Back to selection

TIFF 2016: Five Questions for Girl Unbound Director Erin Heidenreich

Girl Unbound

Erin Heidenreich brings the documentary Girl Unbound to the Toronto International Film Festival as a first-time feature director, but she’s already amassed a great amount of experience in the world of independent film. She’s been a documentary producer, executive producer, second-unit director as well as an original employee of Cinetic Media, where she was involved in the sales of many of the most successful independent films of the ’00s.

Girl Unbound follows squash player Maria Toorpakai as she competes internationally, representing her native Pakistan in tournaments around the world. But Girl Unbound isn’t simply a sports doc as Toorapaki hails from the Tribal Areas of Pakistan, where she must defy the controlling Taliban in order to pursue her athletic career.

Below, I ask Heidenreich about the adversities she encountered as a female director making a film about a controversial female subject in Pakistan, about her move from producing to directing, and about the lessons she learned working in film sales at Cinetic. Girl Unbound premieres tomorrow at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Filmmaker: Let’s start with a two-part question. First, after working as a documentary producer and, previously, in the film sales business, what made you decide to begin directing feature documentaries? And, then, how did you discover the subject of Girl Unbound and decide to tell her story?

Heidenreich: While engaging in my film career over the course of nine years in NYC, I paid attention to how filmmakers actually got movies made. I always wanted to direct but didn’t know before then how to make that happen. When I was turning 30, I decided the time was now. So I made the leap in a somewhat unusual way. I decided to leave Cinetic Media and move to Asia where my brother lived. Teaching at a university there, and with few expenses in my life, it allowed me time to hone my technical skills and begin working on projects as a producer. I concurrently worked on producing feature docs while also directing short docs and narrative work. I did this for about seven years to cultivate my skills, gain the confidence in myself, and then began embarking on developing some feature length projects to direct.

The producer of Girl Unbound reached out to me through mutual colleagues, the producers on a film that I EP’d, The Other Shore. She was looking for a director and it became apparent right away that we had a meeting of the minds and hearts about the take on the film. Maria is a world-class squash player and had to disguise herself as a boy in order to play sports as she is from the Taliban-controlled Tribal Areas of Pakistan. Everything she had to go through, including death threats, just to do the thing she loved as a girl really struck a chord with me. But the film really took off creatively when it became imperative to capture the people of the Tribal Areas who are seen by the rest of the world as terrorists. I wanted to show the human side of the other people living there as well as all that Maria’s family goes through to survive.

Filmmaker: As a filmmaker shooting in not just a foreign land but with a subject herself facing pressures and threats from her immediate community, what sort of pressures did you face in the production of this film? What sort of filmmaking decisions did you make in order to be able to get the access and material you needed?

Heidenreich: It was a multitude of choices and decisions within Pakistan at any given moment I had to contend with. As I knew that Maria and her family were under threat from the Taliban, I understood on some sort of intellectual level that I wold be putting myself in danger. We ended up getting into some tense situations — at military checkpoints, with men who had Kalashnikovs who suspected I was a foreigner, etc. But I don’t think the actual danger really hit me until I returned home. There is a weird distance that looking through the lens of the camera gives you — it makes you concentrate on the framing, focus, light and potentially keeps your brain from fully comprehending the risk you are taking. For better or worse.

As an American without permission attempting to enter the Tribal Areas, I had to try to pass myself off as part of this Pashtun family. I wore Maria’s and her sister’s clothing and had the ironic advantage of being a woman: no man (that I wasn’t introduced to) would speak to me directly, and I was not expected to answer for myself. So when there were inquiries, Maria’s father handled them. Thus, I was able to hide my foreign accent and language.

To get the footage we needed, we also had to be sensitive to the cultural norms of the society there. I had (very brave) women cinematographers with me most of the time because it was much more acceptable for them to be in homes with other women. But I also had a male cinematographer with me as it was sometimes easier for him to film out on the streets or out in the open in the Tribal Areas (although the women and myself did this as well at times — and ran into some issues). In more formal situations where other men were present, it was only acceptable to have a man do the filming. In these moments, I had to conceal that I was related to the film and find a way to inconspicuously direct: I was fully covered with a veil except for my eyes so I used eye contact with the cinematographer to direct where the camera should be pointed. We developed a shorthand where I would make a slight movement with my head to convey a wide shot, an angle change, or a close up.

There was a lot to juggle at any given point: capturing all elements of the story while moving undercover from place to place in the middle of the night, and managing the technical elements like keeping batteries charged in areas that didn’t have electricity, downloading footage on my laptop with a blanket over my head so that particular light wouldn’t alert people outside to what I was doing, checking to make sure the shot is in focus alongside worrying if the person your pointing the camera at is Taliban or an informer. I had to constantly be on alert in trying to capture the footage I needed versus having my peripheral vision or instinct tell me that I should be hiding the camera because the situation was too dangerous.

It was a perpetual adaptation to the moment: the risk, the gender that was present, whether or not I could reveal myself as a filmmaker or as American, etc. We mostly used small cameras in the Tribal Areas (Canon 5D, GoPros) that could easily be tucked away if needed. And I wore a dupatta (the long scarf typical for many women in the area), which became a key asset to to cover up my camera on my lap at a moment’s notice. Traveling with the family under threat from the Taliban put me at risk, but because I am an American it put the family and the cinematographers at risk. We took a lot of precautions such as traveling from place to place at night and sometimes splitting up to stay at different locations. Like all documentaries, you need to do what’s right for the situation.

