Filmmaker Aimie Vallat took time from her documentary practice recently to share insights about advocacy filmmaking, her award winning short Present Moment, and her latest film Little Rebel, a short documentary which is currently evolving into something more expansive.
DBW: Can you talk a little bit about the creation of your company Reel Witness and your commitment to sharing stories that help people deepen awareness of the power of community activism and conscious living?
AV: I created Reel Witness after finishing my Masters Degree in Communications from Antioch University in 2009. Our academic focus was looking at Social Change through the lens of five different Masters programs, with my perspective on storytelling and social justice. I spent two years with a wonderfully diverse group of students exploring leadership models, and whole systems design alongside practical ideas of where activism meets community engagement.
I left Antioch empowered to develop my own production company with a focus on advocacy storytelling where I could utilize those key concepts; active listening, collaborative leadership and whole systems thinking. I also started Reel Witness having already spent a decade working on/off with nonprofits and felt even more committed to giving voice to these amazing organizations. I knew that video could be another powerful tool for organizations to create meaningful change and advance their work on behalf of their clients and community members. Creating Reel Witness really felt like a natural extension of my work and a progression of my interests and experience.
DBW: When creating the advocacy pieces you have made in support of nonprofit initiatives, how did you work with the people you interviewed to help them relax on camera, express their views clearly, and weave together stories that convey a compelling message?
AV: I was given a wonderful opportunity to spend five years weaving stories with an incredible project, Thriving Communities (TC). TC features community leaders & organizations who are advocating in subtle and profound ways — galvanizing conversations and leveraging new awareness around various social issues. The founder of TC, Jerry Millhon, was not only my client for those five years, but became a lasting and close friend.
Our work process together was very unique – while Jerry conducted the interviews with many community members over the years, together we created an environment that felt safe, collaborative and relaxing for the interviewee. Setting this stage also included our cameraman and my creative collaborator, Noah Dassel. In many ways, the three of us were able to get the content we did, from that place of active listening and a strong sense of trust that we developed as a team.
Beyond the Thriving work, I still applied the same principles for myself as an interviewer – building a safe space for people to share in their most authentic way. I have always felt that bearing witness to someone’s story was a huge honor. And I’ve gone into every interview very vocal about my approach and my gratitude for their sharing whether it’s about their work life or personal experience.
DBW: I’d love to hear about the post production process on these advocacy pieces. How involved were the leaders of the organizations whose stories you were telling in crafting the final versions? Can you share insights about how you worked co-creatively with them to tell honest, engaging stories?
AV: With some of our clients, Noah and I were actively engaged throughout the process to create a clear message about what their work was, who they wanted to reach and why this work was meaningful. Often this meant co-creating our storyboard and together working through the post production with our clients on rough cuts in order to get the story that had the most impact for the client.
One difference was that in my work with Thriving Communities, the organizations we highlighted were not involved in the post production process. Rather, the story development and post production happened alongside my client, Jerry. Together with Noah, the three of us craft our story, cut the film together and then share it with each organization (as well as at a large annual Thriving Communities Conference). Our focus was about returning to the same questions; where are the places or moments of resilience within these organizations? Where are these leaders finding challenges and overcoming them? What led to community action and change?
As we returned to those questions as a team, we then knew we were answering the deeper calling of the overall Thriving work; how can this story elevate and probe a deeper conversation about the places of thriving in community? That was our point of view for each and every story we did within the Thriving model. And the amazing thing about that process was that all of those videos were then gifted back to every organization so they could use it as needed. That was and remains a huge gift for those organizations because so much of the time there isn’t a budget to create videos for nonprofits. I felt so lucky to be part of those stories and applaud Thriving Communities and their work, not only to create a venue to celebrate community change but also in their generosity to gift back those videos. It also really honed my skills in storytelling and the message of resilience and thriving became a lens that I began to feel particularly drawn to as a storyteller.
DBW: For other filmmakers who may be looking to put their skills in service in this way, what are some factors you’d advise them to keep in mind when working with nonprofits? Time and costs involved in creating a short advocacy piece? Equipment and crew needs? Identifying potential clients? Nurturing relationships? Cultivating clear expectations? Anything else?
AV: So many nonprofits are doing incredible work and often they aren’t in a position financially to put a lot of money into making a video. Creating stories takes a lot of time, skill and yes, money. So being patient and flexible knowing their budget is likely tight, is key. Being clear with your client about those realities of film production is important — help them learn how to keep costs low; create fewer shoot days, fewer location changes and possibly less interviews. By doing so, you can still tell a powerful story while sticking to a realistic budget for them (and allows you to make a living too).
