#HFF2017: Women Directors Share Insights About Their Short Films

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Heartland Film Festival 2017 is underway.  As an Oscar® qualifying festival, Heartland offers film lovers terrific opportunities to explore marvelously inventive short films.  Curious to learn about the creative process behind the making of some of the short films that will screen at Heartland #DirectedbyWomen invited a number of women directors to respond to this question…

“Could you please tell us about a moment during the making of your film when you could feel your vision coming together or when you overcame a challenge in a satisfying way?”

Here’s what Abi Damaris Corbin, Ann Sirot, Cheryl Halpern, Danielle Wolter Nolan and Kate Nolan, Emily Sheskin, Erin Heidenreich, Halima Lucas, Hannah West, Katie Stjernholm, Molly Katagiri, and Yulia Ruditskaya had to say about their filmmaking processes.

Abi Damaris Corbin

Still image from The Suitcase

Abi Damaris Corbin

Abi Damaris Corbin

Absolutely. Both of those moments lead us to the same story.
The moment is raw, unfiltered joy. Smiles come from just revisiting the memory.

Our set photographer captured it. See images below.
Suitcase is the story of a Boston-bred baggage handler whose life is turned upside down when he steals a suitcase that contains terrorist plans. Inspired by true events on 9/II.

Our story, though it takes place on 9/II, is not about 9/II.

It’s a story about Joe Franek, a morally compromised guy who wants to matter in the world, that takes place on 9/II.

Honestly portraying Franek’s story and not exploiting the date felt like aiming for a bullseye 500 yards out, so we took great steps to insure we empathized with Franek. We knew that to feel the weight of Franek’s dilemma, we needed to see his unattainable dream, his longing for a better life, as his motivation to steal.

On a script level it made sense that the most cinematic way to show Franek’s dream was to put the audience in the cockpit of a commercial plane where he dreams of becoming a pilot.

On a producing level– that was our challenge.

Financially– renting a commercial plane was far outside the budget, and we had more scenes scheduled for the airport tarmac then time to execute.

We tried so many avenues and were told “no” so many times that I tried to rewrite outside airport options for the scene. None of them were as strong, and once the best version of the story is apparent you cannot turn back.

We were a day or two from the shoot; Moje (Mojean Aria, lead actor) and I were rehearsing, when the last plane owner called me with a final “no.”

Crushed, but not giving up, Mojean and I immediately made a video response pleading our case for an hour use. I also sent over some banana bread made by my editor’s wife. (The bread is so good it could end wars.) The plane owner’s wife happened to be on the receiving end of the video and bread, and she told her husband that he had to let us use the plane– free of charge. (!!)

When we finally arrived on set for our hour with the plane, we had 60 minutes and 7 uncuttable single cam set ups involving a dana dolly, a scissor lift and a handheld cam. The crew rallied. It was quiet. Laser focused. Tense. We knew we didn’t get second takes: a heavy weight on everyone’s shoulders.

When the camera rolled– I saw the look in Mojean’s eyes as he stepped into the cockpit, and I knew. We all did. We had it. We’d created a story about a guy who wanted to matter– who had big dreams– but was afraid. We were giddy. We had done what we set out to and that feeling– it’s joy– it’s accomplishment, grit, perseverance, answers to prayer, incredible team work– all coming together to create a slice of magic.

The Suitcase directed by Abi Damaris Corbin – Stuck in the minutia of life Joe Franek, a Boston-bred baggage handler, fears he’ll never amount to anything. Being a pilot is his goal, but the dream seems far off as financial pressures mount. When tasked with transferring an incoming bag, Franek cracks and steals from the case owned by Mohammad Atta and destined for American Airlines Flight 11 on September 11th, 2001. The suitcase misses Flight 11, forcing Franek to re-tag it for later departure. Franek’s world is turned upside down when Flight 11 crashes into the World Trade Center. All air traffic is grounded, and the chaotic airport is locked down. Tortured by his careless actions, Franek becomes obsessed with tracking down the bag he delayed. Risking his job and sacrificing his security, Franek becomes a suspect, but his act of courage turns him into an unlikely hero and gives him the legacy for which he longed.

The Suitcase screens at Heartland Film Festival as part of Shorts Program 11: Around the World
10/18 – 5:15 pm at AMC Traders Point Theater 12
10/19 – 3:15 pm at AMC Castleton Square 14

Follow Abi Damaris Corbin on Instagram, Twitter, and the film’s website.


