Nadia Hallgren: On mentors, movies and Michelle Obama

Nadia Hallgren: On mentors, movies and Michelle Obama

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Last month I had the opportunity to go to the Sundance Film Festival. Très cool. The festival takes place in Park City, Utah, surrounded by beautiful snow-covered mountains. Over the four days that I was there with the crew from The Women’s Film Festival, we got to see some great films, attend workshops, jam in the music café and try our hand at virtual reality. It was also a chance to get up close and personal with actors and accomplished filmmakers like this week’s profile, Nadia Hallgren.

Hallgren is a cinematographer who has managed to carve out a storied career in a field dominated by men. Her credits include “Fahrenheit 9/11,” the most successful documentary of all time; Academy Award-nominated and Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner “Trouble the Water;” “Trapped;” “War Don Don” and CNN’s “Girl Rising.”

She was at Sundance as a panelist on the Women in Cinematography panel at the Canon Creative Studio, and to receive the Commanding Vision Award for the film “Motherland.”


PGN: Many years ago I heard Bishop Desmond Tutu speak and he told a story about something that helped give him hope when living under the apartheid regime. It was a magazine that he found on the street, Jet or Ebony, and what struck him were the ads featuring black people in all sorts of professions: a black dentist in an ad for toothpaste, a black doctor in an ad for headache medicine. It turned his world around because under apartheid he’d never seen black professionals such as these before and it made him realize that there was more out there. I understand that you had a similar periodical epiphany.

NH: Yes, I grew up in the South Bronx, which at the time was one of the poorest Congressional districts in the U.S., so simple things like traveling or frankly even leaving the house was dangerous. My mother was terrified that something would happen, so one of the few places we were allowed to go was the library. We would spend the whole day there. I discovered National Geographic magazine and fell in love with the beautiful photos from around the world; they were a way of transcending a place that felt like a prison most of the time. I got absorbed with the idea of faraway places and people and always thought about the fact that there was a person there to take all these beautiful pictures. I dreamt that maybe someday I could be one of those people. So the magazine and the sense of adventure that came with it was a big influence. Not only the pictures and the articles, but there were ads for outdoor gear and adventure traveling, which at $3,000 I never imagined I would ever be able to do or have access to. But as a kid you dream.


PGN: How did you get into the field?

NH: The International Center of Photography (ICP) is one of the most prestigious photo schools in the world. They have several community programs and one of them happened to be in the South Bronx. My mom saw an ad for the free photography classes and she encouraged me to go. When I got there the light bulb went on and I connected it to those faraway dreams and started learning how to shoot on these little analog Pentax cameras that we had back then. That’s how they still teach the kids now. It was the first time I’d ever touched a camera in a way that was thoughtful and the instructor taught me not just how to use a camera but what it meant to document and photograph moments. Especially in a community like ours that suffered from a lot of social-injustice issues and extreme poverty, but that also had incredible beauty and wonderful people, it gave us the opportunity to see our own communities in a different way. I went from waking every day thinking, This is a shit hole, how do I get out? to, Yes, it’s a shit hole but there’s beauty here too. And why is it a shit hole? Why is it underfunded and dumped on? It was the key to wanting to work in social justice, documenting the stories around me. Later I went to Hunter College where I had a professor who was a queer woman and also a cinematographer and that’s when I was inspired to move to documentary filmmaking. It helped me understand where I was from and politically why things were the way they were.


PGN: There was a story about how Nixon would have his administration survey an urban area to see what size Dumpsters would be needed and then order it two sizes too small so that no matter what people did, it would look unsightly and depress people in the area.

NH: It worked. I can tell you that. That’s why it’s so important to understand why things are often the way they are.


PGN: I believe you fear what you don’t know and docs help you get into someone else’s life for a minute. Tell me why you love docs.