Another recommendation is to cultivate a lean and adaptable crew. I usually work with one other person and we are literally doing everything. That means you have to wear a lot of hats and be willing to stretch yourself to try new things. Most importantly, always keep in mind that these amazing leaders are doing this work to build a stronger, healthier and more vibrant community for all of us. So treating them with respect goes a long way and needs to be front and center in all aspects of the production process. We are there to celebrate their work and lift up that message so more people can feel connected to those around them.
DBW: In recent years you’ve shifted your attention to your own documentary filmmaking projects. Shot in 2015, your short Present Moment is a highly personal film centered on your father’s mindful approach to living with Parkinson’s. How did this project arise? Was it difficult to convince your father and mother to engage in the project? The final product has a serene quality that is very calming. Was that how it felt to you while you were shooting the film?
AV: Present Moment was made as an act of love for my father Gary. I always knew I wanted to tell his story living with Parkinson’s but I wasn’t quite sure when or how to do it. Working with Noah for a few years created a strong and creative partnership and together we decided to create this story in between a couple of client based jobs. We literally made it to try our hand at documentary and we also wanted a creative challenge. We had no idea where it would eventually end up or the impact it would have.
In terms of engaging my parents in the process – I didn’t have to do any convincing, they were fully on board as soon as I pitched the idea. As you can see in the film, my dad happens to be a natural storyteller and he was thrilled to be asked. However, what happened during the process of making Present Moment became quite powerful, not just for me but for my family.
For starters, it was the first time I sat down and asked my dad direct questions about living with this disease. He was diagnosed in 2008 and at that time it was quite devastating for me to watch him change as the disease began to progress. I decided that I wanted to show Gary from a place of resilience rather than where the deficits were starting to show up. Perhaps that lens came after spending five years working on Thriving Communities where that narrative arc of thriving stories was really alive for me.
The film process itself happened very quickly over the course of 4 days and it was quite effortless for each of us, which actually surprised me after struggling with his initial diagnosis. I think that was a result of opening up in a very intentional way and asking those questions with my father for the first time. Instead of walking around the disease and knowing it was there, we just went and embraced it and began the process of really learning what that meant, not just for my dad but for the family. In the end, a sense of peace and calm developed for us, and possibly even more so for me. It became deeply cathartic for me to tell his story. I appreciate that you felt that ease coming across in the film as it was our intention to create a story with a lot of grace as well as nature, in order to hold the gentle mindful story of Gary.
DBW: You co-created the film with Noah Dassel. What was that directing partnership like? How did you share the creative decision making along the way?
AV: Noah and I had been working together for a few years by the time we made Present Moment so there was already a lot of respect and trust I had in him as a shooter and editor. It made the process nearly effortless as we began to co-create the film. Noah brought so much talent in his work as a DP and that translated to some of the beauty evoked in the film.
During the editing of Present Moment was probably the most emotional and difficult process for me because our first cut had more of the challenges that my father faced on a daily level, and the reality of what he will eventually have to endure. Noah was a steady guiding and gentle force — he helped me step back, get some perspective and reminded us of what our original vision was; show Gary’s resilience and highlight his strengths while living with the disease.
DBW: Do you have any particularly vivid memories you’d like to share about how the film has been received during its film festival run and elsewhere? Has sharing this film shifted your understanding of the power of film to help people engage with life in a more conscious way?
AV: This story of my father has just blossomed into something we never anticipated when we approached making it. It was meant really as just a family movie….then my father’s doctor saw it, then Michael J Fox Foundation saw it and at that point it was seen by about 10,000 people in the course of a few days. At that point we realized that maybe more than just our family wanted to see his story. So from there we started to apply for festivals and partnered with NW Parkinson’s Foundation, who have been fantastic in sharing the story and inviting us to speak at various events.
To date Present Moment has played at 26 festivals all over the world, won 5 awards, is screening for two years on PBS affiliate KCTS, we were nominated for an Emmy this spring—all of this has been so unexpected. It’s just been the most surprising and amazing gift… literally that people were moved by my father’s story.
But beyond those accolades and awards, the most powerful moments with Present Moment have been when my parents and I have taken the film and hosted workshops. We will talk about our roles as caregivers, care receivers, and what it’s like to live with Parkinson’s as a family. Doing these programs has been incredibly powerful because not only did we shift the family narrative about how we hold the disease in our lives, we could talk about it in a way that allowed us to see it’s gifts and how it’s brought us closer together. Its also allowed us to develop all these new relationships with other families that are also living with chronic illness, and that has been incredibly rewarding.