Ann Sirot

Ann Sirot

Ann Sirot

The process of making Avec Thelma was pretty much centered around the challenge of including a toddler as an important character of the story. The title of the film actually refers both to the film and to its process. Thelma being my and co-director Raphaël Balboni’s daughter, I guess it also refers to moving on, and embracing parenthood along with our filmmaker’s lives.

Little Thelma started rehearsing with her two fellow grown-up comedians at age 2 and a half. We met once a week every week for 5-6 months so she could get accustomed to those funny times when she would be engaged in some action with Jean & Vincent—playing games, baking cakes, reading stories while her parents were standing silently in a corner of the room, behind a strange device she quickly found out was called a camera.

The way we crafted the film was based on that scheme of rehearsals. Finding out how the trio functioned and watching them evolve from one session to the next, we would edit the footage of the rehearsals and rewrite all the time, to finally reach a screenplay that was tailor-made for these three specific actors at this time of their lives.

Avec Thelma (With Thelma) directed by Ann Sirot & Raphaël Balboni – An Icelandic volcano has blocked air traffic and Thelma’s parents are stuck overseas. Until planes start flying across the sky again, Jean Vincent and Thelma share the same roof.

Avec Thelma (With Thelma) screens at Heartland Film Festival as part of Shorts Program 5: Relationships
10/18- 12:30 pm at AMC Traders Point Theater 12
10/19 – 8:00 pm at AMC Castleton Square 14

Follow Ann Sirot on her website.


Cheryl Halpern

My parents taught me through their actions that we all have a responsibility to do what we can to make a difference; regardless of gender, race, ethnicity or religion. I have been guided by these values and the sense that every day is an opportunity to listen, learn, make a difference and celebrate life. This awareness has taken me, the girl who grew up in a small New England town, to visit places around the world and meet people whose stories have humbled me and have touched my heart. As such, I have felt a compelling need to share the experiences of these remarkable individuals through my documentaries.

Fighting to be Free directed by Cheryl Halpern and Mitchell Stuart documents the the heroic stories of young female freedom fighters in Ethiopia during the 20th century. These women left their families and homes to join the struggle to bring freedom, peace and democracy to their country. They serve as role models for leadership and courage for women.

Fighting to be Free screens at Heartland Film Festival as part of Shorts Program 7: Women in Shorts
10/18 – 8:00 pm at AMC Castleton Square 14
10/19 – 2:30 pm at AMC Traders Point Theater 12

Follow Cheryl Halpern on her website.


Danielle Wolter Nolan and Kate Nolan

Live Adventurously

Danielle Wolter Nolan

Danielle Wolter Nolan

Danielle shares…. This is the first film Kate and I produced and I think we overcame a challenge everyday! One of the challenges was, when we started filming during the women’s adventure contest weekend, we were also guiding the women on each activity, so it was extra challenging to direct the film. Luckily we had a great team working with us so we were able to manage both roles.

Kate Nolan

Kate Nolan

The fun thing about a documentary is that the vision you set out to have sometimes changes because you don’t know how, or in our case the women’s stories would unfold, being outdoors always has an element of surprise to it, and taking all women strangers out into the woods together has adventure written all over it! Despite the many obstacles we overcame, we could not have asked for a more memorable experience, and the 4 women winners have become great friends of myself and Kate. We wanted to inspire people by watching our film to start living their lives adventurously, and I believe we succeeded in that. 

Hopefully you will be seeing more women’s adventure films from us in the future.

Live Adventurously directed by Danielle Wolter Nolan and Kate Nolan – Four lucky Indiana women were chosen to win a four day back country adventure guided by Danielle and Kate of DNK Presents. None of them knew each other, or exactly what was in store for them, but they all left with something much more than they ever imagined possible.

Live Adventurously screens at Heartland Film Festival as part of Indiana Spotlight: Shorts Program 2
10/13 – 2:45 pm at AMC Castleton Square 14
10/16 – 12:30 pm at AMC Castleton Square 14
10/17 – 8:30 pm at AMC Traders Point Theater 12

Danielle Wolter Nolan and Kate Nolan plan to attend Heartland Film Festival. Follow Danielle and Kate on Facebook, Twitter and the film’s website.


Emily Sheskin

Emily Sheskin

Emily Sheskin

For me, the film always comes together in the edit. As someone who identifies as an editor/director, I often go into the directing part with an outline in my head, or an edit in mind.

