In the recently published book ‘Tell Me Something: Documentary Filmmakers,’ Jessica Edwards compiled advice from 60 of the worlds best documentary filmmakers. To purchase a copy, visit the book’s website. In this excerpt, filmmaker Shola Lynch shares her advice for other filmmakers.
There is no formula for filmmaking success. This is a tough business to be in. You have to have vision and creativity in addition to being entrepreneurial. But really these are just platitudes. The most helpful advice I’ve gotten has to do with living life, because the hardest part of filmmaking is not making a film but continuing to make films. While it’s possible to take a vow of poverty and neglect your whole life for your job, that’s no way to live and create a body of work. I don’t know how the story will end, but after 17 years of doc-making, I’ll share what’s worked for me.
I have to admit I never set out to be a filmmaker. After graduate school in history and museum studies, I wanted to be a curator. In 1996, after struggling to find jobs in my field, I stumbled on a chance to work for the award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns. It seemed like a cool opportunity to curate for film instead of walls, so I jumped at it. The four-year job became my graduate film school. About halfway through it, the most valuable lesson came unexpectedly, as I waited for the copy machine. A senior producer, Lynn Novick, had just put a large document in the feeder. Married with toddlers, she had great focus at work, so this was a rare moment to chat. Instead, as the machine clicked and copied, she said out loud but half to herself, “I wish someone had told me that you can have it all; you just can’t have it all at the same time.” In my twenties, I didn’t get what she was trying to say. In my eyes, she did have it all. Although I was dismissive at the time, smiling politely and wishing she’d hurry up with the machine, what she said stuck with me.
The other piece of advice came years later while I was directing my first documentary, Chisholm ’72—Unbought & Unbossed (2004), about Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s run for the Democratic nomination for president in 1972. I was driving Mrs. Chisholm home after a long interview day when she leaned closer to me and said, “So, young lady …” She was usually very formal, so as she paused I braced myself for some deep political insight now that the cameras were off and we were alone. Instead, Mrs. Chisholm asked me a question—a dreaded one for a single woman in her thirties: “Do you have someone special in your life?” Taken off-guard and embarrassed, I mumbled something about being busy—working on a film about her. It didn’t matter. She shook her head with firm disapproval and said, “It is important to take care of yourself.” With a finger wag and a slight chuckle she added, “Men always do.” Like any good teacher, she completely shifted my thinking. I had always thought about a personal life as a distraction from work, not as an addition to my life, health, and creativity.
Both pieces of advice became relevant when I was making Free Angela & All Political Prisoners—a political crime drama about Angela Davis, the scholar, activist, and former communist who topped the FBI’s Most Wanted list in 1970. Professor Davis is a recognizable figure, so I thought there would be no problem raising the funds. I didn’t anticipate that the controversy she stirred up was still alive and strong 40 years later. As a result, raising the budget turned out to be an eight-year Herculean task. During one of the many points when I was stalled, I revisited Chisholm’s advice. I made time for a personal life, and before I knew it, I was married with two kids. That is when Lynn’s words clicked, finally making sense. I could not have it all at once; I had to concentrate on one aspect of my life at a time. My fix became to rotate my priorities: Free Angela, for-hire producing work (to make some kind of living), and a family. Like a juggler, I kept each priority in play to focus on the ball in the air or whatever needed my attention most. Sometime I juggled fast and other times at a more measured pace. My goal was never to be perfect. I was pushing the limits of my time and energy so when I inevitably dropped all the balls, I picked them up without too much judgment, learned what I could to avoid repeating the same misstep, and kept it moving. And do you know what? I finished Free Angela, my kids thrived, and I survived. The big lesson I learned was that for my ultimate productivity, I needed to be happy. Truth be told, my heart would not be whole without my work or my family. I had to find a way to accommodate both for my health, well-being, and creativity.
Therefore, since longevity is the toughest filmmaking challenge, my advice is to find a way to make your work part of your life—or in other words, find your juggle.
Filmography: Chisholm ’72—Unbought & Unbossed (2004), Free Angela & All Political Prisoners (2012).