Filmmakers Redux: Then and Now
Written by Ann Jackman | Posted by: Anonymous
One of NewEnglandFilm’s goals is to promote an active regional filmmaking community by sharing the stories of filmmakers and the filmmaking process. Such stories are an important resource for maintaining a strong independent filmmaking community. What better way to celebrate the eighth anniversary of NewEnglandFilm.com than by taking a look back at some of the filmmakers featured here in the past and tracing the paths their lives and films have taken in the ensuing years? Although each has a different experience and different style in their work, they share common threads of struggle, passion, and lots of lessons learned.
Gayle Ferraro is passionate. Passionate and curious and open — all essential ingredients for a successful documentary filmmaker. The Cambridge filmmaker finds ideas everywhere, sparked by a chance meeting, a visual image, or a passing conversation.
In October 2002, NewEnglandFilm.com recounted the sometimes harrowing, often unbelievable events involved in the making of Ferraro’s second documentary, "Anonymously Yours," about the lives of prostitutes in Burma. The shoot involved clandestine interviews, smuggling equipment and film, and risking severe penalties from the Burmese government. The film was itself a result of an unexpected idea, which presented itself while Ferraro was on her way to India to shoot a different documentary about a Ganges hospice.
"Anonymously Yours" debuted in Montreal in 2002 and went on to screen at the AFI Film Festival and on the Sundance Channel, along with Ferraro’s first film "16 Decisions." In 2003, she finally did complete her Ganges film, "Ganges River to Heaven," which has shown in festivals worldwide. "I made my first three films in four years," says Ferraro. "Every time, I’ve taken on new topics and new technology, so it’s always been a learning curve. And once I finish a film, I have a whole other learning curve after the audience reaction. That’s where a film truly gets its meaning."
"There are some similarities between the three if you look deep. The subject matters are about unaddressed issues for me. I’m not always aware what attracts me to a particular subject matter, but it is always exhilarating. I’m driven to get it done, and it reaches this deep passion."
Her experience on the Ganges film literally changed her life, or at least her outlook on death. "It’s the only one of my films that I truly love. It was such a tender experience to be in hospices where you stay with people until they die. Being that close to people who were so natural and so accepting of death, it changed my point of view and the way I deal with issues of death and dying. I don’t have to be scared of door number two anymore. It was such a relief."
Although "Ganges River To Heaven" represents a transition to film from digital for Ferraro, she acknowledges the way the digital era is transforming documentaries. "Ideas we would never have access to, we now see because of digital. Documentaries have changed so much just in the last five years. It used to be that when you thought of documentaries, it was always one way, but now there’s so much variety, they’re as varied as life."
Currently, Ferraro is working not on a documentary, but on developing a feature film based on her experience shooting "Anonymously Yours." She was inspired to develop "Redemption" based on feedback from various screenings. "People asked so much how I made that film, that that became the focus of the Q&A. They got the story on some level, but my experiences and relation of the shoot was their ticket into understanding it more deeply."
And the ideas keep coming. Ferraro would like to do a documentary on the untouchables in India. She is also considering a documentary about the expats she met over in India, exploring what motivates someone to leave a Western culture for so many years. And after her experience at the Zanzibar Film Festival, she would love to partner with an African filmmaker on a project over there. "The other plus side of doing documentaries is I’ve learned over the five years that you grow enormously. They change you."
For information on "Ganges River to Heaven," visit www.aerial-productions.com.
Colombian-born filmmaker Roberto Arévalo wants to change the world one video at a time, and his socially conscious Mirror Project has been doing that for the past 12 years. In April, 1999, NewEnglandFilm.com profiled Arévalo’s film "Sin Maquillaje" a documentary that trained the camera on impoverished students living in an educational community in Colombia, using the methodology he employs in the Mirror Project.
Arévalo started the Mirror Project as a way to apply his philosophy of life to the art of filmmaking. It produces, in collaboration with organizations, documentaries that promote social, cultural, and personal awareness. It is also a tool to teach urban youth how to use video as a vehicle for self-reflection. Arévalo believes that self-reflection leads to self-knowledge, which ultimately leads to self-awareness. Only through self-awareness can we break free of limitations imposed on us by society and culture and reach our full potential and worth. Documentaries can be a powerful tool in that process, something Arévalo discovered when he bought his first video camera and began filming the people and places around him, including himself.
