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DOC NYC Women Directors: Meet Ky Dickens

Women and Hollywood By Inkoo Kang | Women and Hollywood November 15, 2013 at 9:43AM

An in-depth interview with documentary filmmaker Ky Dickens, whose latest film, 'Sole Survivor' is featured at DOC NYC.
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Still from 'Sole Survivor'
Still from 'Sole Survivor'

Award-winning filmmaker Ky Dickens directed the documentary Fish Out of Water, which uses animation, LGBT narratives and historical analysis to deconstruct the seven Bible verses used to condemn homosexuality. Fish Out of Water was a breakout success on the festival circuit, winning four festival prizes and securing North American distribution by First Run Features immediately after its initial release.

Her current feature-film project is Sole Survivor. [Sole Survivor site]

Sole Survivor will play at DOC NYC on November 15. 

Women and Hollywood: Please give us your description of the film playing.

Ky Dickens: Sole Survivor profiles four people who were the lone survivors of otherwise fatal plane crashes. Suffering from survivor guilt, they have been reticent to share their stories, in fear of being judged for what they've done or not done with their lives. The film puts a realistic face on survivorship, offering the insight that survivors are not lucky, as many people assume. Survivors are actually victims too.  

WaH: What drew you to this story?

KD: In my late twenties, I realized that I was being propelled through life by my own survivors guilt. In high school, I switched places with someone in a car and five minutes later, he was killed in a horrible accident. Once I realized I had survivor guilt, I started to read about it, in hopes of learning how to heal. It was through that research that I found out about a lone survivor of a large plane crash. I thought of surviving a large plane crash as the nth degree of survivorship, as it is such a massive, public and improbable thing. I felt that understanding the experience of surviving a plane crash could help me and others to understand the experience of survivorship overall. And so the film was born. 

WaH: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

KD: It was important to me that this film not sensationalize these tragedies or exploit the survivors. As a filmmaker and director, I'm usually inclined to leave the camera rolling even if things get uncomfortable. However, in shooting Sole Survivor, I felt that I often needed to cut, to just sit and be in the moment with the victims, families and/or survivors. People are revisiting very complicated, terrifying, devastating memories -- and often sharing very personal, private thoughts and mementos. Trust, sensitivity and parameters had to be well established between both me and the subjects in order to shoot freely and truly delve deep. Walking the fine line between being a filmmaker who wants to capture the deepest, rawest story was constantly being weighed against being a human who wants to respect and honor the people sitting in front of me. 

WaH: What advice do you have for other female directors?

KD: Focus on being a great director -- not a great female director. Being a great storyteller is gender-neutral. That said, I want women to know that in many ways, they have the advantage when it comes to directing. This is a generalization, but most women are better communicators and more emotionally intuitive than men. So much of directing is about emotionally tending to people, protecting people and inspiring people, while also communicating a vision to people. As women, these are tools that we learn growing up, that are nurtured growing up, versus men who suffer through cultural norms that often teach them to keep to themselves or to not be fluid in emotional language.

WaH: What's the biggest misconception about you and your work?

KD: I have no idea. However, I remember after my first feature film, a lot of people called me a gay director because my first film, Fish Out of Water, dealt with eradicating faith-based discrimination against LGBTQ people. I don't want to be considered a gay director. I don't want to be considered a female director. I want to be respected as a director, who worked very hard and make lots of sacrifices to make films that I felt mattered. Sometimes people say, "You're so lucky" to have gotten your films distributed, or to be screening at this festival or that festival, or to have your work broadcast on television, etc. My favorite expression is "The harder you work, the luckier you get."

WaH: Do you have any thoughts on what are the biggest challenges and/or opportunities for the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films?

KD: It is a wild time to be a filmmaker. There are more opportunities to get your film seen or distributed than anytime in history -- and you can have control over the rollout! There are so many ways to self-distribute your film that the fear of your film "never getting the chance to be seen" is something of the past. That said, there are more films being produced and self-distributed that it's more overwhelming for audiences to find quality films that matter to them. It's not like the old days, when festivals and distributors were the gateway, or the stamp of approval, for films. This means that over-saturation is a real problem that confronts audiences today.

This over-saturation and the constellation of distribution options creates a landscape that is very confusing for filmmakers. It's hard to know what outlet is best for your film. The distribution fads of today might be antiquated outlets tomorrow. For example, my first film made 80% of its income from DVD sales. My current film will not even be released on DVD. The internet has changed things so drastically, it's hard to know if the best distribution plan for your film in December will be the best decicion for your film come June. Technology is exponentially trotting forward and us feeble, human filmmakers need to stay super-educated to keep up. It's exciting but terrifying all at once. The best thing any filmmaker can do is talk to other filmmakers. Reach out to each other. Ask them what worked for them. Facebook them, email them. Cold call. I think most of us want to help each other. We are the best barometer for what's working. 

WaH: Name your favorite women directed film and why.

KD: It's Elementary, directed by Debra Chasnoff and Helen Cohen, is one of my favorite female-directed film. It made me feel that hope lurked behind bigotry and ignorance, that the world I idealized in my youth, still exists -- it's just that adults go ahead and muck everything up. That film changed the social landscape, cracking open the door to a better tomorrow, and that tomorrow has actually been realized. Debra and Helen, wherever you are -- great work. You were brave to tell that story when you did and your work has made a tangible, visible difference in how our society and schools deal with complicated issues. Confronting differences and using dialogue to discuss and celebrate these differences works. You reminded me of that.

Watch the trailer for Sole Survivor



This article is related to: DOC NYC, Documentary, Interviews, Women Directors, Ky Dickens, Sole Survivor


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