Without fail, after a workshop, someone would approach us and a connection would be made – we recognized in each other this shared experience about living with a chronic illness in a family. People would also share how my father’s perspective inspires them and helps them think about their disease in a new or different way. That message and those connections are more than I could have ever hoped for when Noah and I made the film. And yes, it does remind me about the power of story to open people up and connect us through this shared witnessing of someone’s life experience. It helps us feel less alone and more connected and those are things we all need and crave as human beings.
DBW: Looking back over the past couple of years, has it been valuable for your father in terms of how he understands and addresses this health challenge? What about the impact on you, your mother, and others in your family?
AV: My dad Gary has really thrived on being a part of Present Moment – this includes attending festivals with me or leading workshops alongside the film. Its interesting because Parkinson’s is a disease that robs the body of dopamine – that is the hormone that makes you feel good. Well my dad standing on the stage sharing his story, alongside the film, somehow gave him this chance to have those feelings of being seen and recognized – it brought him joy. And that is a gift in and of itself. The whole process has given him so much energy and has lifted his spirits in so many ways.
For our family it’s given us this huge chance to be with the disease in a new way. And for me personally, it has really helped shift how I hold my father’s illness. Instead of just seeing the disease, I can see him more fully, more wholly in who he is just as Gary. It’s also been so much fun to share this creative project and my professional work life with my parents. I feel grateful every day that we’ve had this time together.
DBW: Your latest short Little Rebel premiered on World Refugee Day in June. It focuses on Isatou Jallow, an advocate for women, asylees/refugees and people with disabilities. It’s a complete film all on its own, but it seems it can also be seen as the first chapter in a larger story as you’re preparing to extend this into a feature film. You’ll travel to The Gambia in Africa early next year to document Isatou’s efforts as she works to enrich the educational lives of young children in her country of origin. Did you have in mind to make a feature about Isatou’s experiences from the start? I’d love to hear how you came to be telling her story and how this film project
AV: Little Rebel was my response to the frustration and anger I felt towards the Administration’s policy on immigration and the Muslim Travel ban. Instead of sitting in my anger, I decided that I wanted to transform that into a story. I am lucky enough to have an amazing sister-in-law, Beth Farmer, who runs Refugees Northwest. Together we had created a film called, We Refugees a few years ago and so I approached Beth and said I wanted to create another film to highlight the gifts of our refugee/asylee community in this current political climate. Beth got me in touch with Isatou Jallow, and from there a lovely connection developed.
As I began to share my work at Reel Witness with Isatou, it became clear that we were a good match and together we began to dream into what a story might look like about her life here in Seattle; as an asylee, a disabled woman, a lawyer and recent graduate from the UW Law School. Isatou was gracious and open right from the beginning and I felt so lucky that she wanted to share her incredible story with us.
So while my original intention was to create a short documentary on Isatou, our small act of protest, something else began to happen in our time together. Alongside my co-director and creative partner, Guido Ronge, we both began to feel a strong connection with Isatou, and the feeling with her was mutual. As we were wrapping one of our last days of shooting on the short film, Isatou shared that she was going to The Gambia in January 2018, and we should come with her as she launched her NGO to create access to education for children ages 0-5. Guido and I knew right then that we would go with her and felt so honored that she asked us to document this extraordinary moment in her advocacy work. As soon as we finished our short film, we began to make plans on what the longer film might entail and how we might approach it. We are building our team and making plans to develop this story further, and we couldn’t be more excited about this opportunity.
DBW: Are you sharing the directing responsibilities on this project also?
AV: I have such a collaborative nature that I knew whoever I worked with next I would be co-creating that story. With Noah having left filmmaking to pursue his Nurse Practitioner degree, Guido showed up and has been an amazing addition to Reel Witness. He has 25 years experience in the film industry and his work as a DP is filled with so much heart and creativity. He has a very busy freelance business working all over the world and yet he too felt quite drawn to Isatou’s story and together we committed to continuing her story into the longer format film.
Guido and I had only met a couple months before we started filming Little Rebel but our approach to storytelling was very complimentary and filled with a lot of ease. As an immigrant himself, he also wanted to find a way to respond to what was happening in the culture around him. I just feel really lucky that he has been able to offer his time and expertise to this project.
DBW: What’s your process for mobilizing the resources you’ll need to travel to shoot the footage and support post production for the feature film?
AV: Guido and I have both volunteered our time and given resources to make Little Rebel. Our small act of activism. Now for the larger film, which might not be a full feature length but something in the 30-50 minute range, we are anticipating a variety of options for fundraising. We’ve been lucky enough to have a fundraising event being hosted for us on November 1st by my past client and good friend Jerry, (founder of Thriving Communities) on Whidbey Island at WICA. We are seeking some initial Executive Producers and currently have a couple on board. We will also launch a crowdfunding campaign for our editing costs once we return from The Gambia in February/March 2018. We have a fiscal sponsor, Northwest Film Forum, and so we’re hoping to use that nonprofit status to also pursue some potential grant opportunities.
