When you add a college minor in a discipline as creative as Film and Media Studies, you're bound to run into filmmakers amongst critics and nascent media scholars. One such student, whom I met in my junior spring semester class on television and new media, is Sarah Moses, a Haverford College student my age who, through the cross-enrollment agreement among Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and Swarthmore Colleges, majored in the Swarthmore College Film and Media Studies department. While she proved to be an engaging classmate, it wasn't until our senior spring, in the Film Studies Capstone course on Transmedia Adaptations, that I saw for myself just how talented a filmmaker Sarah Moses is.
Her project for this course was an interpretive music video for the SWMRS song "Figuring it Out," which managed to be both heartwarming and hilarious as well as visually dazzling. In her main filmmaking practice, however, Moses focuses on creating both documentary and narrative works, combining her interests in social activism with a knack for composition and editing. I caught up with Sarah Moses this past summer and decided to pick her brain about her work as a filmmaker.
How did you get started on your journey as a filmmaker?
I arrived at Haverford College as a freshman set on majoring in Political Science. After a couple semesters of dabbling in the department I started to realize that the way academia approaches politics and how I wanted to, didn’t mesh as well as I had anticipated. So I started looking around for other avenues that would blend my political interests with my academic studies. Around the same time I took an introductory film class, and since I grew up in a household of film buffs I enjoyed it immensely. That summer I realized I could major in Film and Media Studies at Swarthmore (thanks to the tri-college consortium among Haverford, Swarthmore, and Bryn Mawr), and started to look into the different course options. I saw there was an introductory production class and jumped on it. At the same time, someone recommended I take a production class with documentary filmmaker Vicky Funari at Haverford, and I (perhaps foolishly) enrolled in two production classes in the same semester. Over half of my workload became film related, and by the end of the year I started to consider pursuing film after graduation.
The summer after my sophomore year I was incredibly fortunate to be one of the four recipients of the inaugural Interdisciplinary Documentary Media Fellowship at Haverford. Through the IDMF I worked on the film WAKE (2014) which examines the presence of the oil industry in southern Louisiana following the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill of 2010. We worked closely with Vicky Funari as an adviser, and got to travel down to the Gulf Coast twice to conduct interviews and collect footage. It was my first time really intensively working on a production full time, and it was by far one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in my life. By the end of that summer, I had solidified my intention of pursuing a career as a filmmaker.
My next two years at Haverford were spent honing my craft and skills through intensive production experience. Along with my course load I was fortunate to receive a number of fellowships to support production related endeavors. In the summer of 2015 I received the Summer Research Fellowship from the Hurford Center for the Arts and Humanities which allowed me to commence work on my thesis film, Southeast by Southeast, prior to the start of senior year. At the same time, I worked through the second Interdisciplinary Documentary Media Fellowship on the film Capitalish, which follows the growing worker cooperative movement in Philadelphia.
Southeast by Southeast explores the intertwined relationships between language, art, and community among South Philadelphia’s refugee communities and was completed in winter of 2015.
So that was basically my trajectory. I just graduated in May, and the past few months have been a wonderful beginning to my full time career. I spent most of the Summer working for Vicky Funari on her upcoming documentary, and I also received a fellowship from the Hurford center to attend the prestigious Robert Flaherty Film Seminar at Colgate University.
What about both documentary and narrative draws you? How do these forms compare and contrast?
I think it’s easy to assume that documentary and narrative/fiction film are two entirely different genres with strict defining lines, but in both my theoretical studies and production experience I’ve found the opposite to be true. Plenty of films meld the two forms together in ways that subvert our assumptions about objectivity and subjectivity, and that is something I’m really interested in exploring in the future. That being said, my primary production training has been in documentary, and I have found it to be a profoundly powerful tool in extending empathy and understanding to narratives, issues, and lives that appear very distant from our own. I believe strongly that being an informed and productive citizen of the world involves a continued effort in broadening our understanding of the perspectives and experiences of those around us, and documentary can be a very concrete and useful tool in this endeavor.