"I grew a lot because I was able to do what most of us cannot do. My videos from that time serve as aids to help refresh my memory. I can go back, watch the videos, and analyze moments of my life and reflect. It is incredible to go back to situations and understand things that I didn’t understand before."
As an immigrant who came here with no advantages, working his way from one menial job to the next to support himself, documenting his experiences and struggles helped Arévalo to find his own voice and identity in the States. "All the lessons that I have learned through my process of having to play the roles imposed upon me, they are the foundation of my philosophy of self-reflection," says Arévalo.
Today, the Mirror Project has produced over 150 videos that have been screened at Harvard, MIT, and the Museum of Fine Arts. One of Arévalo’s goals was to train the students not to be technicians, but to be critical thinkers and learn how to combine theory and practice. "The Mirror Project is the practice, and that is the foundation that the theory will enrich," says Arévalo. "My approach to documentaries is a way of living that I pass on to my students."
Arévalo acknowledges that documentaries have traditionally been dominated by a homogenous voice. "It’s not bad, but it’s only one point of view. The arts should not be the domain of one segment of society." The Mirror Project seeks to bring the points of view of a normally marginalized segment to the forefront. Arévalo feels his theory is in some way validated by the success the Project’s films have had at festivals.
Today, Arévalo continues the Mirror Project out of Georgia State University, where he is getting his MFA in art and digital filmmaking. As part of his graduate work, he continues to produce documentaries, including the poetic "Tejiendo Vida (Weaving Life)" about a Colombian basketmaker supporting his family, and "La Vision," which explores why photographers choose to shoot what they shoot. For his thesis, he is finishing a documentary he began years ago about one of his former Mirror Project students, Roubbins LaMothe, who uses short stories to explore his own journey as a Haitian immigrant in the States.
Arévalo remains devoted to the Mirror Project, and its growth and evolution has in some ways mirrored his own. Realizing that his definition of poverty was too narrow, focused only on economic poverty and not on emotional or social poverty, he expanded his program to include kids of all economics classes. All human beings need an outlet for expression if they are to find their place in the world and connect across the social and cultural divides that separate us.
His next phase for the Mirror Project is to package its growing body of work to use as a springboard for community outreach. "Having visited places like the ghetto, academia, and my own self, having walked many lives in one lifetime, I intend to do a national tour, creating discussion among filmmakers, ethnographers, sociologists, and public health workers. Documentaries overlap many disciplines, and I intend to continue linking individuals."
Once he graduates, he hopes to teach at a university, but also to continue collaborating with young people, developing similar projects on a national scale that encourage self-knowledge and self-expression. "The Mirror Project is only a glimpse of what we can achieve with limited resources. The work we do is incredibly important, and in terms of education, it is a legacy for years to come. To transform ourselves, that is the true meaning of education."
For information on The Mirror Project’s goals and a look at its many projects, visit www.mirrorproject.org.
In the March, 2000 NewEnglandFilm.com article "The First-hand Adventures of a First-time Filmmaker," Lorre Fritchy wrote about her experiences — good, bad, and aggravating — filming her first documentary, "Sandy ‘Spin’ Slade: Beyond Basketball." It was funny, informative, and reassuring for any first-time filmmakers who feel they are unique in the problems they encounter.
After finishing the film in 2001, Fritchy spent a lot of time self-distributing the film through catalogues, online venues, and screenings, and she is thinking of re-releasing it on DVD as Sandy Slade gets ready to retire this year. "I will admit that self-distribution is too much work if you’re an independent filmmaker who also doesn’t love the business side of film. It makes it difficult to move on to new projects when you’re constantly still managing your previous ones," says Fritchy. She hopes to find an outside distributor who will help her get it to TV and retail video outlets.
Mired in the self-distribution struggle, Fritchy says it took about two years before "I could catch my breath to really move on to other projects." During that time, she focused on what she enjoys best about filmmaking — screenwriting. She is currently refining three screenplays that she has been working on, one of which won the 2004 One In Ten Screenplay Competition. "I have always been a storyteller, a writer, a person who sees the world more uniquely than those around me." But she keeps her hands in all things film, working on indies, big budget features, documentaries, and corporate videos to pay the bills. Each new project she views as a learning opportunity, a process she sees as vital to the growth of every filmmaker.
