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4 Storyhunters Breaking the Norms as Female Filmmakers

This International Women’s Day, we’re highlighting four female filmmakers and journalists who are creating incredible work and telling…
4 Storyhunters Breaking the Norms as Female Filmmakers
Photo Credit. Chelsea Lupkin filming drifting.

This International Women’s Day, we’re highlighting four female filmmakers and journalists who are creating incredible work and telling empowering stories. Despite working in a predominantly male industry, these women have broken norms in filmmaking, traveled throughout the world to cover important issues, and become incredible videographers in their own right. Storyhunters Sonia Narang, Isabel Castro, Anna Clare Spelman, and Chelsea Lupkin shared their stories on how they became the filmmakers they are today:

Storyhunter: What has been the most empowering story you’ve told through video?

Sonia Narang: I’ve spent much of my career telling empowering stories of women around the world — from brave mothers in the remote mountain villages of Nepal to an all-women’s drumming team in Japan. One of the most empowering stories centered on a volunteer health worker named Bimala in rural Nepal. She treks long distances across her mountainous district to deliver a life-saving medicine and health advice to pregnant women who live far away from hospitals. In the rainy season, these roads can wash out, which makes the journey even harder. And because few people have telephones, there is often no way to call ahead. As I filmed Bimala trekking along the side of a mountain, I tried to showcase her strength and determination.

Three years later, I went back to visit Bimala after the devastating Nepal earthquake. Though the quake destroyed her home and injured her, she still went house-to-house after the disaster, rescuing people in her village. Bimala’s story of resilience and empowerment is something I’ll never forget. Even though she was trying to put her life back together after the earthquake, she kept working for her community and spoke happily of healthy babies born in her village.

Isabel Castro: I was empowered by finishing CROSSING OVER, a documentary I began filming as an undergrad. Aside from learning about strength and what it means to be empowered from the transgender Latinx community I filmed with, making the film also introduced me to documentary filmmaking.

Anna Clare Spelman: I believe that all stories have the possibility to empower others, but there are certainly several that come to mind as particularly empowering. Working with Dora and Karyna at Trans Queer Pueblo, a Phoenix-based organization that advocates for the rights of LGBT undocumented people is one such experience. Being able to document their growth as leaders and the inspiration they provided to their community was incredible. Both Dora and Karyna have overcome immense challenges in their life. Karyna, for example, is a trans woman who was formerly detained by ICE in a center in Arizona, where she was abused. She now goes back to that very same detention center to speak with members of the LGBT community to provide resources, hope, and community. I hope that the pieces I produced with them will continue to have ripple effects and inspire leadership and change.

Chelsea Lupkin: The most empowering stories that I’ve told are either the most relatable or the most reachable. My independent work largely reflects my personal life, heavily influenced by how I grew up in east coast suburbia. My most recent fictional short film, Lucy’s Tale, exaggerates my encounters with high school mean girls on the brink of entering womanhood. Frankly, puberty is terrifying, so naturally I turned it into a horror movie. Trust me when I say that it’s more twisted than you could possibly imagine and absolutely relatable. Particularly in horror fiction, it’s my job to make my audience feel that whatever happens in the film could happen to them and there’s nothing more satisfying when I succeed at doing so.

On the other end of the spectrum is my editorial and branded work that reaches the masses. Having hits on videos upwards of 72 million views is pretty inspiring. As the Lead Creative Video Producer for Delish, a Hearst food website, I get to work with a team of crazy foodies making insanely viral recipe videos and cooking shows. Being the first video creative since the team began, I’ve traveled across the country and overseas to film chefs, celebrities, and cover trends, encountering our fans everywhere. If that isn’t empowering, I don’t know what is.

Storyhunter: What are the challenges of being a female filmmaker in a predominantly male profession?

SN: When I first got my start in filmmaking while in graduate school, I found it very difficult to be accepted by my male peers, who often only trusted other males behind the camera (this was in the U.S., of all places!). So I decided to embark on a career as a solo international video journalist, where I could control my own story and filmmaking style. Though there are trade-offs to working alone (i.e. safety issues, no team to rely upon, and having to juggle lots of hats as an all-in-one producer-interviewer-cameraperson-sound recordist), I realized it made me a much stronger journalist and filmmaker.

I traveled across Asia working on stories that I filmed on my own, and I was fully in control of my projects. My confidence and experience made it less challenging, and I often found ways to work around difficulties. For example, when I tried to film a major speech by Japan’s former Prime Minister in Okinawa, Japan, I soon realized I was the only female video journalist in a line-up of cameramen. Since I couldn’t get even a small space to film in between all the male videographers, I lowered my tripod down closer to the ground near everyone’s feet and filmed from a lower angle near the floor. I got the shots I needed for my video story, which aired on PBS Newshour!

