This month, we sat down with Sarah Frank, a documentary filmmaker, video editor at Newsweek and facilitator for The LAMP (pictured at left with some of her students at Mount Hope Housing Company). We learned more about how she got started, how she chooses a story, her award-winning documentary “In Bed with a Mosquito” and why she loves working with LAMP students.
How did you get started in documentary filmmaking? Before exploring documentary film, I studied journalism and bounced around the country working as a newspaper reporter. I loved it, mostly because I think in my heart, I just want to tell stories. Everywhere, all the time. But I felt slightly limited in my own skills as a writer when it came to expressing these stories. I’ve always been a visual person, and a lover of documentary films, so I decided to take a short break from the news world and I headed to NYC for a graduate program in documentary film at The New School.
What inspired you to make “In Bed with a Mosquito”? The inspiration to make my short film came from the main subject herself, Betty Brassell. She is a true character and such an incredible woman, I couldn’t believe there were not already five films about her. She’s incredibly politically active, even though this came late in life for her. I met her in late 2007 when it seemed like the ’08 presidential election was still light years away – though the campaigning had been ongoing for months already. I think people (myself included) were really not yet excited about the election and had a general sense of apathy. Betty and her fellow activists, however, were in the streets several times each week, protesting the war in Iraq. I was very inspired by their refusal to just sit and wait for things to change.
How do you decide what stories you want to tell in your films? I think character trumps everything. I find the pieces I’m most happy with don’t always have the most beautiful shots or seamless editing, but they have compelling, endearing, characters who can tell their story, sometimes better than I can. So when I find an interesting character, I try to find a way to tell their story. And in reverse, when I know what story needs to be told, I try to find the best subject to tell the story through.
What is the most challenging part for you about making a documentary? When it comes to the edit, it can be difficult (even with a very short piece) to try and remove myself from the experience of recording or filming the story. A lot of times, video makers fall in love with the “making” of the video or film and documentary and as a result, aren’t always able to discern whether there’s a real story there. I try to look at my footage and think to myself, “Why should someone else care about this?,” and go from there.
What have been some of your favorite experiences in working with The LAMP? I absolutely love the students’ excitement about technology. They are so savvy, that they take to videomaking very naturally. And they are not afraid to experiment, something I think grownups unfortunately sorta grow out of. We had a young man in our summer workshop who had never shot or edited video before. By the end of the summer, he had been the cameraman on 2 group projects and the screenwriter and director for a pretend commercial shoot. Oh, I shouldn’t forget to mention that he learned Final Cut Pro in a single morning and edited down about 20 minutes of audio into a radio documentary by the end of the class period! Impressed isn’t even the proper word here.
What are you working on now? While I’d like to eventually work on a feature length documentary, right now I’m trying to document my friends and family as a way to just be creative with people I love, in my spare time.