POV @ 25: Jennifer Fox and Cristina Ibarra on Doc Filmmaking as Vocation
In celebration of the 25th season of PBS’ groundbreaking documentary series POV, Filmmaker is this week running a four-part conversation series between two non-fiction directors with close ties to the show. A few weeks ago, acclaimed documentarian Jennifer Fox — whose 20-year project, My Reincarnation, kicks off the 2012 POV season this Thursday — and The Last Conquistador director Cristina Ibarra, a relative newcomer to the non-fiction scene, sat down to talk about a variety of issues that arise from their work. Despite radically different backgrounds and, at the time of the conversation, being literally continents apart — NYC resident Fox was in Amsterdam, talking to Ibarra over Skype — the two found much common ground and dug in deep in their discussion of the documentary craft.
In this second of four parts, Fox and Ibarra talk about the vocational nature of being a non-fiction filmmaker.
Jennifer Fox: I think for me, when I arrived at [the idea of being a documentary filmmaker], I was about nineteen years old. And I realized it was the only job – not a job, but a calling – I could think of that I would never master. And that is exactly the reason I wanted to do it: I wanted a life’s work that I could never ever be good enough at that I would be satisfied, because I just saw it as this kind of infinite art where if I could ever master the image I would fall down in the musicality of it. It was an endless learning process, so when I found film it was really like finding a calling. I have never actually wanted to do anything else, because everything is contained in it for me: story, music, image, translation, investigating life, telling and bringing things to light… For me, it’s really a life’s work and I’m really grateful I wanted to do it so young, because sometimes I look at other people that don’t know what they want to do and I just feel so grateful that it feels so right despite the horrible struggle of it. It’s just so deeply satisfying to do the work that I feel grateful every day.
I also wish it was easier on a financial and fundraising level. It makes it sound like I’m sitting here in honey in heaven or something, but in terms of work that really uses you—uses every fiber of you and puts you in new places in the world and makes you learn all the time…
Cristina Ibarra: That’s beautiful! I love that and I wish that I could have a defining moment like that, or where I was clear like, “Okay, this is it for me.” I feel like, the thing is, it’s so rare. The percentage of time that I’m actually creatively making the film is so small compared to all the other stuff I do every day that it’s always, with every new film, like facing creative fears, in a way. Like, “Okay, I’ve spent all this time preparing so I could spend these precious moments cutting, or precious moments communicating with this cinematographer…” So, I have to find the joy in those moments where all these other administrative things that lead up to these moments is kind of a struggle.
I’ve always had to question myself, like, “Okay, is this really what I’m supposed to be doing?” [laughs] And then, when I’m actually doing it, I forget about all that fundraising part. And when I show a film, it’s like, “Wow!” It’s such a special moment of connection that with each new film I have to ask myself if it’s what I really want to do; and then that’s why the film gets done, because the answer is “Yes, I do love this!” [laughs] I have to always be balancing; like, okay there’s all this sacrifice. It’s not a very clear-cut answer of “This is the day I knew I was going to be a filmmaker.”
Fox: For me, what’s weird is I love the challenge of the business side, which is quite bizarre. And I love distribution. And in some ways the part of me that is the director and the part of me that is the producer are struggling for who wins out, because I feel very gratified when I am able to get something that nobody thinks they want—it’s not a question of how many people turn it down, but it’s that you made it through the eye of a needle. I get really excited by that. With, My Reincarnation, nobody wanted that film for 18 years… I thought, “This is the craziest thing I ever did in my life. This is the death of me.”
But also the idea of [taking] something that nobody else can see but that you see and that slowly people begin to see the value in… I feel a lot from also succeeding financially in an impossible world. That makes me happy too. I know that’s a little weird, but it’s because my dad loved business and he talked about business nonstop. He’s a real entrepreneur and I absorbed that love of starting things that nobody wants. My Reincarnation just finished a theatrical tour of about 70 cities and I’m like, “Who would’ve thought?” It’s so amazing to me that something that people probably thought I was so stupid to spend all these years on had so much value for other people. I just love that, I really do, so that’s weird. It’s not just waiting for the directing part…I’m a little strange, I actually like producing.
Ibarra: That’s great, because those producing decisions create your reality. You’re in control of your life. I like that you’re talking about your father because my father is a huge presence in my mind when I think of the approach I want to take in a film. He’s a small business owner and he owns his own car lot on the American side and then on the Mexican side he has his own junkyard and it’s always trying to go back and forth between the two countries and be an independent person. So I think, “This is going to be something unique and be an independent voice rather than something that a big company is trying to sell us.” It’s more about examining culture and identity, so sometimes when I do feel that struggle of having to write another grant application I think about my dad too. It’s interesting.
Fox: I have to say – and I never would’ve said this when I was younger – but the older I get [the more I feel] we are standing on the shoulders of our parents. Nobody gets to be a filmmaker without amazing roots often in whatever they taught you—whether it was structural things or my mom spending most of our childhood dragging us to theater, or museums, or movies. My mom’s a movie buff. I don’t think the complex skills of filmmaking come out of nothing and they’re not taught at film school. They’re really the culmination of everything we’ve learned from our family and out environment, you know. And I think about my folks every day.
I had this horrible producing moment on My Reincarnation where the film was finished and one of our producers defaulted on part of the budget – a large part, $100,000, which I owed. We had sold off the major territories, so where do you find $100,000? So I was really facing bankruptcy and the only thing I could think of was crowdfunding. So who do I go to?
I mean, I’m 50 years old, I go home for Christmas because I can’t tell my boyfriend/partner because he’ll think I’m crazy. I go home to my parents and say, “Mom and Dad, look, I’m in this terrible hole. I have this crazy idea: I’m thinking about crowd-funding.” And they both are like, “Oh, that sounds interesting and you should really do it. Wow, the democratic process at work!” My mom is actually now a fundraiser and my dad’s an entrepreneur, so it’s not just my dad. They’re both like, “Oh wow, we really want to see if this works; this is the future!” I’m like, “Oh my God,” but they really gave me the inspiration to try it.
Ibarra: What an inspiration that campaign is! I think about it often and it was a fabulous success.
Fox: Yeah, but ironically if it wasn’t for my eighty-something year-old parents, I probably wouldn’t have had the guts to give it a shot. I think that’s really funny. I think we need them and they help us in ways that nobody ever talks about. It’s just so interesting.
Ibarra: Going back to that question of “How did you know you want to be a filmmaker or creative person?”, I think that it is true what you said, Jennifer, that this process challenges every fiber of your being. I like that, because it’s true. It’s almost like my therapy, because I have to do something that I would never have to do otherwise. I’m always in a whole new universe with new situations and it’s always something new. I’m always learning.
Fox: Yes, exactly, and you know, it’s hard. That’s not an easy life for either of us—or any of us—but honestly, the alternative is really miserable, which is a kind of dead life. Films challenge you because you can’t rely on what you know: every time you start, you have to start again. Even for me, as a producer at 50 years old having to face crowdfunding; it’s a really big challenge. It’s a challenge for me to tell the world I’m $100,000 in debt. It’s emotionally challenging. So, I think it’s—not to wax and wane about how wonderful the struggles and challenges of filmmaking are for us, but they are. For both of us, in the sense that we get to live in a live life. And some people don’t — in fact, the majority of people don’t.