However, as you know, documentary filmmaking requires some improvisation. With that said, on the day we filmed Jesselyn at the gym, she arrived a bit under the weather. She wanted to do her best and insisted on filming (her dad was ok with it as well), but what had initially been thought of a longer gym day turned into a day where Jesselyn didn’t perform at 100%.

Once in the edit, it was obvious that her killer instincts and usual energy level while training simply wasn’t there. I initially tried to mask the fact that she had a cold by showing scenes were I felt that she looked better, yet ultimately came to the decision that champions are made by their bad days just as much as their good ones.

The fact that at 10 years old she wanted to film, do her best, and get a workout in despite being sick showed to me that this girl is serious about being the best, and in order to honor that I decided to change my take on the edit and reveal to the audience that she wasn’t feeling well (that’s why her head hurts, though I was disappointed that some people thought it was from boxing despite the fact there’s no indication that’s the reason – she just had a headache from her cold).

From there, the edit really came together and I’m very happy with the final product. Now I’m looking to follow Jesselyn for the next 7 years where she’ll hopefully achieve her dream of going to the 2024 Olympics.

Jesszilla directed by Emily Sheskin – Jesselyn “Jesszilla” Silva is serious about boxing, and at 10 years old trains seriously with dreams of becoming a professional fighter. Her father, Pedro, finds himself caught between supporting her dream and worrying about her future as she tries to master a combat sport.

Jesszilla screens at Heartland Film Festival as part of Shorts Program 7: Women in Shorts
10/18 – 8:00 pm at AMC Castleton Square 14
10/19 – 2:30 pm at AMC Traders Point Theater 12

Follow Emily Sheskin on Twitter, the film website, and her website.


Erin Heidenreich

Rising Sons

Getting men to open up and talk about their emotions can be very difficult. Asking them to open up about their emotions around the subjects of masculinity and sexual violence, with a camera, was a challenge that I wasn’t sure we’d overcome before I got to DR Congo. During one of the first interviews I had with a young man, he surprised most people who knew him by opening up about a deep source of shame he had about himself and was so completely vulnerable and raw. There was a feeling that he longed to be seen and accepted for who he is. It became clear to me in that moment that this film was not just about men in The Democratic Republic of the Congo, but about the internalized struggle men carry about what it means to be ‘a man’ all around the world.

Rising Sons directed by Erin Heidenreich – In “The Rape Capital of the World,” one couple tries to redefine masculinity and end the cycle of violence against women through the radical transformation of men.

Rising Sons screens at Heartland Film Festival as part of Shorts Program 8: Overcoming Obstacles
10/16 –  3:00 pm at AMC Castleton Square 14
10/17 –  5:00 pm at AMC Traders Point Theater 12

Erin also has her documentary feature Girl Unbound at Heartland Film Festival this year…

Girl Unbound

Maria’s story is about so much—she is overcoming obstacles at every turn of her life both externally from radical extremists and internally regarding her identity.  Maria’s story about having her life threatened by the Taliban just because she wanted to play sports was incredible and horrific.  But the story came together for me when I first landed in Pakistan and I met her family.  It was then that I could find a personal connection to her because I understood that she was everything she was—relentless, fearless, brave—because of her family.  That universal story of how far you would go to protect someone you loved was something that I wholly understood from my heart and experience.  For me, in order to make a film, even if it’s a documentary about someone from a completely different culture on the other side of the world, you need to feel deeply connected to it in order to tell it from a place of respect, intimacy, and—dare I say—love.

Girl Unbound directed by Erin Heidenreich – At a young age, Maria discovered her love for one of Pakistan’s most popular sports, squash. Even though women were restricted to play, her family supported her passion and allowed her to pass as a boy. Maria’s identity eventually couldn’t contend with the success she was finding and the Taliban took notice, branding her as a target. Now, Maria is a renowned player, using her talents to advocate women’s rights to education and sports. She is a champion who stands out among the rest, challenging everything the Taliban is against. Maria’s fight is not just about learning how to survive, but how to thrive. She describes her identity as a mix of feminine and masculine qualities. She continues to defy everything the extremists and her societal upbringing tell her about what it means to be a girl, a human and a Muslim woman.

Girl Unbound screens at Heartland Film Festival…
10/16 –  5:00 pm at AMC Castleton Square 14
10/17 –  12:15 pm at AMC Traders Point Theater 12

Follow Erin Heidenreich on FacebookInstagram, Twitter,  and on her website.
Find out more about Rising Sons on Facebook
Find out more about Girl Unbound on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and on the film’s website.


