[Q&A] Filmmaker Sarah Moshman: Never Be Afraid to Fail

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Sarah Moshman is the producer and director of  “The Empowerment Project: Ordinary Women Doing Extraordinary Things.” The 99-minute documentary is from production company Heartfelt Productions,  co-founded by her and fellow producer Dana Michelle Cook. It includes interviews with 17 women about their careers and their lives. Moshman, Cook and three other women (Alana Fickes, Ashley Hammen and Vanessa Crocini) spent one month in the fall of 2013 driving all across the U.S. filming. Moshman and Cook have made two other documentary short films: “Girls Rock! Chicago” and the Emmy Award Winning film “Growing Up Strong: Girls on the Run. In addition to her documentary film work, Moshman has worked as a field producer for “Dancing With the Stars” and other television programs. Moshman received a B.S. degree in Video/Film and Psychology in 2008 from the University of Miami. To view the trailer for “The Empowerment Project” and learn how to book a screening, visit the IndieFlix site.

In the trailer for your movie, there’s a moment when you say, “We live in a man’s world. Just for a month I’d like to live in a woman’s world.” Am I hearing both frustration and determination in your voice? And did those emotions help drive this project?

Absolutely. Working in Los Angeles in the television industry you see first-hand a lack of female role models shown in the media. I feel the entertainment industry is failing us as women. You turn on the TV, turn on the radio or open a magazine and women are being objectified or pitted against each other, or ignored altogether. I feel that even if we don’t live in a man’s world–although statistics show that we do–we’re not being fairly represented in entertainment. And entertainment clearly influences us all.

How are we supposed to be leaders if everywhere we look, women are not respected? So yes, I’ve felt frustration, but often the best things come from frustration or a feeling that something is lacking. You want to help fill that void and that’s exactly what happened in November 2012. I looked in the mirror and thought that if I wasn’t afraid to fail I would make this documentary because it is what is missing. I wanted to make a documentary that I want to watch, that makes me feel uplifted and inspired as a woman.

You ask that question, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid to fail?” in the trailer. Are you talking to yourself there or to all of us?

Me and everyone. It’s not specific to women. For me that question was my guiding quote. When I started this project I read Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” and that was a question she asked herself, to motivate herself to write. I remember reading that and thinking that this documentary is my “Lean In,” my personal journey.

This film combined everything I’m passionate about and all the skills I have and want to have, tied up in one package. It challenged us and it changed us as a crew. I was motivated by fear, frustration, excitement, all of those things. But that question is for anybody. A lot of us are motivated by fear–we don’t pursue our goals because of the fear of failure.

What we learned along the way of this amazing cross-country journey is that failure is just part of your path. It’s a lesson, a chance to pivot, go a different direction and be stronger for it. That mantra really helped me get the project off the ground. Now I’m not as afraid of failing at all. I can take the lesson of achieving this huge goal and apply it to other parts of my life.

You only seem to be afraid of standing still, judging by all that you’ve accomplished already. Do you consider yourself driven?

Well, I think my greatest fear is not living up to my full potential. I am motivated by that. I was just about to get married when this project came about and my life was changing so I guess there was a sort of early-life crisis. I thought, “What mark am I going to leave on the world?” I have a blast working in television but often we work 12-18 hours a day, and for what? I wanted to work that hard for myself and see what that felt like.

It was a huge leap of faith for Dana and me financially, personally and professionally to just go after something that was this beast of a project. Had we known how big of a project it truly would be and how many obstacles there would be, we might not have taken the first step. But not knowing what’s ahead of you is at times the best part, so you gather your determination and passion and decide that somehow you’ll get through it.

You knew the entertainment business well enough to have expected some challenges. But what were some of the unexpected obstacles you encountered?

Dana Michelle Cook is my business partner. She lives in Chicago. We’d made two short documentaries together so we knew that we knew how to do it on a smaller scale. But we’d never made a feature-length film. You can make a documentary in your free time. But to make a feature we had to drop everything and focus every ounce of our energy on this project. But to me that wasn’t an obstacle. I knew that something bigger was headed our way and that it was for a greater purpose. Every phase of the project has been a mountain to climb.

We set a 60-day goal [in spring 2013] to raise $25,000 through Kickstarter and we ended up with $28,590 total, which was empowering. But that whole time was difficult. There’s such uncertainty in not knowing what we getting ourselves into, not recognizing how hard it is to raise that much money in such a short time, and not just from friends and family but from people you’ve never met. You have to sweep them up in your passion and convince them to open their wallets and give you $10 or $20 until it adds up to your goal.

Every aspect of the project was sitting on our shoulders. There was no one to tell us how to do it or when.

Was there positive energy in having total control over the project?

Yes absolutely. It was a little scary not having anyone who had to give a stamp of approval. But I knew that in the end if it didn’t happen I’d only be disappointing myself.

This was something that was important to me, so I knew I’d be devastated if it didn’t happen. The fear of disappointing myself was greater than the fear of disappointing a network exec would have been.

Even when we completed the Kickstarter campaign and knew we had backers who were counting on us, we felt, “Now we have to do it. Go make a movie.” There was no time to celebrate. We had to figure out where we should go, who we’d interview, and where we would stay

How did you select the 17 women you interview in the film?

