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Guest Post: Film Fatales Give Back: The Importance of Community Outreach

Women and Hollywood By Saba Riazi and Emilie McDonald | Women and Hollywood August 15, 2014 at 11:30AM

Female filmmakers' advice on how to thrive in a male-dominated industry.
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Film Fatales member Saba Riazi watching a cut of Reel Works campers
Nikolai Remmel Film Fatales member Saba Riazi watching a cut of Reel Works campers

Film Fatales is a collective of female writers/directors who meet regularly to support each other’s work and promote the creation of more films by and about women. Several of us recently volunteered as mentors during the Reel Works filmmaking week of the Intrepid GOALS Camp for Girls in Brooklyn. 

Camp GOALS (Greater Opportunities Advancing Leadership and Science for Girls) has the mission to build proficiency in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects. Reel Works’ one-week collaboration this year exposed students to new ways of incorporating their learning into a digital-storytelling format. The 50 campers, who are 9th- and 10th-grade students from all 5 boroughs, spent the week creating 2-minute silent narrative films set on the USS Intrepid, then editing them at Reel Works’ offices. The girls were strangers a few short weeks ago, but have since become close collaborators. 

On the last two days of camp, five members of Film Fatales (Saba Riazi, Malika Zouhali-­Worral, Emilie McDonald, Stavroula Toska, and Jillian Schlesinger) volunteered as mentors along with filmmaker Catalina Alcaraz-Guzman, and had the unique opportunity to participate in a round-table discussion with campers, youth leaders, and Reel Works organizers. 

As mentors, the experience was extremely positive and enlightening. We were welcomed warmly by Reel Works Education Specialist Jess DeCarolis and Education Director Laurel Gwizdak, as well as by the campers and peer mentors (young leaders of each filmmaking team who were Reel Works participants in the past). The girls worked in groups editing their films or designing posters, then lunch began. 

Film Fatales discussion with ReeL Works campers; from L-R, Stavroula Toska, Jillian Schlessinger, Emilie McDonald
Jess DeCarolis Film Fatales discussion with ReeL Works campers; from L-R, Stavroula Toska, Jillian Schlessinger, Emilie McDonald


The Film Fatales had the opportunity to screen short clips from our work, then answered questions ranging from queries about our backgrounds and the challenges we each faced in becoming filmmakers; questions about the personal challenges of being female in a male-dominated business; and insightful comments about the work we screened. 

Saba Riazi talked about her experience and challenges making a movie in Iran under specific Islamic Republic codes while studying at NYU. She also spoke of the discrimination she’s felt both in Tehran and NYC dealing with the politics of production in a mostly male-dominated arena, where mastering your craft and sincerity are your only tools in moving forward.

Malika Zouhali-Worrall screened a trailer of her documentary, Call Me Kuchu, which explores the struggles of the LGBT community in Uganda. She explained how she and her directing partner used personal savings to fund the first six months of production until they were able to raise the funds to cover the film's budget. She also spoke of the larger challenges involving the identities of the activists who shared their story.

Emilie McDonald talked about her path going from being in front of to behind the camera, i.e., working as an actor and crew member before finally taking the plunge to be a filmmaker once she became pregnant six years ago. She also spoke of the challenges of being respected as a female director and the importance of supportive crew members as well as female collaborators.

Greek-born Stavroula Toska, who is currently collaborating with Olympia Dukakis on Beneath the Olive Tree, a feature documentary about women who were affected by Greece’s Civil War, talked of the importance of following your passion and staying focused on your goals no matter what life throws your way.

Jillian Schlesinger worked as a writer and editor of TV promos and started making her feature documentary, Maidentrip, in her free time over several years. She encouraged the girls to align with other women in their endeavors, much as we do in Film Fatales.

Colombia-born Catalina Alcaraz-Guzman spoke about her experience working as an AD, remembering that she first had to put on a tougher persona to receive respect on the set. She said, “My experience was both a projection of the culture I grew up in and the male-based environment in which women have to assert their place and abilities.“

After the Q&A session, many of the mentors stayed to meet the campers, view rough cuts of their films, and give one-on-one advice. Spending years making our own films, it was eye-opening to see what these teams of girls were able to create in one short week. We were impressed by the creativity, drive, and ingenuity displayed in each project, and also by the enthusiasm and determination of each participant.

Film Fatales with Reel Works campers; L-R Emilie McDonald, Jillian Schlessinger, Stavroula Toska
Nikolai Remmel Film Fatales with Reel Works campers; L-R Emilie McDonald, Jillian Schlessinger, Stavroula Toska


Jess DeCarolis said, “So often in life, we talk about what's important -- taking risks, providing authentic experiences, peer-to-peer instruction -- but fail to follow through on what we know is best practice.  This past week, making movies on a ship with 50 campers in three days, the Reel Works staff and youth leaders were able to check each of these best practices. Having the Film Fatales come speak with the campers only further enriched the experience, modeling for the girls how important it is to not only take risks and pursue your life passions, but also to give back to the communities we belong to that have helped shape us.”

Ultimately, it was very inspiring to see these 50 young women pursuing paths that are traditionally male-dominated. Whether they pursue a career in the sciences or in filmmaking, it was an absolute pleasure to help support young women who are in the process of choosing their careers.  As members of Film Fatales, there is a true need to support young female filmmakers, and we want to continue to find ways to encourage these young artists. Reel Works is one hands-on opportunity to do this, and we are grateful they are part of our community.

Film Fatales is a collective of female feature-film directors founded by filmmaker Leah Meyerhoff who meet monthly to provide each other with mentorship, peer-networking, and community support. Read more at http://www.filmfatalesnyc.com/.

Reel Works provides free filmmaking programs for NYC Youth.  Using a unique, one-on-one mentoring model, they challenge at-risk youth to tell their stories and have their voices heard.  In turn, the young filmmakers build vital skills of literacy, leadership, and self-confidence to create productive futures.

Saba Riazi is a filmmaker from Iran. She recently graduated with a MFA in Film and TV production from New York University. Her award-winning short “The Wind is Blowing on My Street” has participated in more than 50 festivals worldwide, including the Sundance Film Festival. Saba is currently in post-production on her debut feature Ice Cream.

Emilie McDonald is an award-winning NYC-based filmmaker, writer, and actor. Her short films have screened internationally and include "Crossing the River," "Other People's Houses," "Muck," and "My Elena." She is currently in development on two feature films: Buckle My Soul (semifinalist Tribeca All Access 2010; semifinalist Creative Capital 2011; Indie Film Clinic 2014) and Gun Club Road

This article is related to: Film Fatales, Women Directors


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