Filmmaker: You worked with multiple directors of cinematography on this film. What sort of guiding principles and visual concepts did you impart to them to ensure that the footage would co-exist well in the same film? And how did you specifically approach the shooting of the squash material?

Heidenreich: I shared many images with the cinematographers as well as had conversations about what attracted me to the visual style of other films (both docs and narrative) before we began shooting. After we started production, I shared clips from the existing footage to continue the look that was created. I was also there by their side and shooting myself so it all happened pretty organically once we were in the same place. I really loved having the focus fall back behind the key subjects in the film to be able to fully feel their emotional moments and it lifted the cinematic nature of the frame, but it also made shooting vérité challenging. In Pakistan, on every shoot, we had the same female Pakistani cinematographer, Mahera Omar, with the team so that really kept the visual style intact. When we shot in Toronto, the original American cinematographer was not available on subsequent shoots, so I worked with others. But I had worked with these Western cinematographers many times before so we had a shorthand in terms of communicating which helped tremendously.

With the squash material, we used a variety of cameras: Canon 5D as well as the Canon C300. Since our film was focused primarily on Maria herself as she journeyed back to Pakistan, and not solely about squash, we chose cameras in the field that were more apt for more emotive moments. We were able to get some really intimate shots of her squash playing up close and personal mostly because she is such an accurate player. She could aim the ball within an inch of the lens without hitting the camera.

Filmmaker: The film has received significant support from various funders and non-profits. How did you put together the funding for the film, and how did you motivate these various supporters to commit to your film?

Heidenreich: We spent a significant amount of time putting together robust grant applications along with scenes or trailers from the film for all potential funders. The producer, Cassandra Sanford-Rosenthal, was the main catalyst in bringing on private investors. Many were moved by Maria’s vision, and it was a combination of her story as well as a unique perspective on girls in this region of the world that initially got us off the ground. I also do fully believe it was the passion we had when talking about the film and the feeling people received after seeing clips that took us above and beyond just the story on paper. The amount of time we spent fundraising (through grants and private investors) before, during and after the production of the film was enormous. It was a constant effort with personal funds from the producers as well as sweat equity from all involved that got us through some of the toughest times.

Filmmaker: Finally, you worked early on at Cinetic Media and were involved in the sales of many notable independent films from the high-water era, if you will, like Little Miss Sunshine. How does your background in sales shape your work as a director and producer, whether that’s in how you choose material or how you structure your projects? What lessons from your Cinetic years are valuable to you now? And, conversely, what part of the sales business have you had to purposefully forget in order to be effective as a director?

Heidenreich: Ah, such an interesting question. My time at Cinetic Media gave me a lot of insight into the marketplace for independent films and a chance to understand how they come together and how distribution is secured. It also gave me the opportunity to screen hundreds of other films a year that never got into a festival nor received any significant distribution, which was heart breaking. Some of the lessons, off the top of my head, I took from that experience include: 1) Know whether you’re making an independent film or trying to make a low budget Hollywood film. These are very different things and I saw this mistake, and millions of dollars lost, too many times. 2) Expectations: they can elevate and harm, it’s important to be aware of them for yourself and others on the film, and whether they should be raised or put into check. 3) Be transparent with your goals and story — people are attracted to be a part of film for all sorts of reasons. It’s your life’s energy you are investing into a project and it only hurts the film if your team isn’t on the same page as you. 4) You can break all the rules and still have a great and successful film. Nobody could have predicted Napoleon Dynamite, Supersize Me, Memento, The Station Agent, Boyhood, The Blair Witch Project, or some other successful films from that era would have been as monumental as they were. These filmmakers didn’t follow the rules.

When I moved into producing and directing, the best thing Cinetic Media did for me is take away the fear of the unknown about the business side of the industry. I get how films are financed and distributed. I know who makes these decisions and what can be a determining factor: anything from actually running numbers, to critical praise, to internal politics and pressure, to sometimes just an innate excitement for the subject matter. Many things are a contributing factor to a film’s financial success. In some perverse way, I think the experiences that resonated with me the most are the examples where the most unexpected films on paper got made and be seen out in the world.

At the end of the day, everyone on all sides of this business is human with their own fears, passions and personal lives. I do see how that being on the sales side of the business, and now on this “other side,” has made me really compassionate to all involved. I’m more knowledgable about potential red flags, but I feel for everyone’s stresses — it takes a lot to get a movie off the ground.

I laughed out loud at your last question because I almost had to forget everything I learned to be an effective director. I was investing my entire work and personal life, relationships, time, financial and physical well being into this film for years — it has to speak to you on a personal level. It has to be a character you want to live with (literally in my case) and on screen in the edit for an extraordinary amount of time. The story and the vision have to be something that is a part of your essence and a part of what you want to have out there in the world. And all of the creative energy to make that film and motivate others is an entirely different mindset than strictly the business side. But, I do know the documentary market, and this film fits well into that fold — I know that somewhere in the back of my mind. But if I was thinking about this the whole time then it puts an entirely different shape on making the decision to drive into the Tribal Areas without security and without permission. I wouldn’t do that for money or because the film will sell. I would only do that because I believed in my heart that this story is one I want to see made, and I want others to experience it as well.

© 2020 Filmmaker Magazine
All Rights Reserved
A Publication of IPF