#1. – How & why did you first get interested in documentary filmmaking?
Although I’ve always been interested in documentary filmmaking, I became serious during my corporate filmmaking days where I would produce and direct short pro bono films for corporate clients featuring humanitarian work they were doing to benefit underserved communities.
This included shoots in India showing how a major tech company was implementing educational programs for underserved children in rural villages, or projects showing how innovative artists, photographers and architects approached their practice and art.
#2. – What was your first experience making a documentary film like?
My first independent film was Lessons of Basketball and War – a 56 minute documentary following a year in the life of a small group of Somali refugee middle school girls struggling to put the hostility of war behind them with the help of a dedicated school principal. It was a learning experience for sure. My stock and trade to that point had been 3 – 4 minute marketing films and TV commercials.
With the help of a Kickstarter campaign and volunteer crew, I was able to self-produce the film, get lots of festival exposure and even on-line distribution.
#3. – What have you learned about making a doc film that you wished you’d known before?
Distribution is the easiest and hardest part of the journey. I’m a filmmaker and the process itself is pretty straight forward. The tools keep changing, but pre-production, production and post-production are really not that different from when I began several decades ago. Distribution though is a constantly changing animal.
#4. – What’s a big challenge or hurdle you’ve had to overcome in leading a #doclife?
Today, it’s quite easy to get your film on a streaming service like Amazon, but it’s extremely difficult to actually profit from it. After a disastrous experience with a traditional distributor, I escaped the contract and placed the film on Amazon Prime and Kanopy.
It’s now available to millions around the world – but it’s still up to me to drive that audience to my film since both platforms have massive catalogues. The problem is, my interest and expertise is in telling meaningful stories and not marketing films.
I should add that for smaller niche films like mine, the potential to make back production costs, let alone a profit is quite limited.
#5. – Share a current or most recent project with us.
My experience with the Somali refugees ignited a passion for telling the stories of refugees around the world. My current film is Terror and Hope, The Science of Resilience. I’m now deep into the edit on what will become a 35-40 minute examination on how scientists and humanitarians are working to understand the impact of toxic stress on Syrian refugee children and families.
In 2017 I traveled to refugee camps and communities in Jordan, working with a wonderful Jordanian cinematographer and sound man, to document the work of researchers from Yale and Hashemite Universities as they try to better understand the psycho-social impact of profound stress on families displaced by the Syrian war.
#6. – What would you like to say to any #doclifer who starting out on their film or who is perhaps struggling to complete their film?
The best advice I can offer to any struggling #doclifer is to just do it.
If I had waited until I was funded to begin work, I would still be dreaming of making a film. The key for me was to just begin working on an idea – letting it become a film – and seeing where it led me.
Sure I applied for grants and in the process months and years were lost as I waited for someone to recognize the value of my project and write me a check. But once I started actually working on the film, the help and even money I needed would somehow come my way.
Both films began as totally self-financed shoots, and if I hadn’t just jumped into the deep end and started shooting without funding, but instead waited for a grant or sponsorship, the films never would have happened.
Also, having the films in the can made it far easier to rally support through two successful Kickstarter campaigns – supplying needed cash at key points in post-production. Having 70 or 80 crowd funding backers also provided a real vote of confidence that my film had value. Since I can wear many hats, (writer/director/editor/camera operator) it became far more realistic to make the film with a minuscule budget and little outside help.