We are submitting Little Rebel to film festivals all over the world and are hoping that it will generate some interest with potential donors for our longer film as well. We are in the process of considering building an Advisory Board for the film which would include people with expertise in disability law & rights, asylees/refugees, documentary campaigns, and film distribution. We are actively working on this now and are hopeful that these advocates could support our endeavors to build more capital for the film as well as outreach when the story is completed.
Lastly, we’re lucky to have air miles for our travel to The Gambia but a lot of this process still comes from that place of trust — that by sharing Isatou’s story we will hopefully open some hearts and inspire others to take action and join our project along the way.
DBW: What impact do you envision the film having once it is complete? How do you envision sharing the work with the world?
AV: In terms of impact of the film, we would love for as many people to see both our short and longer version of this film as possible. We are applying to festivals all over the world with the short Little Rebel and hoping we can do some traveling with it to share Isatou’s story and reach more global audiences. The impact and reality of migration and the stories of asylees and refugees has become an international one. We feel strongly that audiences everywhere can find some resonance with her story and be inspired by her incredible and tenacious spirit.
One of our other hopes for the longer format of Little Rebel is that in Isatou’s work to establish her nonprofit in The Gambia, her advocacy work will begin to make larger more meaningful impact for disabled children in her country. There are other things in development that we are very excited about but it’s a bit under wraps until more pieces are in place. Updates will be shared!
And if we could dream a little bigger, we would love to get the longer format film online to a larger platform such as Amazon or Netflix, where even bigger audiences could see Isatou’s story.
Like Present Moment we envision doing some workshop style events with the short film in collaboration with nonprofits to build conversation around the key themes of; refugee/asylee stories, the Muslim experience in America, Women’s Leadership and disability issues. Isatou is very keen to be a part of developing that larger platform using the film, as well as her own work with her nonprofit.
Overall though it still feels a little hard for me to know the ultimate impact of Little Rebel (either the short or the long). I had no idea with Present Moment but somehow I trusted that it was taking us all where we needed to be, and that’s exactly what happened. I feel a little bit like that now with Little Rebel, in that this story, and Isatou, we all found each other and while we hope people all over the world will see it, I try not to get too attached to all the potential outcomes.
DBW: Anything else you’d like to share about Little Rebel or other aspects of your filmmaking life?
AV: It took me a long time to finally circle back to my passion to tell stories. I have a BA in Visual Anthropology from 1996 and it took me until 2009 to really grab hold of that passion and build my company Reel Witness. The initial storytelling seed of my work started in 1992 when I moved to South Africa as a college student. Nelson Mandela was being released from prison, and then elected into office, and I was working in the townships gathering stories and doing community development. From that moment on I knew that social justice was where my heart would always be. I feel so grateful that I was able to work on the nonprofit side before coming to filmmaking. But this work now just feels like a natural extension of all that has come before and it feels so right to be here now.
DBW: Before we wrap up I’d love it if you’d share about a few women film directors, whose work moves or inspires you—perhaps directors who are not yet household names. The #DirectedbyWomen initiative is always on the lookout for ways to help film lovers discover the work of women directors.
AV: I am so glad you asked that question! There is Polish filmmaker, Aneta Kopacz, who made a powerful short film called, Joanna. This film really inspired some of the visual elements and spareness that I used for Present Moment. Also another filmmaker doing amazing work in the world, and just ready to launch her feature documentary is Cara Jones. She has a company, Storytellers for Good and her film, Second Coming, is a very personal story that is extraordinary and extremely brave. Another woman I deeply admire is a photographer named Nancy Borowick, who documented her parents end of life journey as they navigated stage four cancer together. Her work is so raw and compassionate and we’ve had some dialogue about our shared work with our parents and this journey of illness and documenting these tender moments in our personal lives.
For more well known directors, I applaud the courage and dedication to truth of Laura Poitras as well as the amazing Ava DuVernay. My early love of Maya Deren probably set the stage for my degree in Visual Anthropology.
And I’m lucky that here in Seattle we have a couple narrative feature filmmakers—Megan Griffiths and Lynn Shelton, who have made wonderful feature films with strong women leads.
DBW: Thanks for taking time to participate in the #DirectedbyWomen Conversation series. I can’t wait to see the expanded version of Little Rebel when it is ready to share with the world. Best of luck on the project.
Visit Reel Witness to learn more about and to support Aimie Vallat and her work.