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How They Began Their Career: 3 Storytellers with Inspiring Stories

Every filmmaker has started out somewhere in their career and has flourished into becoming successful artists in their field. Stories of…
How They Began Their Career: 3 Storytellers with Inspiring Stories
Storyhunter Elizabeth Mirzaei with her camera. Photo Credit: Gulistan Mirzaei.

Every filmmaker has started out somewhere in their career and has flourished into becoming successful artists in their field. Stories of filmmakers’ career paths can be inspiring and encouraging to anyone looking to join the profession or develop their skills.

That’s why we decided to interview three of our successful Storyhunters: Craig Weldon Duff, Sara Abou Bakr Tallawi, and Elizabeth Mirzaei, who have worked on big projects and have prospered in their careers.

Storyhunter: When and how did you get into documentary filmmaking?

Craig Duff: I have always aspired to tell stories in some way — whether it was putting on plays in the basement of my rural Ohio home as a kid, or trying to make a film projector out of a shoe box, ribbon spools, and wax paper strips when I was nine years old. After finishing an undergrad degree in Speech Communication, I decided to go to UT Austin to get a Master’s Degree in Radio, Television, and Film. I thought from there I would go off and become a documentary filmmaker, but I took a detour when I got recruited to go to CNN in Atlanta, which is where I started my career. While there, I did long-form television programs and documentaries. That eventually led me to work with The New York Times on documentary projects for the Discovery Channel, and a later stint at TIME as the multimedia director, before coming to teach now at Northwestern University. The documentaries I have produced have taken me to Iraq, Egypt, South Asia, Africa, the Arctic, and many places across America.

Sara Tallawi: I started out as a print reporter back in 2005. I loved journalism form the very start even though I was a business major back in college. I later did my Master’s in Mass Communication and Journalism. I loved writing, and then I made my shift to TV production after the January 25th Revolution. Somehow it felt like history needed to be recorded visually. I was still a print editor, but I started making short documentaries on my own and voilà.

Living in Egypt, you have to truly believe in journalism, or you wind up either depressed or a sell out, so I guess what inspires me are untold stories — people who don’t bow to society and [instead] challenge themselves.

Elizabeth Mirzaei: It was, in part, my mom’s illness that led me to documentary filmmaking. When she was diagnosed with cancer in 2005, I picked up a small video camera and recorded as many moments as I could with her and my family. It was still tape-based then, and I remember sitting for hours in my university computer room teaching myself how to edit in Final Cut. Filming her was a way for me to hold on to her. In some small way, it brought me a sense of consolation, that, after she was gone, I could go back and press replay on these moments.

Storyhunter: What decisions and actions did you take to go through this path? A college degree? Workshops? Personal tutoring?

CD: In addition to the coursework I mentioned above, I learned a lot from working with some of the best news photographers and producers in the business. I used to work as a producer/director and would go out in the field with a correspondent and TV crew, but in 2000, I started shooting my own work as a solo video journalist. My first solo documentary was an hour-long program about the use of technology to aid people in developing countries, and I traveled to India, Bangladesh, South Africa, Mozambique, and the Dominican Republic with my own camera gear. As one of the original VJs at the New York Times, I learned a ton from my colleagues and mentors there. Even as a teacher now, I learn something new about the craft every day. The business and technology are constantly evolving, and it’s exciting to keep growing as a storyteller and learning the new tools to do it.

Storyhunter Craig Duff posing with his camera (second from left). Photo Credit: Craig Duff.

ST: So I was a business major, and after becoming a journalist for about four years, I joined the American University in Cairo and did my Master’s in journalism there, where I was introduced to Avid liquid editing software. I started teaching myself Final Cut 7 for a couple of years and edited my first documentary. Then I took an Apple-certified course in Final Cut. YouTube was and is my best friend!

Tutors are everything, to be honest. Those really generous people who share their knowledge are simply amazing. Courses are good, but personal tutoring and, of course, trial and error are everything to become a good editor.