"It would be nice to have a project where I can just sit back and simply apply what I’ve learned rather than constantly having to learn something agonizingly new. But if you’re not learning lessons, then you’re not pushing yourself to another level. For me, that included listening a lot less to so-called books and experts and listening to my gut a lot more."
Right now, she is finishing up executive producer duties on the documentary, "The Gay Marriage Thing," directed by Stephanie Higgins. The film is aimed at an audience that many films of this nature often bypass — middle America. "This is the documentary families can watch together to discuss the topic. It’s not about controversy, it’s about conversation." The film will be screening locally at the Rhode Island International Film Festival in August and at the Breckenridge Film Festival in Colorado in September.
Whether it’s a documentary or a piece of fiction, for Fritchy, it all comes down to effective storytelling." I have always approached documentaries with a feature-like mentality. It is still storytelling, there should still be layers and characters and a higher through-line."
And Fritchy does not take her storytelling gifts and her opportunity to make films for granted. "I did not ever choose this calling; it called me. The life of a filmmaker is full of more than a usual dose of self-doubt, rejection, uphill battles, negative attitudes, compromises, and credit card debt. But it’s also brilliant when it all comes together, when someone gets what you were trying to do with a story. If you believe in what you’re doing, the good outweighs the bad no matter how bad it gets. Life happens. Film happens. All you can do is trust that you will have the passion and the vision to intertwine them both."
"So my 15 minutes are over?" asks John O’Brien in response to being asked to participate in this update article. Seven years ago, in the February, 1998 NewEnglandFilm, O’Brien, a Vermont filmmaker, was completing shooting on "Nosey Parker," the third film in his Tunbridge Trilogy, following the well-received "Vermont is for Lovers," and "A Man with a Plan."
"Nosey Parker" was finished in 2003, delayed partially due to the death of its star, George Livingston in 1999. O’Brien decided to self-distribute the film, a job that mainly involved driving around for a year and a half to theaters, which pretty much restricted the release radius to the New England area. "I found that if I went to the theaters themselves, actually physically went, they’d play the film. So there’s been a bit of driving involved. I think I’ve stayed in every exhibitor’s house in the northeast." The film won critical praise and even outgrossed "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" in Buffalo.
Based out of Tunbridge, Vermont, where he runs a sheep farm and serves as Justice of the Peace, O’Brien set up a nonprofit, Bellwether Projects, to enable him to make the films he wants to make, "driven by passion and not a commercial interest." His films subtly tackle political and social issues in a comedic light, to get his messages across in an entertaining way. "I never liked politics in movies. But then I realized you can’t get away from politics in all aspects of life, whether it’s in government, ecology, or even love. Politics is in everything."
O’Brien’s latest project, "The Green Movie," addresses the politics of environmentalism and sustainability. It is a comedy about teenagers who think globally, and act locally. As in his other films, O’Brien cast people he knew rather than actors. In this case, it was the students of The Sharon Academy, where he taught debate. All of O’Brien’s films mix elements of documentary, improvisation, and fictional storytelling to ground his comedies in reality. "Characters and sets come to us in three dimensions, so when I know someone well, I think there’s no way I could write a character this well, so I just use them. Or there’s no way I could dress a set better than what some of these kids’ bedrooms actually look like, so I just use their rooms."
O’Brien’s previous films were shot on film, and he finds the transition to using DV on his latest movie has given him more latitude and flexibility, particularly in the editing room. "The advantage of DV is you can shoot so much. Because the shooting ratio is bigger, you have more room to think of variations if something doesn’t work."
As for whether he sees changes in himself as a filmmaker, O’Brien notes, "I don’t know if I’m a better storyteller, but I am more aware of the art of storytelling. With my earlier films, it was much more instinctual. But now I’m more conscious about details, developing characters and story arcs, and thinking about the audience. I think my films are flowing much more smoothly than they used to."
O’Brien’s biggest challenge and goal for "The Green Movie" is to make it appealing to both environmentalists and NASCAR fans, as well as both adults and teenagers, groups often on opposite ends of the spectrum. He doesn’t deny the goal is a lofty one. "The idea is to balance high school life with environmental issues, so that it’s not too info-heavy, but has some sort of design for living message. And ultimately it has to be funny. As long as I make a funny movie, nothing else matters."
To learn more about John O’Brien’s projects, visit www.bellwetherfilms.com.