IC: Being a female in this profession has its set of challenges. This industry is particularly difficult for females in documentary filmmaking because when you’re interacting with subjects it’s sometimes hard for people to understand that a short female is a producer and in charge of the team. There are situations I’ve walked into where subjects or new crew will automatically refer to a male crew member, not realizing that I was actually the producer. It’s been interesting exploring the role of gender with the way documentary filmmakers engage with the world around them.

It’s been a learning curve of realizing that as a woman, I contribute to shoots in ways that maybe sometimes only women can. For a while, I tried to be overconfident, but now I realize I can be myself and I don’t need to posture. I can work with professionalism and relentless respect for my subject matter and crew, despite feeling sexism and misogyny. In most scenarios, I have come out of those situations being able to build mutual respect. I’ve learned to be very transparent with people and address things head on as opposed to ignoring or pretending I’m someone I’m not in order to overcome it.

Right now, I’m really interested in becoming a better cinematographer and encouraging other women to do the same. I want other women to understand that there is no other reason for why there aren’t female cinematographers other than finding the confidence to do it. I’m currently in production on an independent documentary about a mixed legal status family in Texas.

ACS: Most of the time I am proud to be a woman working in a male dominated field, although as an industry we have a long way to go in terms of equality, especially when it comes to gender, and even more so when it comes to race. However, I have at times felt isolated working as a woman, especially when working on solo projects or as a freelancer. The upside to this feeling of isolation is that it has led me to actively create community. I’m an International Women’s Media Foundation fellow, I take part in a long-term mentorship program at Anderson Ranch, continue to build a network of female mentors, and cultivate deep friendships. The result is an incredible community of female filmmakers, photographers, and writers that continues to grow. We learn from one another, support each other, and share stories, from the intense to the hysterical.

Chelsea Lupkin in the field.

CL: I, like all of the women working in the film industry, have a laundry list of grievances and personal triumphs. The most challenging aspect of being a female filmmaker in a mostly predominant male profession is being heard, constant questioning, and facing folks who don’t want to follow my lead. I’ve struggled with combating sexual advances on set and being blamed for it and I’ve also been forced to ask myself time and again, “Is this all worth it?”

Thankfully, I’ve also been surrounded by not only other supportive women, but a group of male crew members who love to collaborate with me, speak up for me, and let me know when I should ask for more compensation. The truth is, while there are many men out there that don’t like the idea of working with young women behind the camera, there are also many men who do and are willing to stand beside their female counterparts. I can only hope that other women will find equilibrium quite like I have at the present.

Storyhunter: What has been your proudest moment in your career so far?

SN: It has to be the moment I captured in this photograph:

While in Nepal, I filmed a story about a seven-month pregnant mother Januka, who spent much of her day toiling in the fields. She lives in a rural mountain village in Nepal, where women are expected to do strenuous chores and agricultural work all day long until the baby is born. Januka worried that her manual labor and lack of medical services could put her baby at risk. A few months later, I found out that her baby died in childbirth because there were no birth attendants on hand during a complicated delivery (for reasons unrelated to her hard work).

Three years after filming the story, I went back to Nepal and journeyed through rocky terrain to return to Januka’s village. She had recently given birth to a healthy baby boy, and Jaunka along with her husband’s extended family happily greeted me as I arrived at the top of the mountain. I set up my laptop to screen my short film about Januka, and a crowd of family members and neighbors gathered around the computer to watch. It meant a lot to them. Januka was delighted to see the story about her, and her daughter couldn’t contain her excitement. I was so proud to be able to bring the film back to where it all started.

Password: mixedstatus2018

IC: The proudest moments in my profession have been when I’ve done things that have really scared me. People chase the byline or the awards or the publication, but as a creator I am most fulfilled when I take risks for myself and do something that I am uncomfortable doing. It’s all about getting out of my comfort zone. Throw yourself at the fear and you’ll come out of it okay. Every time I’ve worked through fear, I came out as a stronger filmmaker. I’m also really motivated by the ability for this medium to give a platform to people that might not otherwise be listened to. The proudest moment is when I feel like someone’s voice was heard as a result of my ability to help them do that.

ACS: In 2016, I started work on my first feature film, which follows Maddie, a young transgender girl, through her adolescence. Maddie will turn eleven this year and we plan on working together throughout her middle and high school years. There have been countless moments throughout the past two years that reinforce the importance of this collaboration with Maddie and her family, and working on this film is something of which I’m immensely proud. Watching Maddie come into her own and her family continue to advocate for her has been a wonderful thing to be a part of. This film has been a collaborative effort from the start, and deciding with Maddie and her family on what direction the film will take and the impact it will have has been one of the best parts of the process.

Anna Clare Spelman

CL: The proudest moment I’ve had in production isn’t a singular moment, but rather the ability to look back and view a diverse body of work. I’ve been fortunate enough to have made independent films, worked with some amazing people, and produce content that represents me. Call me an optimist, but I feel that while I’ll continue to go through phases of love and hate through the entire production process, being able to watch what I’ve produced is rewarding in and of itself.

Storyhunter: Thank you all so much taking the time to talk speak with us.

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By Lena Drake, Storyhunter Writer