TV & Movies

What it’s Really Like to be a Documentary Filmmaker

In our 9–5 series, we ask boss babes what their work lives entails. This week, documentary filmmaker Nimisha Mukerji—whose latest film, Tempest Storm, explores the life and loves of burlesque’s greatest living star—gives us a glimpse into her daily grind

Documentary filmmaker Nimisha Mukerji

Documentary filmmaker Nimisha Mukerji (Photograph: Eric Saiide)

Age: 32

Education: Bachelor of arts in film production and English literature from the University of British Columbia

Length of time at current gig: 9 years

How did you get into documentary filmmaking? One of my professors at UBC, John Zaritsky, had won an Oscar for one of his documentaries, Just Another Missing Kid. I had always loved documentaries, but he was the one who really encouraged me to pursue it. He alerted me to the idea that documentary can be the soundest, and most powerful form of telling a specific story—and I’m glad that I listened to his advice.

Do you consider yourself a journalist or a filmmaker? A filmmaker, but I do think it’s important to adopt certain approaches that journalists take, like fact-checking. But, in journalism, you’re neutral and only reporting the facts. In documentary filmmaking, the primary objective for me is to tell the story, which can mean changing the chronology or the context. I’m always trying to go for the emotional truth of the film.

What intrigued you about Tempest Storm’s story? I’m drawn to people first, and especially stories that feature women’s voices. I found Tempest through my producing partner on the film, Kaitlyn Regehr. She was doing research in burlesque and Tempest, 87, is really the most iconic, surviving professional burlesque dancer. Kaitlyn told me about Tempest and that she was kind of the last of her era, but also warned me that Tempest was quite private, didn’t usually give access, and hadn’t done a documentary before—and these were all things that made me really interested in doing it.

You directed, and produced Tempest Storm. What does that entail? You’re working for yourself so you are responsible for the entire project. As a producer, I have to ensure that the financing is there the whole way through, even if that means putting my own money into the project. As a director, I have to multitask. In addition to always thinking about the story and the subjects, I’m constantly thinking about the logistics as well as the legalities of what we’re doing. I’m a director first, and I produce out of necessity.

Documentary filmmaker Nimisha Mukerji

From left: Tempest Storm producer Kaitlyn Regehr, burlesque dancer Tempest Storm, Mukerji and cinematographer Lindsay George (Photograph: Matilda Temperley)

What is your work schedule like? What I like about my job is that things change day to day. If I’m not editing something or working on something in post, I’m in development, writing proposals or scripts, or I’m shooting. I could be inside with the curtains drawn editing something for an entire summer or out shooting on location for weeks. My husband and I haven’t gone on a vacation in seven years, but we’re hoping to.

What is the key to creating a compelling doc? To me the most important thing is access. That involves mutual trust—gaining the trust of the subject, but also for me, trusting that the subject is going to let me film all the way until the story is complete. In Tempest Storm, it was really about access to her private life, being able to film with her family and follow her to all these places across America. Unlike narrative film where you have an actor and they’re hired to be there, in documentary if you lose the trust of your subject, you might not be able to complete your film.

How do you create that trust with a subject you’ve just met? When you start a film, it’s a leap of faith. It’s like a relationship; like you’re starting to date someone and you’re really hoping that you get married at the end of it. It starts with having your heart in the right place and believing that my subjects have something to say. They might not be saying it right away, but if we work together, we’ll get there.

Once you find a subject, what’s the next step? The way that the industry works now for documentary filmmakers is investors want to see a video clip or demo that represents what your project is about. So I start filming with the subject first and that’s when I begin to figure out what the story could be. Starting filming is a big decision because you’re basically getting this person on board that you’re going to tell their story and I don’t take that lightly. So far I’ve never started a project that I haven’t finished.

How do you build the story from there and know what to film? The misconception with documentary is that there’s no writing involved—but there’s a distinction between documentary and reality TV. I’m not writing these things with the intention of forcing these things to happen and then going and shooting them. I’m trying to be a fortuneteller and predict what are the different ways that this story could go for this person. You have to think of all the arcs this story could take and be prepared for them, or choose which ones you think could be the most important.

With Tempest, early on in the project, she told me that she had an interracial marriage in the 1950s, with African American jazz singer Herb Jeffries. She was basically on the road to being a big film star and because of that marriage, she lost her MGM contract and it all fell apart. Even though she was in love with Herb, they got divorced and it didn’t sound like it was amiable. I knew that this relationship was important to her so I started asking questions: When was the last time you saw him? Have you ever wanted to reconnect and find some forgiveness from him? Originally, she said no, but over the course of filming, it came up that Herb was not doing well and she began to think about it. So I asked the questions again the answers started to change. Suddenly, during a visit to L.A., she said, “I’m going to go see him.” He was 100 years old and we filmed her meeting him weeks before he died.

What happens when you don’t manage to get a key moment on film? It’s all about preparing so that if something falls apart, you have other narrative storylines that could work out. There’s nothing I’ve missed that I’ve been destroyed about.

How long did it take to make Tempest Storm? About two and a half years.

Documentary filmmaker Nimisha Mukerji

Tempest Storm and Mukeriji while filming in the cotton fields of Eastman, Georgia (Photograph: Jessica Earnshaw)

When you’re so entrenched in someone’s life, how do you stay objective? Distance is important because if you become too emotionally invested, you can’t think clearly and in documentary especially, you don’t want to ever affect what is happening. At the same time, I’m a person so I’m always empathetic, especially when people are hurting. The way that I deal with that is by saying that I’m going to make sure that this film conveys, as honestly as possible, what this person is going through so this isn’t for nothing.

What is it like watching the final product with the people in the film? That is the most terrifying moment for me as a filmmaker. The story has changed, and they’re not aware necessarily how it’s been edited together. The most important thing for me is that my subjects are happy and that they can stand by the film.

What is it like to be a woman working in this industry? Right now there is a movement with organizations like Film Fatales and Women In Film to push for gender parity in an industry where women have been pushed to the sidelines in the past. Canadians want to see themselves reflected on screens, and that means embracing a diverse range of voices. My goal is to increase the representation of women both behind and in front of the lens—not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because ultimately it leads to better stories.

What are some of your favourite docs? Citizenfour, which won the Oscar for best documentary in 2015. I love that film and the access. Director Laura Poitras captured a moment in history before Edward Snowden became the Edward Snowden that we know; this private side of him and as he is trying to make this big decision. Hoop Dreams also had a huge influence on me because it was about following a story over a number of years. At first, it seemed like the journey of two young boys following a dream of becoming basketball stars, but you see this whole movie unfold and it becomes representative of so much more—it becomes a universal story.

What attributes does someone need to work in this industry? You need to be curious, and you need to be strong. You hear “no” a lot along the way, and you have to be able to believe in yourself and the work over and over again.

How do you stay motivated? Making documentaries has shown me that films do have the power to create real change. When 65_RedRoses—my documentary that followed a cystic fibrosis patient waiting for a lung transplant—was released, the film actually helped triple organ donation rates in British Columbia. For a person on the wait list, that means something, it can be the difference between life and death.

How do you unwind at the end of the day? I usually have a glass of wine and either read the paper, which I love because I find a lot of stories in it and I can get away from screens for a bit, or watch Scandal. I’m trying not to watch it too much because it’s really hard to stop.

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