Filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Alison Klayman — who directed three of six episodes on Alex Gibney’s ‘Enhanced’ — share their advice on boosting inclusivity and working in documentary film.
Leveling the playing field makes for a superior product, says one acclaimed director on a new ESPN Films sports science docu-series.
“I’ve always sought to give opportunities to women, to people who come from a different background, to add diversity to the mix — in that I think it makes our work better,” filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, 39, told Moneyish. “It’s not just about inclusion; it’s about excellence of work. … I think that these richer stories are actually better stories.”
Vasarhelyi, whose 2015 big-wall climbing doc “Meru” landed on the Oscar shortlist, helmed two out of six episodes of “Enhanced,” a new docu-series executive produced and narrated by Oscar winner Alex Gibney that dissects the ethical implications of scientific advances in sports. One of Vasarhelyi’s episodes, “Skill,” looks at athletic talent through a nurture vs. nature lens with subjects like Olympic sprinter Natasha Hastings and NBA player C.J. McCollum; the other, “Power,” traces athletes’ dalliance with performance-enhancing drugs back to ’80s “steroids godfather” Tony Fitton.
Vasarhelyi recalls striving for inclusivity during meetings for the Jigsaw Productions series streaming on ESPN+. “It’s just the way we’ve always been in my office. And also when I take jobs … normally I will say, ‘I’ll do this if it’s a person of color that’s included, or a woman,’ just in terms of our subjects,” she said. “If we can’t accommodate that, then who’s working behind the camera?”
Recently, Vasarhelyi said, she has “only encountered encouragement” in her asks for diversity. “I think the industry finally gets how important it is and is just learning how to do it,” she said. “In the past, I think my films that focused on African subjects struggled in the marketplace because of their subject matter.” Asked what advice she’d give for getting a diverse group of subjects and behind-the-camera folks on a project, Vasarhelyi replied, “Be woke.” “I truly believe our work is an extension of who we are, and I constantly strive to push myself and my teams,” she said.
Women made up just 21% of all directors, executive producers, writers, producers, cinematographers and editors who worked on 2017’s top 500 domestic grossing films, according to a study by San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. Documentaries had the highest proportion of women by genre, at 30%.
Meanwhile, the industry has made scant progress in the way of nominating women for non-acting Academy Awards, per an analysis from the Women’s Media Center this year; the proportion of women nominees ticked up to 23% in 2018 from 20% last year. Women comprised 31% of nominees in the documentary feature category this year, a dip from 33% last year.
Director Alison Klayman, whose debut 2012 feature film “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” about the Chinese activist-artist was shortlisted for an Oscar, brought to life the “Recovery” episode of “Enhanced,” an examination of medical advances in how athletes rebound from injury. She echoed Vasarhelyi’s passion for a well-rounded production, telling Moneyish that “if there aren’t women on set, or in the development phase, or behind the camera, or in front of the camera, there’s going to be a part of the story that’s missing.”
“What’s beautiful about (directing) is you get to put together a team,” Klayman, 33, told Moneyish. “And it’s less like checking off boxes, but it’s more like making sure that nothing is just a default.”
Klayman advised aspiring young documentarians to reach out to directors, editors, producers and cinematographers they admire. “I have responded to cold emails directed to me, usually when people find me through my website, if it’s someone who has some experience and passion and it doesn’t seem like a generic email they might have sent to lots of people,” she said. “It’s important that if you reach out to someone, you actually know their work and can articulate why you are interested in working with them (and) what you bring to the table.”
And for those with a certain level of experience, she suggested, “sharing your CV and letting someone know what kind of roles you’re looking for can end up with you being considered for a position down the line from that filmmaker or someone they know.”
Vasarhelyi, for her part, recommended choosing great mentors and having “a real vision for what you want to do.” “You can ask for anything, and just be ready to hear no,” she said. “And that’s OK — you can ask again.”
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