I make documentary films. I work on my own projects, and also produce and do camera work for other people. I was born in Philadelphia, but moved around a lot as a child, landing in NYC at age 9. After we arrived we continued moving within the city, a pattern I’ve continued into adulthood. I’m now in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, a neighborhood I’ve come to love because it’s so hard to pin down. It’s an in-between place – some residential, some bleak industrial, with a rich mix of cultures. It feels comfortable, and somehow familiar to me - I think I’ll be here awhile. I’m 37, married, and have a step-daughter.
You've been around the block. Before becoming a documentary filmmaker, you worked in film lighting in New York, ran a culture house and worked in theater in Prague... What led you into the field?
I’m not one of those people who knew at age five what they were going to do for the rest of their lives. I’ve always been interested in everything around me which made it hard to decide what direction to go in. I discovered that in the process of making films I could experience many different worlds first hand that I’ve been fascinated by. It took me a while to get here, but it feels right.
You've worked video beats with, amongst others, organ transplant teams, homicide detectives, fishermen in the Bering sea... You've traipsed through the sewers of San Francisco, wandered the streets of Kabul dressed head to foot in 100 degree heat and wielded your camera in areas dominated by Somalian warlords. What motivates you? Are you just an adrenalin junkie?
The adrenalin rush of being in danger can be exciting, but that’s not what motivates me. I’m more interested in telling interesting stories of interesting people - and those can be anywhere, even next door.
Do you ever get scared?
Wading through six inches of human waste in the sewers, or being shot at on a rooftop in Mogadishu, I can’t afford to worry right then about what might happen to me. I have to be in the moment to do my job. But, yes, I do sometimes feel fear. And I think that’s a good thing – it keeps me aware in situations where I may not fully understand the cultural language. I don’t want fear to hold me back but at the same time I have to feel comfortable with what I’m doing. It’s a balance.
What were your craziest one or two experiences in the field?
These jobs can take you into lots of crazy places and unexpected situations. On a drug plane, or in the Somali desert at dusk with a broken-down jeep in rival territory, or on an unheated Lear jet in pajamas in weather below zero… but I think in the long run the most memorable, and exciting, experiences are the ones in which you feel a moment of real connection with a person or story. One of my best memories is of time spent with a family as they said goodbye to their dying child – it sounds grim, but it wasn’t. And even quieter moments can feel huge – the first time I saw a living, beating heart during open-heart surgery was transcendent.
Your friends and family must worry about you…
They see I’m happy doing what I do, and I think are generally supportive because of that. Of course it helps that I try to bring back nice gifts when I go away.
Extended periods away from home are hard - for me, and for my family. Thankfully my husband, Robert Palumbo, is also a filmmaker – we try to work together as much as possible which helps.
You have a lot of experience in reality-based television, all the rage the last several years. Just how real is the "reality" in reality-based? Do you ever fudge the "truth"?
Film/video is an incredibly malleable medium. You can manipulate it in any number of ways – you can use someone’s voice off-camera and make them say pretty much anything you want them to. You can change time, make things happen before or after they actually did. Sometimes, with a creative editor, even create scenes that didn’t happen at all. And people do it all the time, particularly in television.
In independent documentary the ability, and temptation, is also there – your subject didn’t say what you think they meant to say, or what you want them to have said – you could just fix the problem with a few cuts. Manipulation is part of the process – you compress time and choose the key moments to tell the story most economically and effectively, but there’s a line you have to draw. To make an honest film you have to be very, very careful to treat the material and the subjects respectfully, and to preserve the spirit of the truth.
As a woman in an industry dominated by men, have there been any gender specific issues you've encountered in the field? If so, care to share an anecdote or two?
I’m not so sure the documentary world is dominated by men. Many of the people I’ve worked under have been women, and it seems that many of the most powerful positions in the field are filled by women. That’s certainly true at places like HBO.
That’s not to say gender is never an issue. There was the moment on a stakeout of drug dealers in New Orleans when the officer I was filming turned to me and said “quick – they’re looking this way – kiss me!” and swept me into an embrace… Would that have happened if I’d been a man? Probably not, but then I wouldn’t have the story.
