Katherine Gorringe: ‘Documentarian of living voices and stories’

A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.
– Orson Welles, American actor, director, writer, and producer

Filmmaker Katherine Gorringe grew up immersed in the performing arts. As a musician and singer, she was active in theater, choir, and music throughout the Twin Cities, MN. At the same time, she was passionate about humanitarian issues. While a student at Northwestern University, Katherine pursued all of these interests through an ambitious academic program – a BA in gender studies and history, in which she researched social justice and radical social movements, and a conservatory degree in music. By the time she was studying abroad in Buenos Aires her senior year in college, she’d already decided that she didn’t want to become a professional musician. Film, so to speak, found her when she made her first student film. “The first time I picked up a camera and put it on something I cared about, I thought – ‘this is it, this is everything,'” Katherine said.

Katherine checks out her equipment while filming the short film, "Lady Parts."

Katherine checks out her equipment while filming the short film, “Lady Parts.”

She shot her short film, “Los Vecinos” (“The Neighbors”), in her host family’s neighborhood of Almagro. The townspeople were installing engraved tiles into the sidewalk to commemorate the lives and deaths of loved ones – brothers and sisters, children, parents, and friends – who were kidnapped and killed during the Argentine Military Government’s Dirty War of the 1970s and early 1980s. Some of the colorful tiles were placed in front of the missing person’s home or marked the site where the person was last seen. Through the medium of film, Katherine found fulfillment putting something artistic, beautiful, and meaningful out into the world and having people respond on an emotional and intellectual level. “It was a marriage of all my passions,” she said.

The Power of documentaries
After graduating from Northwestern, Katherine lived in New York for a couple of years, interning and working with filmmakers, including independent filmmaker Laurie Collyer. She fell in love with the West Coast when she moved to southern Oregon to farm and has remained out here ever since. While living in the Bay Area for a year, Katherine reclaimed “the compelling need to tell visual stories” and applied to grad programs in filmmaking as the next natural step in her journey. At the time, she wasn’t sold on focusing solely on documentary filmmaking, but her calling became clear when she sat down to write her application for Stanford’s Documentary Film and Video MFA program. “It felt so right,” she recalled. “I’m not a scriptwriter; I am a documentarian of living voices and stories.”

In recent years, according to Katherine, “the documentary film genre has blossomed, entering what many have considered a golden age with more films made than ever before with higher production value and powerful stories.” She was inspired by the 1976 film “Harlan County, USA,” which, she says, “opened up the possibilities of what a film could be” for her. The documentary chronicled a strike, called the Brookside strike, initiated by 180 coal miners against the Duke Power Company-owned Eastover Coal Company’s Brookside Mine and Prep Plant in southeast Kentucky in 1973. “When I saw ‘Harlan County, USA,’ I saw a group of people acting collectively and bravely for justice. I witnessed, understood, and felt deeply for their struggle,” she said. Not only did the documentary change people’s minds, but it did so by creating an empathetic experience for viewers. “[In documentaries], we see real people who we wouldn’t have access to in real life, who think a different way, and who have a different life experience, and yet, we identify with them and feel for them, and leave the theater having felt something, and it changes us,” Katherine said. “That’s my very idealistic moment about what we do. It’s what I love about nonfiction storytelling.”

While on a trip to Costa Rica, Katherine worked on a photography project on her family.

While on a trip to Costa Rica, Katherine worked on a photography project on her family.

The Joy of collaboration
At Stanford, Katherine paired up with classmate Emily Fraser to make a short film funded by a grant they received from the Revs Program, whose mission is to “forge new scholarship and student experiences around the past, present and future of the automobile.” As environmentalists, both were disinclined to “exalt the automobile culture,” according to Katherine. When Emily stumbled upon Lady Parts Automotive (3033 Middlefield Road, Redwood City, CA 94063, 650.369.5239), however, they both saw the potential. “A piece exploring the space and the themes of the space and what drives someone to have an automotive shop that’s built around women – it just really fascinated me, us, so we went for it,” Katherine explained. She and Emily “clicked really, really well” during the filming, but little did they realize that they would develop a strong bond with Lady Parts Automotive founder and owner Mae De La Calzada, and an affinity for her family, staff, and customers. This connection and appreciation lovingly shines through in their short film, “Lady Parts,” which was one of eight films chosen for the 2014-2015 Lunafest film festival, “short films by, for, about women.”

“Collaboration in film is so important and essential,” Katherine said. “That’s one of the many things that drives my work.” Her commitment to co-creation allows her to work with many filmmakers of many different styles and visions. With partnerships, she noted, filmmakers need to come together to present a film that combines both visions and styles. While filmmaking is rewarding and fulfilling, it’s also a lot of work. “A huge part of the collaboration for me for filmmaking is having that one person you can rely on to work really hard, too, and knowing you have each other’s back in the most challenging moments of the process,” she confided.

Behind the scenes, Katherine and Emily film "Lady Parts."

Behind the scenes, Katherine and Emily film “Lady Parts.”

Leading the way for environmental storytelling
Katherine’s passion for the environment and desire to continue making films over the summer of 2013 led her to apply for the Southern Exposure Film Fellowship, sponsored by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). She, along with Emily and four other emerging filmmakers, spent six weeks based in Birmingham developing short documentaries about environmental issues affecting Alabama. Katherine’s documentary centered on local advocates’ efforts to open up dams that had been erected in the 1920s and then again in the 1960s, and educating people on the impact dams have on rivers and the environment. “I was inspired by Alabama’s incredible biodiversity and beautiful landscape,” she said. “I became fascinated by the possibilities of environmental storytelling.”