Halima Lucas

Still image from Amelia's Closet

 

Halima Lucas

Halima Lucas

I remember during auditions for my film, I saw a number of young Black girls audition for the part. In the audition I asked the young ladies to tell me about the character Amelia and if they felt they had anything in common with her. The first girl that I asked not only understood who Amelia was but could relate to her being other-ed in the story and teased for being different. She broke down in tears telling me story after story of feeling as if no one understood or cared about her at school. This was the case for more or less every Black girl that followed in the audition. In that moment any doubt I had about the project went away because it was clear that not only was this personal story valid for me, but an important one for many young girls. It made me want to work even harder to make the film come to life no matter what challenges came up.

Amelia’s Closet directed by  Halima Lucas – When pushed to the edge by the bullies in her class, 11-year-old Amelia retaliates by secretly stealing from her classmates and hiding the items in the back of her closet.

Amelia’s Closet screens at Heartland Film Festival as part of Shorts Program 4: Kids Program
10/14 – 10:15 am at AMC Traders Point Theater 12
10/15 – 1:15 pm at AMC Castleton Square 14

Follow Halima Lucas on Facebook, Twitter and the film on Facebook, Twitter and on the film’s website.


Hannah West

Hannah West

Hannah West

There were multiple moments in the making of this film that I realized it was coming together. However, the first moment I realized that this film needed to be made was when I interviewed Amy Hunter (one of the women featured in my film). She lost her son to a heroin overdose in 2013. After sitting with her and speaking to her about her son and what her family went through—it gave me new perspective.

I started interviewing other people and was unnerved at how easy it was to find individuals affected by this crisis. Each interview reassured me that this story had to be told. I’m thrilled that it’s getting an audience and that we can get this issue a little more attention.

Not in Vain directed by Hannah West – Hoosiers discuss their relationship with the current Indiana opioid crisis. Through their struggles and experiences, they show the severity of a problem that too often goes ignored.

Not in Vain screens at Heartland Film Festival as part of Indiana Spotlight: Shorts Program 2
10/13 – 2:45 pm at AMC Castleton Square 14
10/16 – 12:30 pm at AMC Castleton Square 14
10/17 – 8:30 pm at AMC Traders Point Theater 12

Hannah West plans to attend Heartland Film Festival. Follow Hannah on Twitter and on her website.


Katie Stjernholm

Katie Stjernholm

Katie Stjernholm

Two days after we locked the edit to send off the film for our premiere at Mountainfilm in Telluride, Yvonne — the subject of Edges — passed away. This was devastating news, because she and I had developed a beautiful bond and friendship during the production process. And quite often, when something wasn’t working while piecing together the story, the thought of ‘just making it for Yvonne’ put me at ease. She passed the day before she was scheduled to watch it and, thus, never got to see the film. Yvonne died on the ice doing what she loved—practicing for a competition where she was planning to celebrate her 91st birthday.

The initial vision of this film was to share this passionate and resilient woman’s story. So what started out as a profile piece about longevity ended up transforming into a cinematic tribute that celebrated a wonderful life lived well. The first time it was shown to an audience was at her memorial service, which was incredibly rewarding. Because of everything that unfolded, we decided to change the ending of the film, which I think actually made it more powerful to audiences. Since then, Edges has traveled to more than 25 festivals and people have been able to meet her and be inspired by her through this film. That has been a tremendous privilege and honor.

Edges directed by Katie Stjernholm and Jonathan Hiller – At 90 years old, Yvonne was ice skating five days a week. She learned to skate as a young girl and rose to fame as an international performer in the Ice Capades. She never officially retired from competing. Edges is a celebration of a long life lived well.

Edges screens at Heartland Film Festival as part of Finalist Shorts 3
10/17 – 5:00 pm at AMC Castleton Square 14
10/20 – 3:15 pm at AMC Traders Point Theater 12
10/20 – 7:45 pm at AMC Traders Point Theater 12
10/21 – 10:00 am at AMC Castleton Square 14

Katie Stjernholm plans to attend Heartland Film Festival. Follow Katie on FacebookInstagram, the film’s website, and on her website.


