is a Canadian filmmaker, writer, and educator. Her first feature-length film, “Living Downstream
,” won several awards, has been screened publicly over 200 times, and was broadcast on six continents. Previously, while living in sub-Saharan Africa, Chevannes created educational films on gender-based violence, which have been used by grassroots organizations to contribute to tangible social change.
“Unfractured” will premiere at the 2017 Doc NYC film festival on November 11.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.Cc
: “Unfractured” is a triumphant documentary about resistance. It follows
an introspective biologist and mother named Sandra Steingraber
as she reinvents herself as an outspoken activist to wage an environmental battle with the oil and gas industry in New York State. Sandra and her allies are fighting for a statewide ban on fracking, which is an all-consuming fight.
But at the same time, Sandra is working to raise her two children and trying to care for her husband who has suffered a series of strokes. The film has an incredibly happy ending, but it’s a deep look at both the value and the cost of activism.
W&H: What drew you to this story?Cc
: I have known Sandra Steingraber
and followed her work for over 15 years. My first feature documentary was an adaptation of Sandra’s book, “Living Downstream
.” In that film, Sandra is my central character and I follow her scientific investigation of the links between cancer and the environment. She grew up in rural Illinois, was diagnosed with bladder cancer on her 20th birthday, and found out later that her drinking water had been contaminated with a known bladder carcinogen.
In that film, she is a calm, collected scientist — which is who she also was in real life. But after the film was finished, Sandra started to become really involved in the anti-fracking movement in her adopted state of New York. I was impressed by the diversity of activism happening in the state, and also impressed by the way Sandra was forcing herself to take on a role that seemed so contrary to her shy personality. I had always wanted to make a film that followed an unfolding story, and when I saw what was happening in New York, I couldn’t really imagine a more perfect unfolding story to follow.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?Cc
: I want them to think about just how ordinary Sandra is. And I want them to walk away knowing that when you fight with your whole heart, you can win. Sandra was one person in a movement of thousands. She put her life on hold for years — as did many of the grassroots activists in New York. And together, fighting with their whole hearts, they achieved what most people thought was impossible.
Environmental films rarely have a happy ending. This film’s ending is unbelievably happy. But it’s also instructive. They fought and they won. We are at a crossroads now: environmentally, socially, economically. We have a fight coming to us on all fronts, and we really have to throw ourselves into that fight. But when ordinary people fight with our whole hearts, we can win.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?Cc
: The biggest challenge is always funding. The second challenge was sustaining the energy to keep traveling to New York to cover the story. I made 30 separate trips over a year and a half. My crew and I shot 200 hours of footage. When I ran out of money, I started shooting the film myself. There were some days when I would drive down one night, shoot the next day, and drive home. Then I’d teach my college class in Toronto and then drive back down to shoot again. My trips were so frequent near the end that the border guards at the Peace Bridge knew me.
As the mother of two young kids, this kind of a production schedule was incredibly hard to pull off. Now that it’s all over, I’m struck by the way my personal struggles in making the film paralleled Sandra’s personal struggles in the film.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.Cc
: I was very lucky to have the support of the Ceres Trust, the Canada Council for the Arts, and The People’s Picture Company. These three entities believed in me and my work and liked the idea of telling the story of the fight against fracking in New York.
Because the film was an observational documentary, I wasn’t always sure what it was going to be, or what the final film would look like. And because it was the first time I was following an unfolding story as a filmmaker, I felt like I was wading into uncertain territory and I wasn’t quite sure how confident I should feel about the direction the film would take. And as such, I felt uncertain about how to describe the film to funders. I didn’t want to promise something vastly different from what I ended up delivering.
So, I didn’t approach the fundraising with the same confidence and gusto that I had for previous projects. And there was, in fact, a lot of meandering during the production process. I was deeply inspired by a range of activists and so spent quite a bit of time filming with some of them. And I was curious about the perspective of members of the gas industry, so I also spent time filming with them.
