One of my favorite pieces of doc filmmaking advice comes from Jen Arnold (the director of “A Small Act of Kindness”) who was asked what her best advice was for a first-time director. “Make a film in a language you understand,” she said, definitely the wiser for her time spent shooting in Kenya and rushing from the field back to Nairobi every night to have translators tell her what her subjects had been talking about that day.
I could definitely relate. My first documentary, Fambul Tok, was shot in Sierra Leone and includes dramatic bonfire scenes where victims and perpetrators come together for the first time since the end of the war, in cultural traditions of truth-telling and forgiveness. In the beginning, we would shoot and get someone to translate for us the next day, so that we could get the details of the amazing stories we were witnessing.
After a while, we finally got it together so that I had a live translator speaking into a mic which fed into my director of photography’s headphones, so that he could actually catch the more dramatic moments as they were happening, and not just hope that we’d gotten the good stuff. It took a lot of set-up (sometimes our translators didn’t know the local dialect and had to get someone to translate from the dialect into Krio, the national language, and then translate for us into English). And we still tried to sit down with a translator within a day or two to make sure we’d gotten all the details. But it was one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve ever had – especially once we sat down in the editing room and worked to make sure that we got everything just right.
I often jokingly refer to that story to people when they ask me why I chose to make my second documentary, FOLK, which follows three singer-songwriters through the sub-culture of American folk music.
“Because everyone in the film speaks a language I can understand,” I deadpan. “And because I can drive to a shoot, if I need to, instead of sitting on a plane for forty hours. And because it’s not about saving the world. I needed a break from that.”
The first two reasons are true. The third is a little bit true, but not entirely. Singer-songwriters, I think, actually are saving the world in their own way – writing the songs that remind us all of what it means to be human. They amplify the themes that resonate across our cultural landscape – whether it’s re-defining success in the face of failure, trying to find wholeness in an increasingly fragmented world, or struggling to make sense of the trials and triumphs that make us all so human. As Rod Kennedy, the founder of the legendary Kerrville Folk Festival used to say, “Saving the world, one song at a time.”
Two years into the making of FOLK, – and 54 days into my first Kickstarter campaign – I’m feeling a little wiser as a filmmaker, a little savvier as a fundraiser, a lot exhausted as a multi-tasker, and against all odds, perhaps, quite hopeful about the future.
I’ve been on a journey that, in many ways, has gone from the sublime to the ridiculous. Fambul Tok was almost fully funded by a private foundation. And it was supported in countless other amazing ways for a first-time director, including a Sundance Documentary Institute grant, an IFP Doc Lab fellowship, a grant from Chicken and Egg, and a world premiere at SXSW this year, followed by a healthy festival run and several awards.
(Photo credit/permission by Sara Terry)
I came in to the film world from a long career in journalism and documentary photography (Fambul Tok, in fact, grew out of a still photography project I was doing on forgiveness traditions in post-conflict African countries). And I walked into the opportunity of a lifetime for a filmmaker – a strong social-issue story that was virtually fully funded from the first day. My filmmaker friends never ceased to remind me how incredibly fortunate I was to be able to concentrate my energies on making the film – instead of worrying about money. Intellectually, at least, I understood what they were saying and assured them of my gratitude for the remarkable circumstances I’d wound up in as a first-time filmmaker.
These days, however, I can say I truly understand how fortunate I was.
We’ve been shooting FOLK on the barest of bare-bones budgets, relying on frequent flyer miles, rewards points, credit cards, and everyone working for free (and often, doing more than one job at a time). But it’s been a blast. We love our characters, their music is amazing, we’ve traveled all over America – and we’ve learned a lot about the power of community. The singer-songwriters in our film all depend, in one way or another, on community – on helping each other, on building relationships that come from choosing the kinds of things that really matter in life.
We’re finding that power of community holding true in our Kickstarter campaign, a fundraising tool that for me is both terrifying and exhilarating. We thought we’d do okay when we launched. We had our email lists all lined up: family and friends, colleagues in filmmaking and photography (my DP is a photographer, too); folk festival and house concert promoters; folk conference attendees; fans of the singer-songwriters in our film. But it’s intimidating to ask people for money; you can count on your family and friends for only so much.
But week by week, as we keep sending out fresh updates and new rounds of emails (and as I struggle to find creative, entertaining new ways to talk about our work – and ask for money yet again), we’ve found a community of support that is coming together around our film. What’s amazing to me is that more than half of our supporters are total strangers to me. They are people who love folk music, and understand that it takes a whole lot of people to get it out in the world. They’ve taken us under their wing, even when they don’t have much of their own to give.
Take for example, the man from Nashville who sent us $5 a few days ago. I’m always appreciative of the smaller donations, because I think they’re an indication that the person is giving what they are able to give – and that they have faith that a lot of people, giving what they can give, can make something bigger happen. It’s a message that speaks to the power of community.
This donation was different. When I sent a thank you note, I received this message back:
I find these words overwhelming, on so many levels. This is everything that this film is all about, everything that we have learned during our time in the folk world. About the passion and love for the music, against all odds. About the willingness to help each other, even when you’ve got almost nothing yourself. About the things that truly matter, even (especially) if they can’t be bought and sold in the marketplace.
So like I said, I’m wiser. I’m savvier. I’m exhausted. And I’m hopeful, really hopeful. My heart goes out to our donor in Nashville (I’ve used his words with his permission), but I’m also inspired by him to not give up, to see this crazy sublime-to-ridiculous journey through to the end, to make sure this film gets made. It’s definitely taking a community to do it – a community, I’m convinced, that has a lot to teach us all about what it means to be human.
SARA TERRY – DIRECTOR/PRODUCER
This is Terry’s second feature-length documentary. Her first documentary, Fambul Tok, about a groundbreaking grass-roots forgiveness program in Sierra Leone, had its world premiere at SXSW in March 2011 and is currently on the festival circuit. She won a 2009 Sundance grant for Fambul Tok and was also a fellow at the 2010 IFP Doc Lab. Terry began making documentaries after a long, award-winning career in journalism – first in print, then in public radio, and more recently as a photojournalist.