“I Come From the One-Woman-Band Show of Visual Journalism…”: Emily Kassie on Producing Sugarcane
Tackling a timely but under-discussed contemporary issue in both the United States and Canada, journalists Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie investigate a string of abuses and missing persons cases at an indigenous residential school in Sugarcane. Below, Kassie, who in addition to directing the film with NoiseCat produced it alongside Kellen Quinn. Below, she recounts her debut experience as a producer and how she made a transition from the world of visual journalism.
Filmmaker: Tell us about the professional path that led you to produce this film, your first? What jobs within and outside of the film industry did you do, and what professional experience best prepared you to be a producer?
Kassie: I’m an investigative journalist and filmmaker who has spent a decade leading visual journalism in US newsrooms. I’ve field-produced all my own work for a decade at the New York Times, Frontline PBS and others, and oversaw teams and budgets to create short documentary and multimedia features at Highline magazine and The Marshall Project. Like many visual journalists, having little to no budget and working as a one-woman show taught me alot about how to hustle and get things done. It required a lot of chutzpah and ingenuity that carried over into film producing.
Filmmaker: How did you connect with this filmmaker and wind up producing the film?
Kassie: I left the newsroom in 2021 to make feature documentaries. When I began to pursue a film on the Indian Residential schools, I reached out to my old friend and colleague Julian Brave NoiseCat. Julian is a tremendous writer, historian and storyteller. I worked my first reporting job with him, and I knew we could make something special together. As it often goes, as an independent documentary director, I ended up producing and self-funding our film with Julian to get it off the ground. That is until about six months in when we received a first offer from a production company, and I realized I was in over my head. That’s when Kellen Quinn (A Still Same Voice, Time, Midnight Family) came in and gave me a masterclass over the following two years in documentary producing. I feel so lucky to have had the wild luck to work with and learn from Kellen.
Filmmaker: How long a process was it to produce the film, and if you could break it into stages, periods of time, what were they?
Kassie: Production went from July of 2021 through August of 2023. Editing began in November of 2022 and we completed post production in early January 2024.
Filmmaker: Did you have important or impactful mentors, or support from organizations, that were instrumental in your development as a producer?
Kassie: Kellen Quinn, my producing partner, was, of course, my constant and greatest teacher. He imparted deep knowledge of the industry, market and finance structuring but is also an extraordinary leader and a brilliant creative. He was patient in teaching me, but mostly, I learned by watching him. Kellen taught me that being an integrous, kind and intentional person, in tandem with a sharp mind and dedicated work ethic, can work in this industry.
The Catapult team, led by Megan Gelstein, was the first to believe in the project and provided constant support and were an essential partner. Catapult gave us our first grant and also provided our last tranche of funding with their Momentum Grant, which was enormously helpful going into Sundance. The Catalyst program at Sundance, led by Giulia Caruso and Julia Nelson, was instrumental in helping us fund the film, learning the pitch process and how to work with investors. The teams at Sundance Documentary Film Fund and IDA were fantastic, and our lead funders, Jenny Raskin with Impact Partners and Bill Way and Elliot Whitton at Fit Via Vi, showed up massively for the team particularly towards the end of the process when we arrived at major decision making moments. I’ve spent a lot of the last couple years soaking up the expertise and generosity of these wonderful mentors.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult aspect of producing this film?
Kassie: The film has always been (and still is) ambitious. It required dedicating over 150 shoot days, hundreds of flights, hotel rooms and coordination with five main characters. The post-production process gathered a room of talented creatives including Editor Nathan Punwar, Supervising Editor Maya Daisy Hawke, Director of Cinematography Christopher LaMarca, Composer Mali Obomsawain, Kellen, Julian and myself. In short, it was a major collaboration with many moving parts. I think for me, the most difficult aspect was figuring out when I needed to put my producer hat on and when I had my directors’ hat on. Kellen was generous in shouldering the burden when Julian and I needed to concentrate creatively, and it’s a dance I continue to work on.
Filmmaker: What single element of the film do you take the greatest amount of pride in, or maybe were just most excited by, as a producer?
Kassie: Sugarcane was a true collaboration. I come from the one-woman-band show of visual journalism and learning to collaborate was the hardest and most rewarding experience. The work is better for it and so am I.
Filmmaker: What surprised you or was unexpected when it comes to the producing of the film?
Kassie: So many colleagues and friends told me that there would come a point in the feature process where we would get stuck and everything would feel like a disaster. The multiple warnings did not prepare me when that moment inevitably came, when we weren’t sure if we should pause and step back or rally and give it all we had and hope for the best. We went with the latter, and it miraculously worked, but it was the hardest decision I’ve grappled with. I still wonder what the other path would have looked like. That said, I’m thrilled to be where we are now.
Filmmaker: What are the challenges facing young producers entering the business right now at this unique historical moment? And what could or should change about the film business to make producing a more sustainable practice?
Kassie: Well, we’re all holding our breath to see what the market and buyers say about documentaries and the kind of film we made. We don’t yet know whether films will sell, or if people will be compensated properly for their work – that’s scary. The bigger issue is that the amount of risk you have to take and security you have to have to take those risks, make this an uneven playing field for most. That’s something that needs to change.
Filmmaker: Finally, what advice would you pass on to a future young producer preparing to embark on their first production?
Kassie: Surround yourself with the smartest, kindest, most talented people you can find who believe in the thing as much as you do.