Molly Katagiri

Molly Katagiri

Molly Katagiri

One of the biggest challenges in making Waabooz was casting. It was very important to us to make sure the majority of our cast was Ojibwe, but certainly Native American. We succeeded in more than a 99% Ojibwe and local cast. Another challenge in casting was that, most of our cast was children. Our Minnesota Industry did not have a Native American (child) talent selection among our local agencies. Without having the resources to do a nationwide casting, we did many local open-auditions. In the end, we ended up having to literally hand select people off the streets and in casinos that we thought looked the part. It was a great reward to be able to work with and discover talent, and to give an opportunity to these amazing teens who never dreamed of walking onto a set. And as a director, it is exciting to be able to work with people who are unfamiliar with the process—working in collaboration to grow, day by day in the art form. ​

Waabooz directed by Molly Katagiri – Twelve year-old Rabbit spends most of his days drawing, collecting comics and avoiding the teasing of his peers. Insecure and shy, Rabbit dreads dancing in the upcoming powwow and begins to draw Waabooz, a superhero that embodies his desired self: bold and unafraid. Through traditional storytelling, imagination and a little magic, Rabbit’s mysterious grandfather helps bring Waabooz to life.

Waabooz screens at Heartland Film Festival as part of Shorts Program 4: Kids Program
10/14 – 10:15 am at AMC Traders Point Theater 12
10/15 – 1:15 pm at AMC Castleton Square 14

Molly Katagiri plans to attend Heartland Film Festival. Follow Molly on Facebook and on the film’s website.


Yulia Ruditskaya

Yulia Ruditskaya

Yulia Ruditskaya

After I read this short tale by Alexey Tolstoy, I immediately felt it would be interesting and challenging to interpret it using animation language.

I started thinking how the Witcher, that beast who eats the moon could look like. Tolstoy’s description of him is quite scary – long sharp tail, dog’s head… I started sketching and looking for a visual way to express this character. I thought this could be the key to the story.

I did a few rounds and realized I do not want to make him that scary and beastly straight away. I wanted to show the evolution of his character, from a cowardly and a bit childish creature, who pokes the stars out of curiosity, to a beast, whose ego and desire cannot be stopped.

When I finally came up with the sketch of him walking through the flooded village, and sitting on a stump trying to poke the stars, I already knew what I was doing.

Another key character—the Drunken Tailor, and sketching his first encounter with the demon also helped to shape the mood and visually solve the story. I knew I needed the laconic black and white, and I needed bright yellow to represent the moon, the stars, the light.

After that, for 3 days or so I storyboarded almost non-stop day and night, and the whole story started to build up. I already saw the whole story in my mind—and just needed to transfer it to the screen. Which took a long time, but, well… It’s animation:)

The other truly challenging moment was towards the end of the production. When most of the animation has been done, we started working on the music. I was lucky to meet a talented composer here in New York to work on the score—Izzy Gliksberg. He understood the story with all the nuances very well and added an extra layer to it with his interpretation. But the challenge was to have the music match all the action of the animation, the mood, the atmosphere without making it too heavy or too dark, as the visuals were pretty dark already. I wanted to keep that “lullaby” or peaceful “nocturnal” theme, as a rondo, and to transform it into a demon’s theme. And when you have a scene which is, for example, only 3 seconds, for example, it’s quite challenging to write a score which is both emotional and supporting the action. But Izzy did an amazing job, and that was the second time I felt the story and the film finally were coming together.

And the Moon Stands Still directed by Yulia Ruditskaya – The presence of the moon affects all under its glow. The film explores the lunar cycle and the energies invoked by its radiance. Based on “The Witcher” by Alexei Tolstoy.

And the Moon Stands Still screens at Heartland Film Festival as part of Finalist Shorts 3
10/17 – 5:00 pm at AMC Castleton Square 14
10/20 – 3:15 pm at AMC Traders Point Theater 12
10/20 – 7:45 pm at AMC Traders Point Theater 12
10/21 – 10:00 am at AMC Castleton Square 14

Yulia Ruditskaya plans to attend Heartland Film Festival. Follow Yulia on Facebook, Twitter and on the film’s website.


If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll come to Heartland Film Festival October 12 – 22 to experience these and other films… and meet many of these and other women directors.

And when you are at the festival stop by the Woodbridge Pavilion at AMC Castleton 14 on Wednesday October 18 at 5:30pm for the Women in Film Panel I’ve been invited to facilitate. Panelists Andie Redwine, Laura Goodenow, and Nadine Truong will share insights about filmmaking and the film industry.

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Barbara Ann O'Leary

Inviting the world to fall madly in love with films #DirectedbyWomen.

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