DOC NYC Women Directors: Meet Sierra Pettengill and Jamila Wignot

Interviews
by Melissa Silverstein
November 16, 2013 12:00 PM
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Still from 'Town Hall'

Sierra Pettengill is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker. Town Hall is her directorial debut. She is the producer of Cutie and the Boxer (U.S. Documentary Directing Award, Sundance '13) and the archival producer of Matt Wolf's Teenage (Tribeca Film Festival '13). For PBS, she was the associate producer of the Emmy-nominated Walt Whitman, as well as the Peabody Award-winning Triangle Fire

Jamila Wignot is an award-winning documentary filmmaker. Her 2008 film Walt Whitman, produced for American Experience, was nominated for an Emmy for Exceptional Merit in Nonfiction Filmmaking. She also produced The Rehnquist Revolution, the fourth episode for WNET's series The Supreme Court, which won a 2007 Cine Golden Eagle Award and a 2008 NYF Silver Medal. The series was the 2007 IDA Limited Series winner. Her most recent film prior to Town Hall, Triangle Film, was broadcast on February 28, 2011 and received a Peabody Award. [Press materials]

Town Hall will play at DOC NYC on November 17 and 20. 

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

Jamila Wignot: Town Hall is an intimate, verite documentary film that follows two Tea Party activists from the battleground state of Pennsylvania over the course of two years as they work to unseat Barack Obama. More than a political treatise, Town Hall is a tone poem that immerses the viewer in Katy and John's world, painting a portrait of the fears of those who believe they will be left behind by a nation's transition.

WaH: What drew you to this story?

SP: We wanted to try and get behind the surface rhetoric and hysteria that ruled so much of the media's coverage of the Tea Party and find out who the actual people who were drawn to the movement were. It was important to us to try and dig deep. I am also really drawn to characters, in all mediums, that are complicated (and often divisive), so trying to present a nuanced and not necessarily an easily digestible portrait was a major draw.

JW: In 2009, conservatives flooded into town halls across the country to express their discontent with, well, it seemed everything. The predominantly white and middle-class people who gathered in these rooms were not the sort of people I expected to see raising their voices in protest. My filmmaking partner, Sierra Pettengill, and I were fascinated and knew that we were witnessing the makings of a great story -- something that said a good deal about where we were as a nation. From the beginning, we wanted to get at who the individuals were behind the movement. What was animating them to join the Tea Party and what would sustain them in the years leading up to the election?

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

SP: Oh, "money" is such a boring answer, but there it is. It was challenging to have to support myself with other full-time jobs, while also working on a film that needed constant attention for over three years. And Jamila, my co-director, was doing the same thing, so we were just stretched thin. I mean, it's absolutely a privilege, but it's also a challenge.

JW: From the beginning, we knew that only a longitudinal documentary that patiently followed people over an extended period of time would give us the access and perspective to create a true portrait of our subjects. We filmed over the course of two years and the challenge was largely one of stamina. Sometimes you set out and film with your subjects and it seems as if you're not really getting what you need or an event you expect to be spectacular sorta falls flat. The unpredictability inherent to verite is really the most challenging aspect of it. At the same time, it's thrilling to submit to a process where you have little control and you have to simply have faith in the initial spark that drew you to a story.

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

SP: Find some strength in self-awareness. Directing a verite film means putting your body in a space while attempting to be invisible (an impossibility), and so I think shooting in the field makes me extra-aware of myself -- not just gender but also class, ethnicity, etc. When I watch verite docs directed by men I often find myself wondering whether I could have made that film, would I have gotten that access, been able to enter those same spaces? And if not, how would the film I made be different? It's an useful thought exercise.

JW: Hold fast to your vision and find great collaborators. Surround yourself with people who are as excited about your process as you are. This doesn't mean surrounding yourself with people who won't be straight up with you about your work, nor being some dictatorial jerk who never listens. Work with people whose work you admire, whose process you respect, and whose judgment you trust.

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

SP: Well, this is the first film that I've directed, but I think the biggest misconception would actually come from what people expect when you're saying that you're directing a documentary, and particularly when it's about the Tea Party. The automatic assumption is always that it's a social issue doc, that it's a didactic film, which is the last thing that we wanted to make, and also the kinds of films I find the least interesting.

JW: I don't think I have a real film type so there's not really a misconception about me or my work. Though many of my films have been historical documentaries, I've always aimed to create an experiential journey -- to get the audience as close as possible to the on-the-ground experience of my subject, be it Walt Whitman's dogged pursuit to create a new, wholly American poetic language or, as with Katy and John, the Tea Party activists who are the subject of my most recent film, the modern-day conservative struggle to reconcile principles with the shifting landscape of 21st-century America.

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?

SP: Just the "making a living" problem from above.

WaH: Name your favorite women directed film and why.

SP: Documentary-wise, Clio Barnard's The Arbor is an absolute wonder to me. It's a risky film that addresses performance, artistic production, and family. It also requires an immense amount of trust between the filmmaker and the subjects, and I think the result is full of such painstakingly careful, thoughtful formal choices. It's such a stunning film that doesn't fall prey to being constructed in the somewhat mindless, generic default "beauty" setting that a lot of docs end up with, without regard for the appropriateness of the subject at hand. She's elevating the work of playwright Andrea Dunbar and the environment she grew up in, while not glossing over the real ugliness. That balance of emotional and aesthetic rigor is so inspiring.

But my all-time favorite would have to be Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. It's a shame that you can only see that for the first time once!

JW: Jane Campion for her incredible sense of framing. Every image feels precisely chosen. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Penelope Spheeris for her trilogy, The Decline of Western Civilization. I love the raw, guerrilla filmmaking approach and also the sense of humor. The scene with Ozzy Osburne filling a glass with vodka until it runs over is incredible! And Amy Heckerling's Fast Times at Ridgemont High. This movie speaks for itself, really.

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