I think narrative films provide much of the same intellectual and emotional empathy as documentaries. The biggest difference I’ve encountered between the two forms is really in the logistical end of production. I did a lot of documentary work entirely on my own over the past few years. I would run in somewhere with a camera and an onboard shotgun microphone and just document what I saw, maybe conduct an interview or two. I quickly learned that in narrative filmmaking, trying to be the director, cinematographer, script supervisor, and gaffer at once only ends in frustration. I love the freedom involved in documentary filmmaking, but I think the logistical planning that goes into a successful narrative shoot is also incredibly rewarding.
Do you ultimately hope to make Hollywood films, or do you want to stay more independent? Would you want to make films for a wide audience, or specifically for targeted, activist purposes, or both?
Ha, that’s a good question. It’s really hard to say right now. I think a lot of recent liberal arts postgrads would want to stick to a fight-the-system mentality but I also think a lot of productive change in the film industry can be conducted from within. There are unique benefits and drawbacks to both independent and Hollywood filmmaking, and depending on what’s best for the project I would be happy to be involved in either.
Who would be your dream creative and acting team to work with on a project?
This list could just go on and on and on. Tatiana Maslany is definitely up there in terms of actors but I honestly don’t think I can answer this without giving a list of 50+ people.
How do you view the relationship between your commitment to social justice and to making your art? What got you interested in creating this connection, and what inspired your interest in social justice work in general?
Filmmaker Natalia Almada visited my documentary class once, and in response to a similar question said “all seeing is political.” That really stuck with me, and I have been approaching my work with the same perspective since. No matter how much you try to separate yourself or your work from your sociopolitical environment, the implications of representation are inescapable. I don’t think artists have an obligation to make “political” art with specific mobilizing intentions, but I do think it is important to recognize one's position in the world when making movies, while also recognizing that there are sociopolitical implications that extend beyond intention.
I have had a deep interest in politics and social issues for as long as I can remember, and so for me personally, film is a medium through which to explore complicated issues surrounding identity, representation, legislation, civil rights, economic policy, institutional racism, sexism, etc. But I think what is most important is recognizing that even a fun, silly, comedy has the ability to subvert or affirm societal beliefs and expectations about the world.
Which filmmakers have inspired your work? Which teachers and mentors?
Oh wow; just so many. I think every film I watch helps inform a new way of thinking and approaching the form in one way or another. I have always been a huge fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese, and Wes Anderson, but my influences since have become wide and varied.
Of course, I wouldn’t be where I am today without the mentorship of Vicky Funari, and she has played a huge role in my documentary education. I’m a big fan of the personal documentaries of Alan Berliner, Joaquim Pinto, and Naomi Kawase, and I would love to explore that genre myself in the future.
Can you talk about your Harry Bertoia project? What other projects are in the pipeline?
I am really excited to announce that I am co-directing a feature documentary with my close friend and collaborator, Harlow Figa. The film, tentatively titled Bertoia, seeks to build a record of the work and legacy of artist, sculptor, and modern furniture designer Harry Bertoia. The film enters the world of Bertoia through his son Val, who worked closely with his father on “Sonambient [sic],” a collection of metal rod sculptures that release deep and resonant sounds when manipulated either by hand, wind, or nature’s vibrations. Harry’s sculptures have continued to resonate with viewers and listeners far past his death in 1978. In the last several decades, the collection has remained on Harry’s home property in a secluded barn in Barto, Pennsylvania. This summer, a majority of the pieces were taken out of the barn in preparation for a move to their new home in a currently undisclosed museum. Along with capturing “Sonambient” in its last days as a full collection, the film aims to immerse the viewer in the resonant sounds and visuals of the sculptures, while tracing the international and inventive history of Harry Bertoia. Interviews with Harry’s children and collaborators will frame and contextualize the film, bringing together various aspects of Harry's work and life around the central themes of multi-experiential art, his relationship with nature, and the passage of time and place.
We are currently in the process of organizing a crowdfunding campaign to support the project. To stay up to date with the film and campaign, follow the film’s Facebook page here.
What do you hope your viewers take away from the stories you tell in your films?
I think the beauty of film and human consciousness is that there isn’t really one right answer or way of interpreting ‘truth.’ I like to think that my films leave a lot up to the viewer. I want viewers of my films to bring their own critical thinking to the table. Of course, I have my own set of beliefs and goals with any film I make, but when it comes down to it I am more interested in exploring the nuances of life (whether they be political, philosophical, social, or artistic) than imposing a specific viewpoint that has no room for debate or discussion.