And there are situations in which being a woman is definitely an asset. Filming in women’s hospitals in Afghanistan wouldn’t be possible as a man.
Speaking of Afghanistan, you're going there again in four weeks to shoot additional footage for Dangerous Journey, a work in progress. What's the piece about?
The healthcare situation in Afghanistan is a disaster, particularly for women. Pregnancy is extremely dangerous, and in actual childbirth a woman dies there every 15 minutes. Dangerous Journey takes a look at these issues through the eyes of Director Sedika Mojadidi as she travels back to Afghanistan to follow the work of her father, Qudrat Mojadidi, a Nobel nominated OB/GYN. Conditions in some areas are improving, but even now, nearly 4 years after the fall of the Taliban the magnitude of the problem is staggering.
Is there any perspective you can offer about that part of the world that we're not getting in the mainstream American news?
Mainstream American news runs occasional stories about Afghanistan, but for the most part has long ago moved on. The story of Dangerous Journey, a single doctor’s real-life struggle with the continuing problems of a devastated health-care system, is something I’ve never seen on American TV.
When we shot at the “Laura Bush” hospital - touted as cutting edge and state of the art; a poster child of the Bush administration, there was virtually no working plumbing, patients had to bring many of their own surgical supplies, there was very little in the way of anesthesia or antibiotics… I was there a year and a half ago - not long after the US sponsored renovation and it was a mess. I’m curious to see whether things have improved. I hope so.
Will you be taking any special steps to protect your security?
As far as security, it comes down to trusting the people you’re working with. Sedika and her father speak the language and know the country. I trust them to make reasoned, informed decisions, and know they both have good instincts about what’s ok and what’s not ok. A camera can gain you entry into an amazing variety of new worlds, but often you don’t understand the parameters of the culture or place, so it’s important to find people who do.
You won’t have bodyguards?
It’ll depend on the situation. If Sedika and Dr. Mojadidi feel bodyguards are necessary we’ll hire them. Last time, in Kabul, we worked without guards and felt fine. Travelling outside of the city is a different story. But since I’ll just be in Kabul, that won’t be an issue.
In Mogadishu, when I was working with Doctors Without Borders, we travelled in convoys of three SUVs with a total of 12 Kalashnikov-carrying bodyguards. There would be five in the SUV ahead of us, five in the one behind us, and a couple with us in our SUV. It was strange but it becomes normal very quickly.
Which brings us back to crazy moments... Being in Mogadishu in general was pretty crazy and surreal - seeing what can happen to a place like that, or Kabul in a relatively short period of time. These were fairly cosmopolitan places not that long ago. Now there are kids, I don’t know, sick, starving; and people with war wounds, people dying. And you realize that these are people’s lives. People have to deal with these situations every day. And you’re just a visitor.
You co-DP’d and co-produced a documentary about Air America, the new liberal radio network, as the enterprise was on the verge of implosion. Have any intriguing insider perspectives we won't hear elsewhere?
Yeah, we were really lucky to be there at a time when so much was going on. The Directors of the film, Patrick Farrelly and Kate O’Callaghan, and Robert and I, started shooting several weeks before the launch of Air America. By the time things started to fall apart, shortly after launch, we had established relationships with many of the key players, and were allowed to film through the crisis. The access was pretty amazing. But I can’t give away any secrets before the film, "Left of the Dial: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of Air America Radio," premieres on HBO March 31st.
What's next for you?
At the moment Robert and I are making a feature documentary about my uncle, George Soehngen, who was convicted last year in California on 3 felony counts of making terroristic threats. He is currently serving time in San Quentin. The working title of the film is “Terrorist George,” and even though it deals with his struggle against the legal establishment in Contra Costa County over a land dispute, the center of the film is his relationship with his wife, Narae. It’s a pretty intense story, and particularly challenging for me because it deals with my own family.
We’ve already shot most of the film, and are now beginning to fundraise and edit.
You've got $5.00 in your pocket, an unlimited metro card and a day to kill. What do you do?
I’d get on a random train and ride it to the end of the line just to see what’s there.
Interview by Raphie Frank