Controversy is part of the nature of art and creativity.
– Yoko Ono, Japanese multimedia artist, singer and peace activist
Documentary filmmaker Meg Smaker likes to tell stories about subjects that people think they know about and disrupt that “knowledge” with an “unsuspecting point of view” – and at the same time, upend the perspective shared by a lot of films that deal with the same topic. “I call it the ‘boat theory,'” she explained. People on a whale-watching expedition congregate on one side of the boat, say the right side, and take lots of different pictures – but of the same whale. “I like to hang out on the left side,” Meg counters. “Maybe I see nothing, but maybe I see an orca shagging a mermaid. The point is, the stories I find most interesting are the ones that have not been told…yet – and to find them you have to hang out on the left side.”
In search of the human element
All of her documentaries share that trait – from Methal Island, “a meditation on meth,” to Somalia & the Piracy Bell Curve, which examines Somalia’s political economy and its impact on piracy off the Somalian coast, to Boxeadora: ‘one woman’s revolution in Cuba,’ about Namibia Flores, Cuba’s first female boxer, and her quest for Olympic glory. The latter documentary was chosen as one of six short films for this year’s LUNAFEST film festival, “by, for, about women.” Whereas many films about Cuba tend to be political and often anti-Castro, Boxeadora delivers what these films lack – “the human element, the texture of the culture, and the people’s spirit.” “The human element is the most compelling thing that changes us and connects us,” Meg said.
That human element is often missing in traditional network news, which is reduced to “sound bites and facts,” according to Meg. When journalists file reports overseas, for example, they’re driven to deliver the news first and as a result are handicapped by time constraints, which prevent them from discovering and sharing the underlying stories. Furthermore, some topics are presented from only one perspective – à la the boat theory. Methamphetamine, for example, has been frequently covered in the national news with a majority of U.S. counties reporting that meth is their most serious drug problem, according to the 2013 World Drug Report by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime. “All of the news about meth was totally focused on the negatives, which dehumanized people,” Meg pointed out. Media accounts ignored what drew people to the drug. In Methal Island, therefore, Meg spent two-thirds of the documentary focusing on the benefits of meth.
On becoming a documentary filmmaker
Meg, who hails from Brentwood, Calif., and grew up in Oakland, left college after two years and spent the next five years as a firefighter and nearly five years afterwards living in Yemen and Quatar before returning home. Those life experiences fueled her desire to become a documentary filmmaker. Before she earned her MFA in Documentary Film at Stanford, she earned a BA with honors in Political, Legal, and Economic Analysis (PLEA) at Mills College, which provided her with a solid foundation for achieving her goal. “Stories are the most powerful thing in the world – more powerful than statistics or facts. A good story can illuminate a truth that simple statistics and facts alone never could,” she asserted. That said, she went on, “Stories are founded in holistic research, getting the context to really understand the deeper truth.”
As a published scholar, Meg has conducted field research in Somalia, The Balkans, and North Africa. The seed for Somalia & the Piracy Bell Curve was an article she had published in an academic journal, which incorporated more than two years’ worth of research on Somalia. Given the small audience drawn by academic journals, she wanted to take her findings and reach a larger audience. To tell the story, Meg employed stop-motion animation, whose inviting yet simplistic style was an ideal medium to help make the subject matter accessible to the masses.
Changing the business paradigm for documentary filmmaking
Having a unique, disruptive point of view has its challenges, but Meg’s confronting those barriers head-on. She founded the nonprofit Doc Farm Films in 2014 after Methel Island garnered Best Documentary awards at numerous film festivals but no grants for which it was eligible. The traditional financing vehicles for documentaries are grants and foundations, which award funding to align with their goal of raising awareness of and creating impact for specific issues. While Meg understands the desire of investors to fund documentaries to support various social justice issues, she asserted, “I don’t want to save the world; I just want to understand it. I want to help people understand the world better.”
Unfortunately, documentaries that don’t fit in any categories because they aren’t issue based aren’t getting funded. Furthermore, because of lack of funding filmmakers are being discouraged from exploring a whole other world, which ultimately shrinks our global view – something Meg feels is a dangerous and precarious state of being. For all those reasons, she insists, “I got into documentary films not to save the world, but to understand it. And for me the best way to understand something is through stories. When I was young my mother used to read to me, but she never read me bedtime issues, it was always bedtime stories. We are prewired to consume story – and through them expand our understanding of the world.”
She hopes that Doc Farm Films can change the paradigm of how documentaries are funded. Boxeadora, which is the nonprofit’s first project, earned several accolades but did not receive any preproduction grants from the more than 30 applications that were sent out, according to Meg. “Through Doc Farm Films, I want to continue to do these kinds of stories and come up with a new business model moving forward,” she explained. In the meantime, Meg envisions Doc Farm Films to serve as a network for filmmakers who aren’t getting funded because their films don’t fit into any of the traditional grant categories and who want to help foster understanding of the world through their stories. Her ultimate dream is that the nonprofit can grow big enough to financially support these filmmakers’ projects.
Meg met Namibia Flores when she traveled to Cuba to train as a boxer. She took up the sport six years ago after coming back from the Middle East, saying, “I always wanted to know how to fight.” She immediately took to it. Meg admitted that she can’t sit still, so boxing has become her form of meditation, a way to stay centered and relaxed. “You have to be in the moment,” she explained, “or else be vulnerable to taking a blow.” Namibia became her training partner and their relationship blossomed into friendship. After returning to the U.S. after several months of training in Cuba, Meg decided to make a film about Namibia’s story.
Boxeadora was the most challenging film for Meg to make for myriad reasons. From a technical standpoint, everything that could possibly go wrong did. For instance, on the third day of shooting, her computer malfunctioned, preventing her from uploading her footage, and other equipment broke along the way. She ran out of 9V batteries and discovered that because of the embargo in Cuba, there were no 9V batteries to be had in the country. The other more delicate issue was that it was Meg’s first film to have a friend be the subject of the documentary. “It was hard to separate the roles of friend and filmmaker,” she explained. “I had to remain in professional mode as storyteller.” That said, Meg admitted that some scenes ended up on the editing floor, a result of wearing her friend hat and being caught up in the emotional part of Namibia’s story.
Meg had applied for grants before she went to Cuba to film. When she returned, she called to find out why she had been rejected for a particular grant. The male grantor carried on about how a woman couldn’t possibly go to Cuba, with its “machismo culture,” and make such a film. “It is not going to happen,” he bluntly told her. When she explained that she’d already returned from filming, “a long awkward pause followed,” Meg related, and laughed. “There’s a strange preconceived notion that women are not suited to do certain subjects – meth, boxing.”
Forging headstrong ahead
In another instance of experiencing gender bias as a woman filmmaker, one Hollywood agent who was interested in Boxeadora asked Meg if her next project would be about kid issues, which is blatantly far removed from her interests, based on her filmography. While a reaction to the audacity of these ill-informed comments, her laughter in recounting these stories reveals a ready dismissiveness of the mentality that perpetuates gender inequality in the industry.
What’s important and what keeps her grounded is “never losing the awe of storytelling,” which can be a challenge given the demands inherent in the film industry, especially the longer one is in the field. “I never lose sight of the magic of storytelling,” she said. Just as important is honoring one’s unique view and incorporating that view and one’s experiences into the film. “What’s out there (in terms of films) doesn’t represent what’s out there (in the world),” Meg said. And those stories need to be told and shared.
Note: You can see Meg’s short film at LUNAFEST East Bay’s screening on Saturday, March 19th, 7:30pm, at the El Cerrito High School’s Performing Arts Theater. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.