Tribeca 2021 Women Directors: Meet Maya Cueva and Leah Galant – “On the Divide”

Maya Cueva is a Latina award-winning director and producer with a background in radio and podcast producing. Her short documentary “The Provider” premiered at SXSW and was nominated for an Emmy at the College Television Awards via the Television Academy Foundation. Her short animated documentary “Only the Moon” premiered at Full Frame Documentary Festival in 2019, and won Best Animated film at the Official Latino Film and Arts Festival. Her most recent short documentary, “Ale Libre,” was selected to screen at several Oscar qualifying festivals, including Big Sky Documentary Festival, Hot Docs, Vienna Shorts, Aspen Film Festival, and SFFILM and won Best Documentary short at the San Diego Latino Film Festival in 2021.

Leah Galant is a Jewish filmmaker based in New York whose storytelling focuses on unexpected narratives often through the lens of womxn. While at Ithaca College in 2015 she was named one of Variety’s “110 Students to Watch in Film and Media” for her work on “The Provider” (SXSW 2016, Student Emmy Award) and “Beyond the Wall.” She was a Sundance Ignite and Jacob Burns Fellow where she created “Death Metal Grandma” (SXSW 2018) about a 97-year old Holocaust survivor Inge Ginsberg who sings death metal, which won Best Documentary at the American Pavilion at Cannes Film Festival, and is a NY Times Op Doc.

“On the Divide” 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.

LG: “On the Divide” is a film about three Latinx people who are unexpectedly connected to the last abortion clinic on the Texas/Mexico border. The film follows them throughout the course of four years as they navigate what choice means to them when they aren’t afforded many options and are forced to make unimaginable decisions.

MC: As pressures to their safety increase, they are forced to make decisions they never could’ve imagined and are confronted with what choice really means when you aren’t afforded many options.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

LG: Maya and I met at Ithaca College where we both created the short film “The Provider” about a traveling abortion doctor in Texas. While we were in production on that film, we attended a rally in the Rio Grande Valley for reproductive healthcare and realized there was only one clinic in the entire region. After that event in 2014, we were drawn to the incredible organizers and people we met and were motivated to make a feature length project featuring stories from a region that is often misrepresented and neglected by mainstream news coverage.

MC: After the rally in 2014, we were connected to another traveling abortion doctor, Dr. Bhavik Kumar, who worked at the Whole Woman’s Health clinic in Texas. He introduced us to the clinic workers and organizers in the Rio Grande Valley, and we were drawn to sharing the stories of people who are often misrepresented and neglected in the mainstream news coverage.

As a mixed Latinx filmmaker, this was an incredibly important film for me to make because of my personal connection to the story and topic, and understanding the complexity around choice in the Latinx community. Although I am not from the border region, I felt connected to our participants’ (Rey, Mercedes, and Denisse) stories and felt like they could be family members of mine.

I felt that it was important to share the unlikely faces behind the issue surrounding reproductive healthcare and what it means to have to grapple with their connection to choice when options are limited.

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

LG: I want people to exercise more empathy and to really challenge preconceived notions on choice and abortion. I also want people to embrace complexity in individual decisions and what autonomy really means. Through the incredible stories of our three participants, we want to ignite a dialogue outside echo chambers as we approach one of the biggest threats to Roe v. Wade in over 48 years.

MC: I want people to understand that the issue surrounding abortion is not a black and white issue. Many people fall in the gray area with how they feel on the issue, and we need to start having conversations about abortion beyond the debate of pro-choice vs. pro-life. I think it’s important that we focus on the people that will be directly impacted if access to choice is stripped away — especially as Roe v. Wade could be overturned.

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

LG: The biggest challenge we faced was not being taken seriously as young womxn in the industry and lack of funding due to this. We eventually got the incredible support of our producing team and funding partners, but the first few years of production were met with rejection after rejection. While I do not want to glamorize our persistence despite challenges, I am grateful that Maya and I ended up being able to film with our participants for such a long time.

MC: The biggest challenge in making this film was not having enough resources or funding as young women directors. When we started filming Leah and I had to pay for a lot out-of-pocket and many times we were not taken seriously as first-time female directors. We are so thankful for our producing team that later came on board, but for many years it was just Leah and I making trips to McAllen, TX to film.

It was also difficult at first to create a film about such a polarizing topic, but because of our approach to the film and always asking our characters what they thought was missing from mainstream news reports on the Rio Grande Valley and abortion, we were able to establish a trusting relationship.

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

LG&MC: In the first few years we had virtually no industry support, especially financial support. We launched crowdfunding campaigns to raise enough to go to Texas and begin filming. In those early years, we relied on in-kind support and contributions from close friends and family.

We faced hundreds of rejections from grants, but eventually as we came closer to a rough cut, we started to receive backing from major institutions that were able to help us cross the finish line. We received co-production support from AmDoc/POV and Latino Public Broadcasting to ensure the film was finished and would be seen by a wide audience.

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

LG: In high school I created a short film about my friend Ray who started the school’s first ever Gay Straight Alliance club in a very white heteronormative school in New York. We were brainstorming ways to get the message out about the power of this safe space and decided that film was going to be the best medium. After we shared the finished film in our auditorium, a freshman student came up to us and asked when the next meeting took place. As cliché as it sounds, knowing that at least one person was impacted by this film instantly hooked me into pursuing this path.

MC: Growing up in the ’90s and early 2000s, my Peruvian-Jewish identity didn’t always make sense. Although I grew up in “progressive” Berkeley, California, I still didn’t see myself represented accurately on screen. Filming the world around me on a VHS camera with my sister was a way for us to capture our perspective as mixed Latinas. This fraught cultural upbringing became the catalyst for my filmmaking journey.