Do not put Ellie Lee in a box or try to categorize her as a specific kind of filmmaker. She sees filmmaking as a hybrid of styles, where media choices are used to enhance a story rather than limit it. In December of 1997, NEfilm wrote about Lee’s first film while a student at Harvard, an animated documentary about battered women. "Repetition Compulsion" brought Lee praise and recognition for her unique approach to documenting a disturbing and emotional subject.
"From ‘Repetition Compulsion’ I became known in Boston as an animator and not a documentarian," says Lee. "But most of my paid work has been in documentaries. I don’t really do animation anymore. I’m not shutting the door on it right now, but it just isn’t the right fit for me at this point in time."
Lee does not limit herself to one genre or see different filmmaking formats as distinct entities that one must choose between when approaching a story. "If you have a clear idea of the story, you can basically go between all three media [animation, documentary, fiction] or move around to figure out which ones best tell the story."
After "Repetition Compulsion" aired at the Berlin Film Festival and was nominated for an Emmy, Lee gained enough notoriety to garner funding for her next project, the 2000 short called "Dog Days," based on the short story by Judith Budnitz. An absurdist allegory of poverty in a futuristic war-torn city, it was her first work of fiction and her first experience dealing with actors and managing a large crew. "I found that it probably suits me better than animation," Lee admits.
As with most independent filmmakers, Lee has paid the bills through freelance work, making videos for nonprofit fundraising efforts, and field producing for WGBH programs. She liked the mix of the independent spirit within a corporate structure that she found at WGBH. "It was like making little indie films. And it was a nice balance between working on the show and having the time to work on my script and figure out what I want do next."
What she has decided to do next is a feature length film, originally called "The Road Home," a story about a daughter and her Chinese immigrant father. She wrote it two years ago and submitted the screenplay to the Tribeca Film Festival in 2004, where it won the All Access Award. After workshopping it with actors, however, Lee decided to completely rework the script and its themes, and is taking this summer off to refine it. In 2004, Lee also received a Rockefeller Fellowship that provides grant money to budding artists. She jokes, "I guess I’m still young enough to be considered an emerging artist."
Not quite busy enough, Lee is in the process of preparing a documentary feature, which is in the initial fundraising stages, and she is also producing a documentary, called "The Other Peter," directed by New York film curator Peter Dowd about his obsession with bodybuilding and his struggles with megarexia, the opposite of anorexia. Their goal is to have the film done in time to hit festivals at the end of the year.
In the meantime, she will continue working on her feature script, which she describes as a bittersweet comedy full of optimism and hope, a very different sensibility from her first two films. Looked at chronologically, however, Lee’s body of work traces her ever-evolving approach to filmmaking and to her life. "‘Repetition Compulsion’ and ‘Dog Days’ both came from very sad places, which was a reflection of where I was in my late 20s, struggling to find my voice. Now at 34, I would have a different approach to telling those stories. I find that my outlook has become more optimistic and hopeful in my work even as the global situation around me gets bleaker, and my new screenplay follows that trajectory."
Passion drives independent filmmakers. Without it, motivation wanes, challenges seem too daunting, and self-doubt can rear its ugly head. Passion is what keeps a filmmaker pushing forward, even when time, resources, and money drag the filmmaking process out for many, many, many years.
Passion is what has driven Melanie Perkins to persevere in getting her own labor of love finished after six years. As profiled in NewEnglandFilm.com in September, 1999, Perkins felt compelled to make a documentary detailing the events surrounding the disappearance of her friend Andy from a Lawrence swimming pool in 1976. Six years later, "Have You Seen Andy" is nearing completion, moving into the audio post-production phase. It has been a long emotional road, but also a rewarding and revealing one for Perkins.
"I thought I’d be more relieved nearing the end, but now it seems like when a child is going off to college. You give it birth, nurture it for so long, watch it develop, and then you have to let it go out into the world. You want to let it go, but you’re also pulling it back," says Perkins. "A mentor of mine once said a film is never finished."
Perkins credits the generosity and support of the Boston filmmaking community, that she has met through her 15 years of working in the industry, for helping her tell Andy’s story, by offering time and equipment at reduced rates. As she approaches the final stages, Perkins hopes to find someone who will help pay for the final post and provide a broadcast venue. If that doesn’t come through, she will continue to seek donated help and additional grants and foundation support.
