The United States is the only country in the developed world that does not guarantee its citizens paid family leave. In the new documentary Zero Weeks, which premieres November 11 at DOC NYC in New York City, director Ky Dickens explores the impact of that policy on families dealing with the birth of a child, a medical crisis or an aging parent. For many Americans, especially those with low incomes, it comes down to a choice between keeping a job and caring for someone they love.
Dickens, who directs advertising projects through Story, explores the issue of paid leave through personal stories and expert testimony. We meet a young woman who, following the birth of a child, loses her job at a daycare center and ends up on food stamps. Another woman, battling cancer, receives chemotherapy treatments on her lunch break to avoid missing work.
The film pointedly shows that the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave for some workers, is of little use to lower income Americans who can’t afford to go without a paycheck. There are, however, hopeful signs as Dickens follows the recent successful effort to enact the nation’s most generous paid leave act in New York State. Among her interview subjects are New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, former Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Ellen Bravo, director of Family Values @ Work Consortium, which advocated in favor of the New York law.
Dickens became interested in the subject of paid leave after her daughter was born. “I was working for a small production company at the time and it could afford to give me only two weeks of paid leave,” she recalled. “I had assumed that all women got three months of maternity leave. In terms of paid leave, the United States lags countries like China, Venezuela and Chad.”
Zero Weeks will screen at DOC NYC, one of the country’s largest and most prestigious documentary film festivals, on November 11th at 11:15 a.m. in the School of Visual Arts Theatre in Chelsea. The screening will be followed by a Q&A session with Bravo and DeLauro, as well as Dickens and members of her production team. Other upcoming screenings include one in Washington DC, hosted by Gillibrand. Ultimately, Dickens is aiming for a distribution agreement with a major studio or streaming service.
Dickens’ previous work includes Sole Survivor, a profile of four survivors of otherwise fatal plane crashes that premiered on CNN in 2014. Her 2009 feature Fish Out of Water won four juror prizes and secured international distribution by Netflix and First Run Features.
On the advertising side, her work includes commercials and branded content for Tylenol, Sears, Hallmark, McDonald’s, Koehler, Purina, Huggies, Ronald McDonald House Charities and Wrangler. She is featured on the highly competitive “Free the Bid” list of the top recommended female directors in America.
Ultimately, Dickens hopes that Zero Weeks will raise awareness for an issue that too long has languished on the fringe. “Paid leave doesn’t only mean maternity leave,” she said. “It applies if you become sick or injured, if your spouse or your child becomes sick or injured, or if you have to care for an aging parent. It affects virtually every person in America.”