Sara Wolitzky on Exploring “Reawakened Feminist Energy and Organizing” in “Not Done: Women Remaking America”

Sara Wolitzky is a documentary filmmaker. In 2012, she helped launch the multi-platform documentary series MAKERS, which chronicles the U.S. and global women’s movement and the stories of hundreds of female trailblazers. She served as a co-producer for the three-hour documentary “MAKERS: Women Who Make America” (PBS) and as a founding producer for the award-winning digital platform MAKERS.com. She produced “MAKERS: Women in Space” (PBS) and the feature-length “MAKERS: Once and For All” (Amazon/AOL). “Not Done: Women Remaking America” marks her latest contribution to the Emmy Award-nominated series, and her first film as a director.

“Not Done: Women Remaking America” premieres October 27 at 8 p.m. ET on PBS and will be available to stream on Makers.com October 28.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

SW: The film looks back at the last several years of reawakened feminist energy and organizing in the U.S. It is a story of women rising up and coming together, in a way not seen in decades, to fight back in the face of entrenched sexism and racism to push America ever closer to its promise of equality.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

SW: I have been working on the MAKERS series since its inception. We started production way back in 2011 on the first MAKERS.com videos and original PBS films which chronicled a half-century of women’s progress in America. In the years since, I’ve been thrilled and fascinated by how rapidly the conversation around gender equality has shifted – from feminism being a “dirty word,” to Beyoncé putting it in bright lights, to millions of women taking to the street in its name – and particularly how the last four years have been a supercharged era of both major progress and harsh reality checks.

So much had happened since we released our first films, it felt important to update the story and to talk directly to the womxn — an all-star roster of powerhouses — at the heart of this transformation.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

SW: I want people to feel proud of how much has shifted in recent years thanks to women’s collective and individual power, to be outraged by the inequities that remain, and to feel the wind at their back to keep chipping away at, or dynamiting through, the boulders in our path.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

SW: COVID struck when we were about 90 percent through shooting and about halfway through our edit. Because of the pandemic, our airdate was postponed by four months. We immediately decided we had to stay limber. The world was changing every day. We knew we needed to keep production and editing open as long as possible so we could be responsive to what might happen and make the film as timely as possible when it finally aired. This was a big challenge in terms of budget and staffing, but we made it work — wearing many hats to do so — and it was a huge gift in the end.

For instance, the film had always included the story of the creation of Black Lives Matter in 2013 by three feminist women and their insistence that it not be just about the lives of Black hetero cis men. To see the massive resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement this summer, to see the focus not just on George Floyd but also Breonna Taylor, the spread of the #SayHerName campaign, and the epic Black Trans Lives Matter rallies across the country – it was a beautifully organic bookend to the intersectional story already being told in the film.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

SW: The film was funded by P&G and PBS. It is also the first recipient of Verizon’s Future Fund, an initiative to support new and emerging female talent across entertainment and technology. Our EP Dyllan McGee and our producer Ali Moss are incredible movers and shakers in getting things made.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

SW: To be honest, more than being interested in film growing up, I was a TV-obsessed kid. I remember the highlight of my week was getting the TV Guide insert in the Sunday New York Times and gobbling up the descriptions of what was going happen on all my favorite shows that week. This was before “next on…” teasers at the end of episodes.

I also always loved being a student and constantly learning about new people and new worlds and new ideas, so after I graduated — with only the vague idea that I wanted to “work in TV” — I discovered that documentary filmmaking was really the perfect combination of these loves for me. I get to be a perpetual student by following my curiosity and diving deep into real life stories and worlds, and then trying to reflect and craft those stories back to an audience in a way that makes them as emotionally-riveting and thought-provoking as I find them.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

SW: One great, practical piece of advice that I always come back to is essentially this: when you get notes or feedback, listen for the problems, not the solutions. Often times, people giving you notes won’t have the best ideas about how to fix things, and won’t know the material as well as you do, but if you can read between the lines, or push to get to the heart of what’s not working for them as a viewer, that is the truly valuable information. You’ll find your own, often better, solutions to those problems. That said, steal all good ideas! Just be generous with credit.

The worst advice that I see often is to sell the project first, and then figure out what it is and how to make it. To me, this leads to a deadly mismatch between the concept and the schedule/budget that doesn’t do justice to the idea. That said, don’t overthink an idea to death, and don’t be afraid of the parts that feel impossible at first. Creativity comes from constraints.

So really, I guess the best advice is Gloria Steinem’s, which I’m grossly paraphrasing: it’s not either/or, it’s both/and.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

SW: You’re not going to do it like the male directors you know, and that’s not just OK, it’s a good thing. Sure, sometimes when I feel nervous, I tell myself to channel the (over)confidence of certain male directors, but more generally I’ve come to appreciate that my style of directing is my own, and in fact, some things that might be seen as more traditionally female traits — making subjects feel safe and listened to, being diplomatic and collaborative with a team — are great strengths for documentary filmmaking.

Health permitting, help carry as much gear as possible.

Work with as many extraordinary women as possible. This film was a team effort of unbelievable women including our EP Dyllan McGee, producer Ali Moss, editor Adriana Pacheco, and DP Nausheen Dadabhoy.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

SW: There are so so many great ones, especially documentaries. But I would choose “Stories We Tell,” directed by Sarah Polley. It’s just gorgeous, meta, and incredibly inventive in a way that exploded my notions about what could be done within the documentary genre. It reset the bar for me.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

SW: To be honest, editing and finishing this film has been a tremendous lifeline during COVID. Getting to work on something creative and purposeful was a blessing and great distraction from the chaos and sadness of these times. I don’t know what it’s going to feel like when I’m not under constant deadlines.

Part of the trick during this remote edit was to work as hard as possible when I was feeling the energy and juices flowing, so that I would not beat myself up during the stretches when I feel stuck and stagnant. Also, phone calls to my favorite colleagues/conspirators when I needed a boost, and noticing the seasons changing day by day on the trees.

W&H: Recent protests in the U.S. and abroad have highlighted racism and anti-Black police brutality. The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

SW: This is of course a big problem that needs lots of different solutions. One piece of the puzzle is that we all have to be willing to invest the time and effort to create deep, diverse networks of talent of color, especially women of color.

It does take work, and sometimes money, to branch out beyond the producers and directors and crew already in your virtual and mental rolodex. The good news is that there are incredible organizations, like the Brown Girls Doc Mafia, that make this easier and are an invaluable resource for discovering talent in every role. Fund their projects, hire them for yours.

And once you hire them or greenlight them, give women of color the resources they need to succeed and become the decision-makers and gatekeepers themselves. It seems self-evident that when the people generating the stories and behind-the-scenes are more diverse, the stories on screen will be better.

October 26, 2020
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