Filmmaking | Interviews

An Accidental Filmmaker

1 Jan , 2003  

Written by Rebecca Prime | Posted by:

Laura Dunn, whose films 'Green' and 'Become the Sky' will screen at the Boston MFA this month, talks about becoming a filmmaker with a mission.

With four films under her belt and a list of honors that includes a Student Academy Award, Laura Dunn has built up an impressive résumé for someone who never "in her wildest dreams" planned on making movies. In fact, the 27 year-old ecological filmmaker thought her work lay on the other side of the camera; "what I did was acting," Dunn explains, her clear, expressive voice suggesting her skill as a thespian. But having attended Yale to study drama, she gradually found her aspirations diverted by New Haven’s jarring economic disparities.

"Being from the South, I’d never dealt with urban poverty and New England wealth before, and it really opened my eyes," she says of her political awakening. Dunn’s time at Yale coincided with the campus labor strikes that roiled Yale in the mid-90s. Despite her almost total lack of film experience, Dunn had an "intuitive sense" that she needed to make a film about the labor conflict "in response to the apathy on campus." A year and a half later, she had over 100 hours of footage that she would later edit into her film "The Subtext of a Yale Education."

Dunn’s experience with "Subtext," a film that went on to win the prize for Best Documentary at the 1999 National Student Film Festival, is indicative of Dunn’s cause-driven approach to her work as a filmmaker. At the time when she began her second film, "Green," made while an MFA student at UT Austin, Dunn wasn’t even sure she wanted to stay in film school. "I wanted a reason to go down to New Orleans — I just needed an adventure. I had no idea I’d be starting a film that would take two years to finish."

Inspired by an article in The Wall Street Journal about Louisiana’s infamous Cancer Alley, the 100-mile stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that is home to over 150 of petrochemical plants and reports the highest levels of toxic emissions in the country, Dunn made a call to the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic. A few days later, Dunn was attending a meeting of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Committee in Baton Rouge, where citizen after citizen stood up and testified to the detrimental effects of the plants. "It was very dramatic, I took a ton of notes. The next day I was shooting in someone’s backyard."

Prior to the Student Academy Award-winning "Green," Dunn was not particularly interested in environmental issues. "My mom was a botanist," she says as a possible explanation. What initially attracted Dunn to the story of Cancer Alley was the conjunction of racism and Southern politics in the context of socioeconomic injustice. In the course of working on the film, however, the role of the environment moved to center-stage.

"When an environment is unhealthy, that’s the end of life, there’s nothing else to talk about," she comments, summing up what the disease-plagued inhabitants of Cancer Alley know first-hand. Dunn began to see the environment as the theater where larger economic, social, and cultural issues ultimately get played out. "We live in a totally unsustainable society that is in a state of spiritual crisis. We’re all caught up in this big rat race where we value money above all. Everything else gets lost."

Dunn’s geographic base in Texas and regional cultural identity acquired growing up mainly in the South creates an interesting counterpoint to her liberal politics, placing her in a dynamic insider/outsider position vis-à-vis the matrix of issues she addresses in her films. "Living deep in the heart of Texas, I’m surrounded by a lot of religion, and the politics of theology and ecology are very prominent in the culture." With "Green" having revealed to her the ecological orientation of her work, Dunn set out next to make a film about that most Texan of subjects: oil.

"Having looked at the devastating impact of petrochemicals — oil by-products — on human life in ‘Green,’ I wanted to trace these products to their roots," she explains. In "Become the Sky," the production of physical energy provides Dunn with a foundation for mapping a multi-layered ecology of power that spans 4,000 miles across Texas, from off-shore oil rigs to the dry mouth of the Rio Grande. At the outset of the film, Dunn was primarily interested in "landscape, in the war between man and nature." She had just finished logging the footage when September 11th happened and she found herself completing the film in a very different political environment. "At that point, the film became a meditation on capitalism, war, and power in a day and age where there is little space for political protest."

The latest step in Dunn’s organic evolution as an artist comes courtesy of a prestigious Rockefeller Media Fellowship, a $35,000 award that is funding "Mai Mayim," Dunn’s ecologically-inspired exploration of the Middle East conflict named for the words for water in Hebrew and Arabic respectively. While filming "Become the Sky," Dunn was horrified by the discovery that the Rio Grande had been reduced to no more than a trickle near its mouth.

"You see this apocalyptic landscape and you start to have a sense of what we are doing to the earth." Dunn’s visceral reaction to this scene made it clear to her that she wanted to make a film about water. She had been thinking of working internationally, and was drawn to the Middle East on account of the one-dimensional media coverage. "There are people there with lives, leading multi-faceted existences, and you never see that. All you see is violence."

However, the escalating violence in the region intruded on Dunn’s project in the most direct fashion, killing several of Dunn’s contacts at Hebrew University in the bombing there last summer. While Dunn still hopes to go to Israel sometime in the next six months, at present she is developing the project largely through archival material, looking at the role water has played in the construction of modern Israel. In addition to the basic issues of equity (at present, Israelis receive five times as much water per person as Palestinians), Dunn is interested in the symbolism of water in a region where bodies of water are imbued with such strong cultural resonance. "The Jordan River is just a creek — I’m trying to wake people up to the fact that preserving their environment also means preserving their cultural heritage."

Dunn’s tendency to "let the cause take over" applies equally to her formal strategies as a filmmaker, in the sense that she likes to let the structure emerge from the story. Whereas "Green" has a very linear structure, following the course of the Mississippi itself, "Become the Sky" adopts a poetic, fragmented construction, both as a form of opposition to the subject matter and as a way of prodding the viewer into a more active relationship with the film. "Unlike the energy industry, which is so centralized, the film has no central power structure but rather, a thousand points of interest. I throw a lot of different impressions out there but leave the conclusions wide open, like the sky," says Dunn.

Considering the controversial subjects she tackles, Dunn has developed well-honed tactics for gaining access to places and communities. She spends a lot of time in the field, cultivating relationships and building trust. She sees her unimposing demeanor ("I look about 15") as an advantage, emphasizing her difference from mainstream media, while she credits her acting background with helping her "present herself more carefully." Ultimately, though, "it’s all about the art of endurance."

Rather than risk her films languishing in the hands of an educational distributor, Dunn takes them on the road herself. Having started making films as a way of promoting dialogue, Dunn clearly loves the grassroots component of her work. "As a filmmaker, one of the hardest things to deal with is that the impact of what you are doing is not always tangible. The feeling that people are coming together in a room, standing up, and talking together for the first time is just incredible."

While she doesn’t rule out the possibility of moving into a more hybrid form of fictional filmmaking at some point (quoting the novelist Tim O’Brien’s advice that you have to write fiction to get to the truth), Dunn sees her political activism and her commitment to making art as constants. Filmmaking is how I make sense of the world. I just feel so blessed to be able to make a living doing this."

Laura Dunn will present ‘Green’ and ‘Become the Sky’ at 1pm on January 18th at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Tickets are $8 for MFA members, seniors, and students; $9 for general admission. Please call the Box Office at 617 369 3306 for reservations. More information about the films can be found at www.twobirdsfilm.com.


Laura Dunn will present 'Green' and 'Become the Sky' at 1pm on January 18th at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Tickets are $8 for MFA members, seniors, and students; $9 for general admission. Please call the Box Office at 617 369 3306 for reservations. More information about the films can be found at www.twobirdsfilm.com.