At 16, I started producing radio at Youth Radio in Oakland, CA. My first radio piece was about a gang-rape that occurred in a high school in Richmond, CA. The story angered me as the mainstream news media stereotyped Richmond as “a youth street culture that glorifies thugs and applauds degradation of women.” This racist trope provoked me into action. I investigated how these reports largely influenced a negative perception of the city of Richmond — a community that is majority Black and Latinx — and contributed to the criminalization of communities of color. I knew that in order to see less damaging news reports, I would have to become a storyteller myself, but an intentional one.

Ever since that radio commentary was aired, I felt compelled to produce stories that highlighted complex communities, activism, and the exploration of my personal identity. In 2015, I co-directed a short documentary with Leah called “The Provider,” following a traveling abortion doctor to Texas. It wasn’t until I got to Texas that I found that the state was in the midst of a massive clinic closure due to a state law that was forcing clinics to shut down. Starting this project brought out a fearless dedication to telling the story of communities with limited access to reproductive healthcare and was the catalyst for me creating “On the Divide.”

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

LG: The best advice I ever received was making sure you surround yourself with creative partners who share your vision and to “hire across” instead of “up.” If you are working on set for the first time, look for and shadow any person that you enjoy working with and see if they need help on upcoming productions or want to collaborate with you. Typically, good energy attracts good energy, and you can slowly build your team of people that make you feel safe and are able to succeed.

MC: The best advice I received was during a pitch practice where I was told to make sure I am confident when naming how much I need to finish the film I am trying to make. As a young Latina filmmaker, I am often not taken seriously, so it’s important to remain confident in the industry and sure of the story that I am telling and why I want to share it. I also really admire Issa Rae’s idea of “networking across.” I find value in collaborating with my peers in order to help each other move up in the industry.

The worst advice or statement told to me was when my film professor in college told me I was “unfit” for undergrad and basically discouraged me from continuing my studies in documentary film. If I had followed her advice and guidance, I would never have made it as far as I have. It is a reminder to me why I keep going and why I push for my voice to be heard in this industry.

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

LG: From personal experience, don’t let a few bad experiences on set or on a production discourage you from pursuing this path. There are other people who want you to succeed and are not toxic. If you don’t already have a supportive peer group, I recommend joining groups such as Brown Girls Doc Mafia, Film Fatales, and Video Consortium and take advantage of resources provided by organizations, like Women and Hollywood! I encourage people to always find ways to be able to connect with other womxn, non-binary, and queer filmmakers in the industry. There are also great labs and grant programs out there to apply for such as at the Jacob Burns Film Center and Sundance Ignite.

Lastly, do not wait for any validation or permission to begin making your movie.

MC: The advice I have for other women directors is to make sure you find a community in the film space that will help you navigate the industry. We are often not taken seriously as women or able to find a seat at the table, and especially if we are Latinx, Black, or Indigenous we are often not afforded the same resources as white male directors. I found my community via Brown Girls Doc Mafia, which is an initiative advocating for over 4,500 women and non-binary people of color working in the documentary film industry around the world.

I would also suggest for women directors to try and apply to film fellowships that will help them shape their voice and give them resources to make their films.

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

LG: I don’t have one favorite, but I’m heavily influenced by Eliza Hittman, Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing, Ava DuVernay, Lulu Wang, Agnès Varda, and Kelly Reichardt. What I love about these directors and what they have in common is their ability to display such intimate and nuanced stories that feature womxn in roles we rarely see agency in.

MC: I don’t have a favorite woman-directed film, but I have many favorite women creators and directors including Garrett Bradley, Sophia Nahli Allison, Issa Rae, Ava DuVernay, Alma Har’el, and many more directors and producers who are part of Brown Girls Doc Mafia.

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

LG: I am part of a worker’s cooperative called Meerkat Media and have been able to keep busy working with them during the pandemic on film projects.

MC: The pandemic has been very hard to cope with, but I find solace in working on my films. In 2020, I was able to finish a short documentary called “Ale Libre” which follows the story of an undocumented organizer Alejandra Pablos who is fighting for political asylum. That film has been selected in several Oscar qualifying film festivals including SFFILM, Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, Aspen, and Hot Docs.

I am also happy I was able to finish “On the Divide” with Leah and our editor Berenice Chavez after working on the film for seven years. Although this has been a challenging year, I am fortunate to be able to stay creative during this time.

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?

LG: White people in positions of power have to step back and hand over the mic/platform and opportunities to filmmakers of color besides just hiring them. We need to stop categorizing filmmakers of color under coded language such as “emerging” directors since many of these filmmakers have been creating content for a long time.

In the documentary space, we need to not just listen, but also respond to what filmmakers of color are requesting and restructure our industry to make it more equitable. We need to fund more filmmakers of color instead of the same established white male directors over and over. The financial resources should be given to not only established filmmakers of color, but opportunities and programs for young filmmakers of color who are interested in film but may not have the same access to resources or film education.

MC: To make the film industry more inclusive, we need to decolonize the documentary space, which means we need to make sure there are anti-racist and anti-white supremacist practices on set as well as making sure that stories about Black and Brown communities are not told through the eyes of white men.

We need to make space for Black and Brown women and non-binary individuals to be both behind the camera, involved in industry decision making, and afforded resources to make the films they want to make. It is exhausting that most of the film and documentary gatekeepers are white executives — this needs to change.

As documentary filmmakers, we also need to have space in our budgets that can support our characters so that we can create a reciprocal relationship between filmmakers and our subjects.

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