But what first drew me to the project was Sandra and her perspective, and what I ended up with at the end of the day was a film about Sandra and her perspective. And when I look back at the documents I originally sent to my funders, those documents are pretty reflective of the film I ended up making. So, this process taught me that I should have more confidence in my abilities to envision the final film, and that I shouldn’t be worried about making promises I can’t deliver on. I can — and do — deliver.
W&H: What does it mean for you to have your film play at Doc NYC?Cc
: It means more than I can fully say. The film had its world premiere in Toronto, which is my hometown. We received a standing ovation, won a prestigious award, and I had dozens of young women telling me how inspiring the film was for them. That screening was personally very meaningful for me — for obvious reasons.
But at Doc NYC, we will be playing to a different kind of a hometown crowd. We’ll be showing them a specific perspective of a fight that they know intimately. We’ll be asking them to remember some of the most challenging and celebratory days of their lives, but to view those days through someone else’s eyes. There’s an energy and an excitement for this screening that I can tangibly feel, even from this side of the border. It’s the perfect place to launch the film in the United States, and I can’t wait to experience the film with a New York audience.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?Cc
: The best advice I’ve received was from my college teacher, who was quoting “Waiting for Godot
.” I had been at the same production company for a couple of years and she nudged me to start looking for a new job. Her advice was: “Don’t get too comfortable.” I didn’t follow that advice initially, but when I did, my life and my work really blossomed. Now, when I start to get too comfortable, I shake things up instinctively. It’s disruptive, but also incredibly productive.
The worst advice I’ve received was from a family member. I was worried about something in my relationship, and the advice this family member gave me was that I should not discuss my worries with my partner. That I should hide the truth of what I was feeling, because the truth would only upset him. I tried to follow that advice, but the truth pushed its way out anyway. Once the truth was out in the open, all my worries evaporated.
The advice I was given was so obviously terrible, but it was still incredibly instructive. Because, when it failed, I saw clearly the power of speaking the truth. Since then, honesty and integrity have become the cornerstone values of my life — both personally and professionally, which is a good thing since I’m a documentary filmmaker!
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?Cc
: My advice for female directors is the same advice I try to give my nine-year-old daughter: be yourself and do what you want to do. Tell the stories you want to tell in the way you want to tell them. It’s good to be kind and it’s natural to be afraid, but don’t let your kindness or your fear stop you from sharing your truth.
Being authentic and outspoken is difficult, and sometimes people will dislike you for these traits. But it’s not your job to make people like you. As a director, it’s your job to be true to yourself and your vision and to use your voice as loudly and firmly as possible. The world — and your audiences — will thank you for it.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.Cc
: There are so many! But my desire to make “Unfractured” was most inspired by “Startup.com
”, directed by Jehane Noujaim
and Chris Hegedus
. When it had its Canadian premiere in 2001, it was the first time I’d seen a cinéma-vérité film. I was captivated by the unfolding story it told and also by the way in which the film spoke to a very specific moment in history. It was electrifying and inspiring.
Noujaim has gone on to do this subsequently with her other films as well. She has a real knack for it. I admire her and all of her films. And I studied them fairly deeply as I was making “Unfractured.”
W&H: There have been significant conversations over the last couple of years about increasing the amount of opportunities for women directors yet the numbers have not increased. Are you optimistic about the possibilities for change? Share any thoughts you might have on this topic.Cc
: The system is firmly stacked against women — and women of color, especially. So, sometimes we find ways to work outside the system. Sometimes we find ways to work within the system. It’s a long fight, but I am optimistic that things will change and that there will eventually be gender parity in the key creative roles in the industry. I’m optimistic about this because I see it happening already in small pockets.
For example, a couple years ago, the National Film Board of Canada (Nfb) announced that they would be striving toward the goal of having 50 percent of their films directed by women. For them, this wasn’t a lofty goal, because as our country’s public producer and distributor, they were already working with a very diverse group of filmmakers. But now we are seeing a continuation of this initiative from the Nfb that aims to increase the number of women in other key crew roles, too. We need to shine a light on these progressive moves to encourage other institutions to make similar changes.
Doc NYC 2017 Women Directors: Meet Chanda Chevannes
— “Unfractured” was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium
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