The fellowship program was only in its second year when Katherine and Emily were fellows. When the position of program director became available, Katherine immediately applied for the job, with the vision of growing this promising program. Now she returns to Birmingham every summer, where she is reunited with Alabama’s Southern Appalachian forest, rivers, cypress swamps, and sandy beaches. “Alabama is a special and beautiful place – I did not know this before I experienced it,” she said. “And some of it is still pristine and needs to be protected.”

Shooting the final scene of her Stanford thesis film, "Ostara."

Shooting the final scene of her Stanford thesis film, “Ostara.”

Katherine noted that the program is a great “training ground” for anyone wanting to make films about the environment. Not only are some of the issues polarizing, especially in the region, filmmakers are also challenged with invoking interest and empathy for nonhuman subjects – endangered animals and rivers or forests being destroyed. She envisions the program as serving as an “incubator,” where people can collaboratively develop solutions to these challenges and make impactful films. The involvement of SELC, which seeks to protect the environment in the South through the legal system, is also critical in expanding the program’s mission for even greater reach. “It’s not just me making a film on my own and hoping people will see it and it changes their mind,” Katherine explained. “There are concrete ways that our films are going to help someone who’s doing good and essential work like the Southern Environmental Law Center.” For example, advocacy tables are strategically set up outside the theaters, so when viewers exit the screenings they can learn more about the issues and can take action by signing petitions, volunteering, or donating to the causes while the impact of the film is still fresh on their minds. Having this network and infrastructure already in place is, as Katherine calls it, “a filmmaker’s dream, a way to have a direct impact on social and environmental justice.”

As program director, Katherine wants to grow collaboration and community building among filmmakers, who flock from different areas of the country and filmmaking programs and bring their unique vision and voice. “There’s a skill share that’s going on naturally,” she said. “Bonds are built over the summer.” Katherine envisions the fellows returning home with a new set of skills and connections. “What I hope the program will eventually become –and is becoming – and what I want to build it into is this network of fellow alums who can rely on each other and connect with each other to do environmental work through visual storytelling skills,” she said.

Katherine and Emily developed a strong bond with Mae while filming "Lady Parts."

Katherine and Emily developed a strong bond with Mae while filming “Lady Parts.” They chatted with attendees after the San Francisco premiere of Lunafest in September 2014.

Building community, creating a better world through filmmaking
While one of Katherine’s near-term goals is to make a feature film, she also enjoys working on other people’s projects. “I believe in community-building in every aspect,” she affirmed. Her hope is that her work comprises both producing films and bringing people together – audience, subjects, and filmmakers. For her own films, she strives for a more collaborative relationship between filmmaker and subject. In order to achieve that, Katherine pointed out, “It’s so important to think deeply about what stories you want to tell. That takes a lot of looking inward to find what you’re passionate about, what you’re really driven to say, and what you’re driven to show.”

Making films is enormously challenging and difficult, but one’s passion is the way to one’s liberation. “At the end of the day, in those darkest moments, you have to know that you’re doing something that you truly, truly believe in,” she said. When the going gets tough, Katherine advises, dig deep and remind yourself that “you’re on the right path and that you’re doing something that has always felt important.”

Filmmakers and their subjects huddle for a group picture at the San Francisco premiere of Lunafest.

Filmmakers and their subjects huddle for a group picture at the San Francisco premiere of Lunafest.

She is currently in preproduction with her film partner, Lauren DeFilippo, also a Stanford alum, on a film about the new space race to Mars. “We want to show people who are creating right now this future vision of being able to colonize Mars,” she explained. The various subjects run the gamut from scientists conducting Mars simulations to spaceship builders to researchers trying to determine if, for example, plants can be grown and women can reproduce on Mars. The subtext is how these activities are being fueled by the rapidly deteriorating state of our global environment. “That’s turned up the urgency to become an interplanetary species,” she pointed out. Katherine and Lauren are in the process of writing the proposal and reaching out to potential subjects to identify collaborators and participants. She hopes to start shooting this spring or summer, with filming continuing for a least a year.

Katherine feels like she’s just getting started as a documentary filmmaker, but she knows what she wants to do – make films that invite people to think and feel deeply. “Let’s talk about these things and see that they’re not black and white – and then envision a better world,” she said of her aspiration. “For my films, I’m interested in people who have a vision for a better world, a way the world could be different. I want to, as much as I can, tell those stories.” Katherine is quick to interject, “It’s not necessarily what’s wrong, but it’s about what direction we should be heading in: What are we looking at that’s right to take a step toward it?” It’s an ambitious aspiration and directive, and an urgent question that must be posed and addressed. But where there is hope, Katherine will surely be there, with her camera capturing it all – these steps in the right direction.

Emily, Mae, and Katherine at the San Francisco premiere of the 2014-2015 season of Lunafest last September.

Emily, Mae, and Katherine at the San Francisco premiere of the 2014-2015 season of Lunafest last September.

Meet the filmmakers at Lunafest
Katherine and Emily will be honored guests at the VIP event hosted by the Lunafest East Bay Committee on March 21st at 6:00pm, 638 Clayton Avenue, El Cerrito. Following the reception, the Lunafest film festival will be shown at 7:30pm at the El Cerrito High School Performing Arts Center, at 540 Ashbury Avenue, one block up from the VIP event. I will be conducting a short on-stage interview with Katherine and Emily before the screening, and both filmmakers will be available to meet after the screening. Come visit with them at either event. You can purchase tickets (for the VIP event/film festival or just the film festival) here or contact me directly.