Sarah Jacobson is a New York based filmmaker whose documentary, Have No Fear premiered at BAM in the summer of 2017 and has since made it’s festival rounds. We were excited to catch up with Sarah to discuss her experience co-directing and how having a background in another industry can actually be beneficial.
Tell us a little about your work and background–how did you get started as a filmmaker?
I mostly work as a freelance video/documentary editor, though I produce, shoot and direct as well. However, I didn’t start out as a filmmaker. I studied psychology and, as part of of my degree, spent four months working with families suffering from trauma at a residential mental health hospital. During that time I became close with the children and was much more interested in their stories than writing the academic essay I was expected to turn in. The essay couldn’t possibly communicate the intense emotional connections and transformational experiences that happened everyday, I wanted their stories to have an impact beyond the hospital unit, and film was the only way I could imagine that happening. Unfortunately cameras weren’t allowed, so I wrote a super boring paper instead. The same reasons I studied psychology – my interest in people and my desire to share stories of human experience and behavior – triggered my launch into documentary filmmaking. I fell in love with the creative process of storytelling as soon as I began experimenting. I’ve since worked on a number of documentary projects, ranging from Vimeo Staff Pick shorts to an Emmy Award-winning feature.
How would you describe your style as a director? How about as an editor?
As a director, I want to make sure subjects feel respected, so hopefully that love and respect permeates the work itself. I’ve learned to trust my instincts as an editor. Usually, that means my decisions are based on anchoring or highlighting the emotional beats of a story. I love any opportunity to experiment with unexpected juxtapositions, pacing, sound to draw an audience deeper into those hard-to-reach emotional crevices.
Tell us about Have No Fear! (How did you get involved? What was your role in this project? Who were some of the other folks working on the film?)
Have No Fear focuses on Adia Whitaker, an artist determined to turn her fears as a mother of color into action as she leads her performance ensemble, Ase Dance Theatre Collective, in the creation of a powerful piece. I met Adia through one of her dancers (Kendra Ross, founder of STooPS, a community-building arts organization in Bed-Stuy). It takes zero time being in Adia’s presence to know she’s extraordinary. During one of the first times we met, Adia shared some lyrics of this new piece she was working on, which wove together elements of African and Haitian folklore, references to victims of police brutality and instructions to educate children on how to stay safe during encounters with police.
At one point, she was singing the words to her son as she breastfed him. Hearing Know Your Rights training wrapped up inside a lullabye had a profound impact on us. I was doing the UnionDocs Collaborative Studio fellowship at the time (which I highly recommend!) and knew I wanted to spend that time collaborating with Adia. I co-directed and edited the film with Beata Calinska, another CoLab fellow. The crew also included CoLab fellows Tracie Williams (DP), James Nguyen (second camera) and Emile Klein (sound mix).
What was the filming process like for Have No Fear? Did you run into any unforeseen issues and if so how did you work around them?
We only had a few months to develop the story, shoot and edit it. So it all felt like it was happening really quickly. And we were a really small crew, so there were a lot of tasks to juggle and not a lot of sleep, especially during post. I think I just described every documentary filmmaking process.
How did you and your co-director Beata Calinska divide up the workload? What was it like to share that role with another person?
It was great! We decided not to be too rigid in our roles from the beginning. I found the exchange of ideas and process of challenging one another to be incredibly rewarding. We each had strong opinions that were sometimes in conflict, but both of us were also open to hearing ideas and trying things out. Having disagreements forced us to communicate our convictions clearly, and by externalizing them, we figured out how to push forward and tell the story we wanted to tell. I’d love to co-direct something again.
We saw the film screened a BAM last summer. How did that come about and what was the experience like?
Yeah! Have No Fear had its US premiere at BAMcinemaFest. It was so exciting to honor Adia’s work and share it with a New York audience, especially since a few Ase dancers were able to come. And Have No Fear screened with The Work, which was one of my favorite documentaries from 2017! It felt great to be in such good company.
What’s the best piece of advice you got when starting out as a filmmaker? What advice would you offer to other folks just starting out?
...trust your voice, be patient with yourself, and just start making things."
Without formal training or technical skills I was consumed by self-doubt when I began. I kept being told to just go out and start making things. Eventually, I realized that experience from a different field was valuable in building my foundation as a documentary filmmaker. I came to embrace my fresh perspective, no matter how frustrating it was to make mistakes, or how often I had to improvise along the way. So my advice to others starting out is to trust your voice, be patient with yourself, and just start making things. And especially when it comes to documentaries, be open and flexible. It won’t turn out exactly the way you planned, and that’s part of the reason making them is so special.
Are you working on anything new right now? What is your role in this project?
I’m editing a short, light-hearted documentary that I directed and produced called New Tricks. It tries to dispel the idea that you can be too old to learn new skills. I didn’t know how to ride a bike and it always frustrated and embarrassed me. I figured it was too late in life to learn. Last summer, I decided to see what would happen if two adult strangers helped each other confront their summertime fears. I posted an ad looking for someone who could teach me how to ride a bike, in exchange for me teaching them how to swim. I found someone and we spent the summer working and feeling extreme levels of discomfort and accomplishment together! I’m hoping to finish it up in the next few months.
You can catch Sarah’s film as part of the African Diaspora Film Festival this Saturday December 8th! Have No Fear will screen before Stephen Maing’s Crime + Punishment.
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