I put a big map up on a wall in my apartment in Los Angeles. I knew we wanted to stop in Chicago because that’s where I grew up and where Dana lives. And we wanted New York to be our final destination and we would fly back from there. So we had to fill in this amazing puzzle of where to go.

We determined a path and the cities we wanted to stop in and some of the women we might want to interview. Our original intention was to interview 10 women and we scheduled 14 but ended up interviewing 17. There were some additions as we were traveling. We didn’t want to say no to anyone. And we didn’t want to sit on our hands if we had an extra day in a city.

We wanted someone in politics, and the military, an athlete, a dancer, a biologist and so on. It was fun to reach out to friends for ideas through Facebook and to Kickstarter backers. It felt like we had access to the whole world of amazing women.

Sometimes friends or backers introduced us to someone, but we also did cold calling on people we wanted to speak with. I came across Teri Fahrendorf who founded the Pink Boots Society, a non-profit that encourages women to be brewmasters like she is. She lives in Portland, Ore. I emailed her, she invited us up there and we interviewed her.

The great thing is that these amazing women are everywhere. These aren’t celebrities. They’re your mom, your aunts, your cousin or your friends. So in that sense it wasn’t difficult to find amazing women. Yes, the statistics show how few women there are in some careers but they’re there. It was fun to shine a light on women who are both ordinary and extraordinary in what they’ve done with their lives.

What is the film’s status now?

We have distribution through a company called IndieFlix. They’re like the Netflix of independent films. There are so many independent films that win awards at festivals but then no one sees them. They are passionate about filmmakers having a more active role in their distribution. IndieFlix also has something called the Distribution Lab. They have three docs in that lab and we’re one of them. These films focus on social impact and starting a conversation through documentaries.

The model we’re working under is called a theatrical on-demand release. That means the film is not available online or on dvd. Anyone who will have us can book a screening of The Empowerment Project in their area: middle schools, high schools, colleges, churches, community centers, by going to: http://indieflix.com/empowermentproject

Our goal is to start conversations across the country. The film is part of an experience and there’s a conversation to be had afterwards. We want to help facilitate that conversation and spread this message of empowerment. It’s an interesting model because we’re not just filmmakers; we’re activists as well. We can continue the national discussion about sexism and leadership and stay-at-home moms and more: the entire spectrum of empowerment. It’s exciting to think about all the people who may see the film and then talk about it afterward. We want to be there for those conversations.

Can it be arranged for you and Dana to attend screenings and lead discussions afterward?

Yes. Dana and I have designed a presentation that accompanies the film regarding all of these topics and we are so excited to empower the next generation of strong men and women.

When you were shooting the film, did traveling constantly as a group of five women ever wear thin?

I knew the five of us would be changed. Each of us was on that trip for a different reason. We all needed that trip. We all needed that minivan. It wouldn’t have been the same if we’d all have gone home every night. We were stuck together in that van and staying together. It was powerful and transformative and we all came out the other end changed.

And you came out still friends?

Still friends. It’s tough to be around anyone for three months non-stop let alone four others. But we felt the experience was about something greater than us, bigger than “I wish I could alone right now.”

How early did you have a camera in your hand?

My parents bought me a camera when I was 16. My first documentary was called “Family Isn’t Just Blood.” I grew up in a typical nuclear, mom-and-dad, older brother family. I had friends who were adopted or were the result of artificial insemination or who had two moms. For a high-school English class we had to do a project and I decided to make that documentary.

Quite early you began working with young people, especially girls, teaching filmmaking, didn’t you?

Yes. I was involved with a company in Chicago called Dreaming Tree films. That’s how I met Dana. We traveled across the country to show teenagers how to make short films. We’d show up in a city with a script. We’d cast with the film, shoot it with them and edit with them. We wanted them to find their creative voices.

The Stayfree Girls in the Director’s Chair program was an offshoot of the Dreaming Tree program, but just for girls. We made two short narrative films in two weeks. When it’s just young girls in a room, when girls are beginning to feel they can raise their hand and find their voice and confidence, there’s something powerful there. That experience absolutely influenced my determination to make “The Empowerment Project.”

On our journey we mentored an aspiring female filmmaker in very city we shot in. We did a call for essays on a site called GirlTalkHQ.com. We asked girls to write in and tell us why they wanted to be on our crew. We had girls as young as 15 and as old as 29. We just wanted to be the agent for change. We taught them how to use the camera and how to use the lights. We answered their questions. They didn’t just get coffee; they were important parts of the set and that was an amazing aspect of our experience on the road.

What’s next for you?

We just finished the film so I need some time to process all that has gone on. It has been every moment of every day for the last year and a half. I’m so proud of all that we’ve done.

But it’s not over. The empowerment for me has been to become the filmmaker I am. I can look myself in the eyes and say, “You are a documentary filmmaker. You did it.” And now it’s time to empower others. We screened in Chicago and LA and the response was overwhelming. [You can see some of the responses the film received here.]

At one of our first screenings a 16-year-old girl raised her hand and said, “I want to say thank you for making this movie. I’m about to take my SAT tests and I often wonder what it’s all for. Now I understand.” That just knocked the wind out of me. I look forward to many more moments like that.

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