Featured Member: Luisa Conlon
I mean, it takes a particular kind of person who wants to spend their life listening to terrible things, but hopefully it will introduce more understanding of the world and make the word a little smaller.
You’ve got this blend of journalism, producing, and cinematography on your resume. How do those three things connect in your career?
I know it’s not very straightforward, but I went to NYU and studied film, which may be more of a formal program now but when I was there in 2009 it was more pick-and-choose, and they had these great documentary professors that I ended up studying with… I connected with Keith Miller, who directed two feature films and who got me on as an assistant. I ended up working with his producer Elizabeth who ended up producing "Obvious Child." She brought me on as an associate producer and then I produced Keith’s second feature, "Five Star"… I really wanted to pick back up on documentary work, so I applied to journalism school at UC Berkley and got in, which was a huge shock to me because I felt like a filmmaker and not a journalist. So now I’m a hybrid journalist/documentary filmmaker/producer.
That’s super cool!
Yeah, It can be confusing for people though. Because people like it when you do one thing, but they can get confused when you do multiple things.
Did your experience as a producer inform any of your decisions as a documentary filmmaker?
Yeah, totally. Producers are dealing so much with money and logistics and making sure that people are happy, and so a lot of my pervious work has informed me in the sense that it’s helped me stay really really organized. It’s also been great to be a part of the same film network instead of coming in really fresh. I’ve had a lot of relationships that sort of extend to the doc world that have been really helpful. That makes it feel like more of a community. I feel like it’s prepared me better in the sense that I have an understanding of budgets and scheduling and making sure that people don’t get underfed and overworked.
Your doc and feature work seem to be driven by social progress. Is that a fair thing to say?
Yeah, I mean, women’s issues are a huge part of my life and the safe access to abortion was a huge thing to me, so “Obvious Child” was a dream project to work on. First of all, it was led by brilliant women all around so I got to work with these total inspirations. Also, I feel like the message of the film is going to really help women… It was work that was fiction but it also felt really valuable. I don’t want to do work that I don’t feel is creating change. I don’t want to get up in the morning if I don’t feel like I’m doing something useful. So all of the projects have a pretty obvious thread, which is human rights or social justice or whatever you want to call it.
Now that you’re focused on documentary work, is there a certain direction you would like to go?
Yeah, I’m interested in a lot of international human rights stuff. I just got back from filming in Jordan with two of my friends. We spent two weeks documenting Syrian refugees who are living with disabilities. We focused on how they are getting treatment, and if they are getting enough treatment, will there be enough to rehabilitate them long term… I will report on anything if there is a valuable story there. I’m not an activist, I’m a filmmaker, and those lines can get crossed pretty easily, but I try to keep them separate. I think that a lot of us do a lot of work around human suffering, which is really hard, but that’s the stuff that gets those voices out there, so that’s important for me to do. I mean, it takes a particular kind of person who wants to spend their life listening to terrible things, but hopefully it will introduce more understanding of the world and make the word a little smaller.
How do you visually approach telling the story of a subject you want to document?
I think that there’s a camera for every subject and there’s a setup for every story. When we went to Jordan, we went with a very stripped down version of the C100, we wanted to keep it very small… If you’re coming in with a souped up RED rig you’re gonna be a little more obvious. Another thing that’s interesting is figuring out whether you’re going to be interview-based or, if there’s no interviews, and you’re just going to be following people around. That completely changes the tone of the project and completely changes how you shoot it. Every setting has the thing that you want to show. The light in Jordan is really beautiful and dusty and interesting. So we incorporated a lot of outdoor shots despite the fact that we were shooting inside of a clinic. We were really wanting to show the surroundings the people were living in. So a lot of the interviews were shot super wide to try to get a sense of the space… The rehabilitation center was sort of this different setting than you usually see of Syrian refugees in refugee camps by the international media, so a lot of the interviews help you take in that space.
Are there any specific moments that might have helped defined or changed you as a filmmaker?
Yeah, last year we published a piece in The Atlantic that was our first doc that was on a major publication. It showed me that you can make an aesthetically beautiful film that also tells an important story… We shot underwater for that project. Our subject, Ahmed, is an Iraqi refugee living with a disability here in a the states. He swims everyday, so we shot underwater, which I’ve never done before. It was really technically exciting for me and it also taught me how something super gear-related can translate into this really beautiful thing where you’re seeing this body in motion and how he interacts with the world… It felt, for me, like the launch of a new career. I felt for the first time that there was a thing in the world that people were watching, that we were getting feedback on.
That must have felt really cathartic.
Yeah, and recently we did this piece for PBS Newshour and I had never seen any of my doc stuff on TV. So we went to this bar in Oakland where everybody was watching football and we got them to change the channel on one of the TV’s. Everybody got really confused, but then they started cheering and were like, “Oh my God, you did this thing on TV.” It was really exciting for us. We went really far away, we met these amazing people, and we came back and put their story on TV and we hope that it will really help them, and it has.
Any advice for aspiring documentary filmmakers?
One thing I think is really important that people aren’t thinking about about is the ethics of filmmaking in this time when there’s so much access to cameras. The life of your subject and their privacy and the right to tell their story is theirs. That needs to be respected if we’re going to continue thriving as an industry. That’s my biggest piece of advice. Make sure you’re on the same page with people and make sure you’re respecting their time and their space… Also, we brought way too much gear with us to Jordan. It was really heavy. I guess the lesson there is; don’t take more than you need.