NH: As you know being a writer, storytelling is one of the most beautiful ways to educate people, bridge communities and make friends. Especially with all the new digital platforms, a story about someone here in New York can be seen by someone in Japan and vice versa. There’s so much divisiveness right now, with a good documentary you almost feel like you know the person, which is a key to understanding. And for people who don’t have the money to travel, this is one way to learn about people who are different from you or perhaps learn that we’re not so different after all. Docs can also educate you about important issues like where our food comes from, natural or environmental disasters; there was a film at Sundance called “Plastic China” about how the plastic I throw out here can end up halfway around the world in China, to where a little girl is living, sorting through our garbage. The idea of connecting people and worlds is so exciting to me. Now more than ever I feel documentaries are an important tool.


PGN: Was this your first time at Sundance?

NH: It was my fifth time. I’ve been pretty lucky. The rest of my story is that after I discovered documentaries, I started making short films. I showed one at a community-arts program in my neighborhood and Tia Lessin, Michael Moore’s longtime producer, happened to be in the audience. After the screening, she came up and said nice things about my film, which was kind because I now know my film was terrible, but she gave me her number and offered me a job as a production assistant on “Fahrenheit 9/11.” I was thrown into a world with the most incredible documentary filmmakers. They taught me and nurtured me and became a family to me. I’ve worked on all their films from that time on and now this was my fifth time at Sundance and my third time receiving an award. It’s been a life that I never would have expected.


PGN: And how was your Sundance experience this year?

NH: I was really impressed by the presence of people of color, it was huge. A lot of women this year too, it felt really good. Unfortunately there wasn’t as much visibility for the queer community. We have The Blackhouse Foundation space for people of color, but the Queer Lounge is no more.


PGN: Fortunately there seem to have been a lot of good queer films this year. “Beach Rats” was surprisingly moving. I also found it interesting that a lot of the films that weren’t necessarily billed or thought of as LGBT had queer characters who just happened to be part of the story. The short film “Dawn of the Deaf” had two women protagonists who were a couple but it was just incidental.

NH: Yes, I saw “Strong Island” from Yance Ford and it was awesome and there was a film from Philly, “Quest,” which was also really good.


PGN: I saw that too. I live just blocks from where it was shot! But back to you: With so few women in your field, how did you find the swagger to do what you do?

NH: I don’t know about swagger but I created the community I wanted. I attached myself to strong women. Dawn Porter is an amazing black woman who has directed a number of wonderful and successful films. I watched her first film and said, “That’s who I want to work with.” I saw her at a film festival and got someone to introduce me and just said, “Hey, you’re making the type of films I love, I’m a DP [director of photography] and I would like to work with you someday …” and she interrupted me, “All right, what are you doing next weekend?” I stammered, “Nothing.” “OK, give me your number and I’ll have my producer call you.” The next week I shot her film “Trapped” about abortion rights in the South and it ended up influencing Supreme Court decisions and we won an award at Sundance.


PGN: Wow. What advice would you give young queer filmmakers, especially women, in what can be a very misogynistic environment?

NH: You need to create your own community. Don’t let the business dictate who you work with or what opportunities you get. Find your people. I look for people who are good people who do good work whose politics align with mine, along with the way we treat people and each other. You can get into some intense situations and we try to deal with them in a loving manner, not all this bro-ish … whatever. Kirsten Johnson is the most famous woman DP and I chose her. I asked her to mentor me because I knew that I wanted to be like her. You can apply for an internship somewhere but the people may not be what you need.


PGN: I think there’s misconception that women are catty and competitive with each other and don’t get along.

NH: It’s definitely a myth. In my experience, it’s not the case. I even forgot that that was a thing until you mentioned it. I have been able to be successful because many, many incredible women have carved out opportunities for me. Often when they didn’t exist; women who have pleaded with male directors to hire me made my case. I absolutely wouldn’t have existed today as a DP if it weren’t for other women helping me. Men have been there too, but not on that level, not with the nurturing and lifetime caring I’ve received from women. And we’ve forged incredible friendships that have lasted to this day.


