Tribeca 2021 Women Directors: Meet Heather O’Neill – “No Ordinary Life”

Heather O’Neill is an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker. She produced “Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi,” which screened at the Hot Docs International Film Festival and other festivals around the world. O’Neill directed and produced over twenty documentaries with the “CNN Presents” series. She also directed and produced CNN’s “Planet in Peril” series and produced Christiane Amanpour’s award-winning film “Generation Islam.”

“No Ordinary Life” is screening at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, which is taking place June 9-20.

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

HO: In a field dominated by men, five pioneering camerawomen went to the frontlines of wars, disasters, and revolutions to find the truth. As colorful as they were accomplished, these women made their mark by capturing some of the most iconic images, from Tiananmen Square to the Arab Spring uprising — but the world doesn’t know it was women behind the camera.

In the midst of unfolding chaos, the pictures they took both shocked and informed the world. The narrative of the film is driven by the events these women covered, woven with their own personal stories behind the camera, as each woman is transformed by her experiences.

But the stories they shared with the world don’t reveal what they had to overcome: sexism, skepticism, physical and emotional strain, and the trauma of what they witnessed and went through.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

HO: I knew four of the camerawomen featured in our film and for years I’ve wanted to tell their story. I wanted to make a film that allowed the audience to be immersed in the experience of being behind the camera — the sound, the signs, the reading of faces, the split-second decisions, and their sense of what was about to unfold.

These women believed in themselves and transcended the boundaries of gender. They were unstoppable.

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

HO: I want viewers to think that there is great value in telling women’s stories. A film about five strong, accomplished camerawomen has the potential to transform existing beliefs about the power of women. There has also been a lot discounting and derision of journalism recently, and this film sends a powerful message about the importance of journalists.

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

HO: It was challenging at times to get our characters to fully open up and talk about themselves. I think it was a combination of humility and a hesitance to talk about how they processed the trauma that they witnessed or experienced. Over the course of filming, I wondered if I was instead telling a story about a group of men, if they would have been reluctant in that way?

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

HO: I have been making documentaries for years, but this was my first feature doc as a director. We self-funded for the first year, as I knew we had to come up with a proof of concept for the film. Over the next two years, I applied for every grant whose mission aligned with our story and got a long series of nos.

By some stroke of alchemy, I was awarded a grant from the Helen Gurley Brown Foundation. It’s not something you can apply for, so I am very grateful that they discovered our story and decided to support a female director.

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

HO: I have always loved documentaries. I knew the minute I picked up a Hi8 camera in college that I wanted to tell stories visually.

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

HO: The best advice I ever got was from a female director when I was a young producer: “Don’t let anyone make you feel like you don’t belong here.”

The worst advice was from a male producer: “Perhaps you should speak up less.” I can’t say here what I told him.

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

HO: Make your film. Don’t wait for permission. Focus, put the work in, and you will find a way forward.

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

HO: That’s a tough question! I loved Sophia Nahli Allison’s film “A Love Song for Latasha.” It is a beautiful and heartbreaking story that is presented in such an imaginative way. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Another favorite documentary is “Speed Sisters,” directed by Amber Fares. It’s a film about the first all-woman race car driving team in the Middle East. The characters are so engaging, and you follow them along their journey as they compete in a male-dominated field.

Kim Longinotto is a brilliant director, and her characters are incredibly vivid storytellers on their own. “Dreamcatcher” is one of the best films I’ve ever seen.

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

HO: Luckily, most of the film was shot before the pandemic. We spent the time in lockdown editing, and I was able to collaborate seamlessly with my editor using

W&H: 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?

HO: I am hopeful that the doc world is beginning to change. We are all seeing new partnerships and production companies whose mission is to support female and filmmakers of color.

But one harsh reality of the doc world is the lack of women and people of color as sales agents and distributors. These are the key decision makers. A more inclusive business side would be a positive step forward.

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