EM: I went to school for photography, but I would not advise this path to most people. It’s expensive, and I’m still paying off student loans! I learned so much more after I graduated, mainly through an excellent mentor and my own initiative.

Storyhunter: How and where did you start publishing your work/reel/portfolio? How did you attract potential clients and work?

CD: I am among an older generation of Storyhunters on the site, so I grew up in a different time. I was a freelance director/producer on projects and developed a strong network of commissioning editors in television documentary and news. As video streaming developed, many of those contacts became the heads of video departments at digital sites. I built my career based on those connections, and haven’t really used a “reel” to promote myself. I would instead point people to the URLs of stories I had reported/produced/shot/written and edited. That’s how I operate today, though I do try to keep my personal website up to date. It’s that network that has led to work with MSNBC, where I (with my reporting partner Steve Franklin) created a six-part series on gun violence in Chicago, the pieces I’ve done with AJ+, and continuing work at the NYTimes.com, which recently hired me to field produce and shoot a piece for a new video initiative with the Op-Ed unit.

ST: I started as an intern at a print paper and progressed from there in both print and visual fields. I usually look for stories and then try to find a venue that would be interested in them. Sometimes someone would see your work and ask you to do something for them. But usually I follow the story first.

EM: I had never made a documentary film before, but I knew I had to start somewhere. I was living in Kabul at the time, and I began to film a story about my friend who was trying to leave Afghanistan to seek asylum. Once I had enough material for a sample, I sent a pitch over to Al Jazeera and the film was chosen for their Viewfinder Asia Workshop in Busan that year. They ended up commissioning the film, which became “Stranded in Kabul,” and was broadcasted on Al Jazeera Witness in 2013. Along the way I learned so much about filmmaking. I also had a wonderful mentor who always encouraging but honest with me.

Storyhunter: What steps did you take to keep your career going? And what advice would you give for young, upcoming filmmakers and producers?

CD: I’m fortunate now that I have a steady paycheck as a professor, but for more than five years in my career, I was a freelancer, jumping from project to project and trying to keep my calendar full. I remember the anxiety I felt when I didn’t know what was coming next. I developed a rhythm, and kept my network going, and when there was downtime, I checked in with former clients, or used the down time to learn new skills.

My advice to young people is to make sure that every job you do is a good experience for the person you’re working with/for. Maintain the highest of professionalism and meet your deadlines. I developed a reputation as someone who was incredibly reliable and low maintenance, and that kept me getting hired time and again. And follow up afterward to thank them for the opportunity. That will “put a button” on the experience and keep your name on their radar for later jobs. Personal gestures also go a long way in helping people remember you. A simple hand-written note or post card to their office might strike a chord, especially these days when everything is digital and no one talks to each other except in texts and email. Just don’t overdo it.

ST: Sometimes you will freelance, other times you will be a full-timer. You may prefer one or the other but in the end, you gain experience. You get to learn to work with whatever you have and to focus on the story. I don’t really have advice to give but I can share my mantra. I remind myself, “The story is what matters. Not the views and likes. Sometimes one can work on a story that is not that popular, but at that time it had to be told, for we are real historians most of the time.” It is hard because we all love to see our work shared and spreading among many, but the story should be the focus then how to market it and push it. Find a story and don’t let go till you get it.

EM: Find stories you really care about and love. Making a documentary takes so much time and personal financial investment that you have to really love the story you want to tell. Find a mentor who will support you in realizing your vision, but also help keep you grounded. Having a support network is also good. Here in LA, the International Documentary Association is a great resource for doc filmmakers, hosting a variety of screenings and workshops.

There are times you might feel like giving up, but try to remember that you are not alone. It took me five years to finish my first feature doc, in between an international move and having a baby and taking on so many freelance gigs as a director/cinematographer just to pay the bills. But your fortitude will help carry you through.

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By Jad-Evangelo Nasser, Storyhunter Writer