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For Leslye Abbey, Documentaries Are A Spiritual Calling

Image from "Bayou Landfall." Photo by Leslye Abbey.

Social worker Leslye Abbey MSW says she was drawn into doing film documentaries by supernatural powers.

Abbey was visiting the Pine Ridge American Indian reservation in South Dakota about 15 years ago and running around taking photos when an Oglala Lakota Sioux elder noticed her and said she should record his people on video. In fact, he said a spirit from a higher plane passed the message to Abbey through him.

What he said stirred something in Abbey, 67, a clinical social worker who runs a practice in North Bellmore, N.Y.

“I knew at that point I had no choice — I would go around shooting,” said Abbey, who is also a member of the National Association of Social Workers. “I took a course at a school of visual arts to learn how to use my camera — I didn’t know how to do anything.”

That chance meeting in South Dakota has led to a bustling, award-winning documentary career for Abbey. She has traveled throughout the United States and in Canada, Mexico, South America, Asia and Africa, recording little-known, indigenous cultures.

“I think I am enlightening and educating people to different cultures, to different situations,” she said. “I really like to focus on the indigenous people because they are the most ignored — just dismissed is probably the best word to use.”

Her documentaries include “Angels of the Basin,” a look at Louisiana’s French-speaking Cajun culture; “The Return,” a film about an N’Deup healing ceremony in Senegal; and “Bayou Landfall,” a documentary on the impact of Hurricane Katrina on Louisiana’s Houma Tribe. She also touches on more quirky subjects, including the film “Cindy the Tattoo Maven.”

“Bayou Landfall” won the 2006 Alan Fortunoff Humanitarian Award. And “Angels of the Basin” snagged the Best Historical Documentary in the 2007 New York International Independent Film And Video Festival.

Abbey is continuing to juggle projects. Next year she is planning to release “Rosey at 100,” a documentary about artist, feminist, and nurse Rosey Kramer Meyers.

 She is also working on another documentary that examines aging — a profile on Catherine Papell, a founding member of the Association of Advancement of Social Work with Groups Inc.  and an NASW member.

Abbey, who grew up in Manhattan, is surprised her life turned out the way it did. Her mother died before she was nine years old and she was raised alone by her father. Abbey became a teen mother and dropped out of high school before changing her life. She got a GED, attended the New York Institute of Technology, and eventually a masters in social work at  Adelphi University in Long Island.

“I always had a sense I had to survive and change my life,” she said.

Now she says she has no intention of giving up her passion of combining documentary filmmaking with social work.

“This is what I believe life is about,” she said. “It’s about how many experiences you have and the meanings behind them.”

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  1. Hi Abbey,

    Great article. You are special, and wished only continued fulfillment and achievement with the work you do.

    Jane has justed completed her first semester (graduate work in Social Work) at C.W. Post . She loves the work…soup kitchens and the those who are in need nurture her. After so many years away from almost getting her masters in anthropology from Hunter she feels she is doing something with passion.

    Happy and Healthy New Year.


  2. Here is the very definition of “documentary”: to capture a reality of which we are otherwise not cognizant
    and disseminate it and thereby inform and educate the uninformed. To elicit a compassionate response
    is then the job of the filmmaker, and I can testify personally that Ms. Abbey’s films achieve this goal. I have had the privilege of seeing the movie about the Houma’s plight along with “Angels of the Basin”
    at a Festival in New York and walked away profoundly moved. Universal exposure is essential to the
    future health of beleaguered humanity. BRAVO,Ms. Abbey!

  3. Leslye….I love the story about you.
    It highlights your own personal journey
    and clearly connects with the work you do
    and the film topics you choose.
    Thank you! I can’t wait to see “Rosey at 100.”
    You are a gift to the universe.!

  4. Leslye….. You ARE amazing !!!!

  5. Yes you are a remarkable woman but there is more: There are three sons you raised on your own; and you are still reaching out to others as well as professionally , a special friend; growing without giving up in a world that is not filled with hope at this time. a spiritual healer, too. from your colleague and fan Teddy

  6. Congratulations, Leslye, on the well-deserved recognition. You are an inspiration for others to follow their dreams. You’ve taken a passion and gained the skills to communicate in an outstanding way. May you have continued success. PS When are you coming with me to Iran?

  7. Leslye, you did a great job on the documentary “Bayou Landfall.” My office has a copy. I watched it and it is great and you deserve recognition and awards. I just read the story about you. I agree with your statement about indigenous people. I am an American Indian and our people are always dismissed or ignored. Keep up your good work and may God continue to bless you in all your work.


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