. Even though they never thought to get their case files, I even got my own case manager to get their case files when they confessed they were in the system. But I’d like to keep their names anonymous for privacy. I’ve encouraged people to go grab their court case files — which is really rare — to help give them closure. The process of emancipating yourself shouldn’t be a secret or embarrassing: it’s a step into adulthood to reclaim who you are. And a lot of people — foster care parents, kids — have been encouraged by my story to do the same.

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

  1. Implement education about the foster care system in the schools. People are so unaware of the topic, and there’s so much unknown and controversial history behind how foster care was created.
  2. Figuring out proper ways to donate to the cause, in ways that are actually helpful. It’s a privatized system, and complex, and we need to be able to allocate funds to actually help the kids in it.
  3. Accessibility — upgrading technology so the child can understand and navigate the system.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Incorporating film with school — making it so I can go to school while I produce the film
  2. Not rushing a project and being able to have a proper grasp on things before I start (for example, starting my shoot in Scotland and having to pivot)
  3. Don’t wait for a yes or a no, just do it.
  4. Don’t be afraid to take healthy breaks/time off. Have someone on your team to help manage your time. For me personally, we finished “Unadopted” right before COVID hit, and then we didn’t know what to do. We had people coming and going, and we needed to make sure we had people who were committed to the project
  5. Don’t be afraid to kill your baby. That was hard for me to hear the first time for obvious reasons. I had a lot of creative control with “Unadopted.” We had a lot of opportunities to meet with media companies, but they wanted a certain level of involvement/control. In retrospect, it’s OK to expand your project, cut things, or hand over some control. Get a handle on the type of partner company you want to work with so you can understand where they fit in within the different stages of the film.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

We should consider how the world works and operates while we’re in it. A lot of people live day-to-day without thinking about their integrity or legacy. I’m not saying you need to be a “giant,” but social justice goes hand-in-hand with taking care of our planet and the people we live around. You should leave at least one person inspired. As a society, we lack the willingness to push people. Find your one reason to be selfish in a good way, find something to dissect, one way to make a difference.

We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

In an ideal world, I’d love to work with A24 and Jordan Peele. I love that film studio and I’m a fan of his films. They really spark conversations that make a difference. He’s one of my inspirations for making really cool films that inspire change.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There was a time where I was really down, I was couch-surfing and without a home, and it was a pivotal moment where I could have gone off the deep end. A person said “Your life is your life, and whatever cards you’re dealt are yours — good or bad. It’s not your fault, but it’s your problem. So how will you play your hand?”

How can our readers follow you online?

Instagram @noelcalifornia

Twitter @noelcalifornias

Facebook: Noel Anaya

Site: unadoptedfilm.com

This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!


Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Noel Anaya of YR Media Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.