PGN: Nice, so let’s go back a bit. Tell me about coming out.

NH: I came out at 15. My mother was very religious so we really butted heads during my teen years. Her response to my coming out was to beat me. So I found family in the gay club scene and what better family could you want in New York? I have a great relationship with my mom now, but it was rough for a while. But I still consider my friends from that time as my family. We spent more time together and they’re the ones who shaped who I am.


PGN: Do you go back and mentor others now?

NH: Yes, I do workshops at the ICP and I mentor kids through the Tribeca Film Institute. I’m also on the board of the Bronx Documentary Center, which is an amazing organization that provides access to photography to one of the most underserved areas in the country. And most importantly, I try to find young women of color who are really talented but get looked over and recommend them for work, like Kirsten and others did for me. I also find that a little encouragement goes a long way.


PGN: You’re a very passionate person. What do you have to do to keep removed from the situation when things get tense? I think of nature shows when the bunny we’ve been following gets suddenly torn up by the fox.

NH: [Laughs] I would totally break down if I saw a rabbit being hurt! You have to not be desensitized but still learn how to handle the moments. You have to remember that you’re there for a reason. To focus, I remind myself that whatever’s happening in front of me that’s making me emotional or causing a strong reaction is exactly how I need to deliver the moment to an audience. It’s interesting: In documentaries a director does all the work to get us to a certain place, but when it’s happening they’re not directing in that moment. It’s up to me to capture it in the most effective way I can. I’ve been working on a film about the Bard Prison Initiative where they go into prisons and educate inmates. Recently a young man who we’d been following for two years was released. He’d done 12 years in prison and we filmed him cleaning out his cell, getting ready to go, changing from his prison to civilian clothing, seeing his sister at the gate and going home where they were throwing him a big party. Then his father showed up and the kid hadn’t seen him for so long he was overcome and almost fainted. And I was thinking, This is what prison does to people, and if I can get everyone who sees this film to feel what I’m feeling right now, I hope it will change minds and open eyes as to how prison can destroy families. The man was falling apart and though we had permission to film, he probably didn’t want a camera on his face just then. But my one job in that moment was to figure out how to transmit all that stuff onto a picture so that when that picture is in a cinema or on someone’s TV or laptop, they feel the same thing that I did, which is that the prison system is fucked up and we need to change it. That’s what drives me to stay focused and concentrate on the mission. I can process emotions afterwards.  


PGN: So can you get tickets to “Hamilton”?

NH: Ha. I had an opportunity to go but I was in Liberia with Michelle Obama. That’s probably the only thing that would make me miss it!


PGN: Wait just a minute!

NH: Yeah, I got to work on a CNN thing called “Girl Rising.” Michelle Obama went with her daughter and mother to raise awareness for girls’ education. [Laughs] I got to film it and hang out with her, that’s all.


PGN: What’s in store for the future?

NH: I’m going to be directing a film in March about the first trans civil-rights case going before the Supreme Court. I’m working with Gavin Grimm, the boy at the center of the case. I hope to do more mentoring once my schedule is not as crazy as it is now.


PGN: And in conclusion … What else should I know?

NH: I’ve just been very lucky. I worked hard to be where I am but I had a lot of help. I look back and see my life represented in terms of some of the films I’ve shot. I got to swim in a pool with Richard Branson and Desmond Tutu on Branson’s private island for PBS’ “Iconoclast.” I filmed president Obama for “Hamilton in America.” I worked on “Troubled Water,” which was nominated for an Oscar and we were in the lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans two days after Katrina. I was at a war tribunal in Sierra Leone for weeks hearing the testimonies of women affected and followed the war-crime investigators for weeks. I recorded the stories of women in the South having to travel 500 miles and camp in a parking lot for days just to get a safe abortion. I was with a young man experiencing his first step of freedom in 12 years and when Chelsea comes out of prison in May, I’m going to be there. My whole life has been … pretty extraordinary.

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