The six years have been emotionally charged ones, and along the way she was surprised by where the film led her, venturing into new territory that she hadn’t expected. "The documentary motivated the story to change," says Perkins. "By documenting the story, it made other things happen. Things I’ve found out in research caused the case to be reopened. So I was going to the police with new evidence." While the case has still not been solved, the police do have a prime suspect, whose voice appears chillingly in the film.
"I had no idea what I was getting into, and this was a huge learning experience for me. I had the confidence that I could physically make the film, so it was more about what I was getting into personally."
Sometimes the emotional journey was too much to handle, particularly as she learned more about pedophiles and became a mother herself. "It turned me upside-down having it in my mind constantly. It’s different from projects where the subject matter is outside of my world and I can put it away. I had to take time off. That’s what’s great about independent filmmaking, because you have the luxury to be able to do that."
Such a long gestation period is a new experience for Perkins, who is used to the structured and deadline-driven environment of television. But her dedication to her friend and to the film never flagged. "Any filmmaker that does a film has to somehow fall in love with the subject to make it happen. Otherwise, it’s too hard to do."
And as the film wraps up, Perkins is beginning to feel a certain sense of closure. "I do feel like I did right by my friend, and that was most important to me." Last year, the town of Lawrence dedicated a boulder outside of the pool to Andy, for which Perkins wrote the inscription. As the filmmaker, she viewed it as an affecting scene for the film, but as the friend, she wasn’t prepared for the emotional impact of the event. She hopes the inscription, as well as her film, will promote awareness in both parents and kids. "I knew then that it was worth the price emotionally and financially that I had to pay to make this film."
To learn more about the film, visit www.haveyouseenandy.com.
"I feel pretty lucky to be able to say that I’m still in film," says Irena Fayngold. We last met Fayngold in April, 1999, when she had just finished her first film, an 11-minute piece, "Getting to Home Base," an extremely personal account of her sexual experiences and awakening. What had started as a video sketchbook of concepts for a future film evolved, with the encouragement of one of her Museum School teachers, into a powerfully emotional essay.
Six years later, Fayngold is working on her latest documentary, "A Jewish Student Speaks Out" about local Jewish high school students trying to start a Gay-Straight Alliance in their school. She has been working on it off and on since 2002, balancing it with her day job at WGBH. Fayngold is producing the film with Keshet, a nonprofit GLBT educational organization, a partnership she welcomes for various reasons. "I find it difficult to work on my own, so doing something with a nonprofit, where you know the outreach will be done, having that support and knowing it will get seen makes it worthwhile to go through the effort."
Filmmaking as a collaborative art is among many lessons that Fayngold has learned on her career path as a filmmaker. "The field is so difficult, but working with others makes it doable. Even ‘Getting to Home Base,’ though it was about me, in terms of aesthetic issues, I was learning from my teachers. One teacher in particular pushed me and made me make choices about how to present the material. So even that was a collaboration in some sense, because I was getting feedback and insight."
Another lesson learned? "To chill out more," laughs Fayngold. "Production is often about things going wrong at every stage. Part of creating something is knowing that that is going to happen and being prepared for that. Each crisis is not the end of the world."
Her new film is somewhat of a departure for Fayngold, who is drawn to personal documentaries. "When a filmmaker tells his or her own story, for a viewer it’s more interesting because it is more revealing than a filmmaker can be about someone else. It’s not that I think a story about oneself is necessarily more honest, but it’s a different relationship that the viewer will have to the material. But even when you make a documentary about someone else, ultimately you always tell your own story."
Finding space for independent filmmaking in between jobs has posed the greatest challenge for Fayngold. Not only is it a drain on scant resources, but also on valuable commodities such as time and energy. "There are times when I never want to make another film again. Making a documentary is an enormous undertaking. Everything I do is about how to beg, borrow, and steal. Plus, you’re doing it on your own borrowed time. You have to do everything, and you might not have all the skills required to do it. And that’s where collaboration comes in."
What re-energizes her and feeds her momentum in her current project are the support and encouragement of Keshet and the positive feedback she has received in screenings for educators, teachers, and students. "What kept me going through the difficult times was Keshet pushing me to show it even when I wasn’t ready. They forced me to get it out there, and what has sustained me is seeing watching the audience reaction and listening to the conversations after the screenings."
"A Jewish Student Speaks Out" is still a work in progress that Fayngold hopes to finish by the fall. She is currently looking for interns. For more info, or if you are interested in interning, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.