Indie Filmmaker of the Day: Molly Stuart and ‘Objector’
Molly Stuart is an up-and-coming filmmaker with a message to send. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Molly was a 2018 Women Peace and Security Fellow. She did all this while earning an MFA in cinema at San Francisco State University. That’s not all. Molly has won the Bill Nichols Excellence in Cinema Award, the Canon Best in Show Award, the Spotlight on Women in Film Award, and the Barbara Hammer Award.
Molly has also won several film festival awards, including Best Documentary Short, Best Short, and Best Young Storyteller Award. Previously, Molly has worked on other projects including Guy Hircefield, a Guy with a Camera and A Wake.
“The young people in Objector are courageous yet ordinary—they ask us to consider how the machinery of power in society operates and what would happen if we pulled our own lever, however small, in the direction of dignity for everyone. My hope is that their acts of civil disobedience can be a stimulus for all of us, no matter what injustice we are facing, to act boldly on our collective visions of liberation.”
We wanted to talk with the woman herself. Introducing Molly Stuart!
Tell us about your history as a filmmaker. How did you start your journey?
I came to filmmaking through community organizing. While I was a student and volunteer for various grassroots organizations, I noticed a constant need for better representation of the process of social change. Mainstream documentation of social movements is too often trite, inaccurate, or just really boring. And the characters portrayed are typically either flat heroes or egotists.
It’s hard to find media that does justice to the messy, joyful, heartbreaking, and nuanced experience of trying to shake up a political reality. But the great work that is out there has been absolutely crucial to lifting activists’ spirits in the face of some pretty brutal challenges and showing people that we actually have a culture worth joining. So basically I just wanted to contribute to that!
What indie filmmakers should be on our radar?
Annemarie Jacir is an incredible Palestinian filmmaker – Wajib (2017) is a beautiful film that anyone interested in my film should also see. Talal Derki is an incredibly courageous doc filmmaker and I’m still mad that Of Fathers and Sons didn’t win the Oscar.
If Boots Riley isn’t already on your radar then I don’t know what to tell you! Also Hassan Fazili, Tamara Kotevska, Ljubo Stefanov, Waad al-Kateab, Rachel Lears, Kelly Gallagher, Ramona Diaz, Julia Basha . . .
Cat or dog?
How was working on Objector? What did you learn from the experience?
Accompanying Atalya on her journey to understand the historic conflict into which she was born, I was struck by her ability to constantly question her own beliefs and those of others, yet also to identify injustice and act on her convictions. I learned a lot from her about defying the status quo, not as someone out to prove herself, but as someone who listens closely to all perspectives before determining a path forward.
The principled humility Atalya had while breaking the law and finding her political voice made me question the cost of my own compliance with unjust laws. And yeah, I also learned a lot about filmmaking!
Tell us about your career before you found film.
I had no career, really. I worked three side hustles and got involved in grassroots campaigns with Migrant Justice and Rising Tide Vermont. As I made more and more short videos about these campaigns, I decided I wanted to hone my skills in visual storytelling. So I moved back to the Bay Area to study filmmaking at SF State University.
Where did the concept come from for Objector?
When I first met Atalya Ben-Abba she was just beginning high school and dreaming of becoming a playwright. Her creativity was striking—almost as striking as her wit and fighting spirit, which she frequently unleashed in arguments with her older brother, Amitai (my dear friend).
When Atalya told me she thought she’d be an excellent combat soldier, I trusted her. A few years later, Amitai called to tell me that Atalya was considering putting that spirit to very different use—she was talking about becoming a conscientious objector.
When I started working on Objector, I barely considered myself a filmmaker—in fact, I knew close to nothing about how to make a documentary. But I did know that Atalya was about to make an incredibly significant decision, and that her story could change the way people understand militarization and the power of young women to confront it.
What was the one movie you saw that made you want to go into film?
When I saw Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County USA I couldn’t stop crying until I picked up a camera. Or something like that.
What music inspires you to create?
The Coup, Fleetwood Mac, Anna Calvi, Cardi B, Dolly Parton, The Magnetic Fields, Valerie June, and Billy Brag are some consistent inspirations. Producer Amitai Ben-Abba and I listened to a lot of Habiluim and Mashrou’ Leila while working on Objector.
Talk us through your creative process.
I start by really getting to know the people whose story I’m helping to tell, and letting them get to know me. Then I do a lot of background research on the context of the story, which continues throughout the process. I try to determine a stylistic approach early on so that I have some limitations that can help cohere my creative choices. Stories can get very unwieldy if there’s not a clear stylistic approach in place.
Then I shoot, edit, and repeat several times until I have a rough cut good enough to share in feedback screenings with a variety of audiences. Feedback from people who have a stake in the film is key! At the end of the edit, I watch the film over and over again until I can barely keep my eyes open and then release it and pray that it will touch people with fresher eyes.
Talk us through your process on Objector.
For this film I chose to take an observational approach with a narrow focus on Atalya and her family. I did this in order to emphasize the human aspect of the story rather than rehearsing archival footage of explosions and other violence that we see so often in the news.
Every film about this conflict has a point of view, even if it attempts to show various opinions. So I wanted to be transparent about the film’s respect for Atalya, her political questioning, and her eventual resoluteness. But I also wanted to do justice to the variety of perspectives which naturally emerged from within her dynamic family and those she connected with on her search for truth.
Amitai collaborated closely with me in developing the film’s treatment, and Atalya gave insightful creative feedback. The people in this film allowed me to spend significant time with them and film their intimate moments. As a result, I believe the personal aspect of this film will be refreshing to audiences who are wary of media that intends to paint a holistic picture or to claim a false neutrality.
What tips do you have for new filmmakers?
Be as collaborative as possible. For documentary filmmakers, prioritize building a strong relationship with the people in your film and include them in the process to the full extent that they are interested and able.
What part of filmmaking do you geek out about the most?
Definitely editing. I will spend all day digging into scenes, thinking about story structure, trying to build smooth transitions, and then look at the clock and realize it’s 3am and I’m still editing.
You’re very hands-on with your projects. How hard is it wearing all the hats?
Ideally I’d work with a larger crew but I had a microscopic budget on Objector. In the first year, I had $3000 that I raised from crowdfunding and a borrowed DSLR camera. I was a grad student, teaching to pay my bills and pouring all the rest of my time into this project. I had very little experience, so I didn’t think it would possible to raise money to hire professionals to help out.
After I released a short version of the film in festivals, I was encouraged by the enthusiastic reception and applied for a grant from SFFILM and the Compton Foundation. That got the ball rolling for the feature version of the film, and I was able to hire some incredible collaborators.
Amitai Ben-Abba, Daniel Chein and Andrés Gallegos are all brilliant creatives. I hope that in future projects I will be able to spread the hats around even further to people as wonderful as them.
What’s your favorite film of all time, and what did you learn from it?
Right now I gotta say Sorry to Bother You by Boots Riley. The aesthetics, the humor, the politics—a fearless cocktail of movie magic! I learned so much about how to make revolutionary cinema that’s actually entertaining. Absurdity is key.
What’s your next project? When can we expect it to drop?
Can’t talk about this yet, unfortunately!
Have you worked with mentors in the past? How would you recommend people go about finding them?
Yes, though I’m always looking for more! I’ve had several mentors at the SFFILM FilmHouse and San Francisco State University. And while working on Objector, I believe Co-Writer/Producer Amitai Ben-Abba and I mentored each other as best we could without much experience in the documentary world.
I would recommend that new filmmakers offer to help out on more experienced filmmakers’ work in order to learn their creative process. But be careful not to give away your labor for free for too long, especially if you’re a young woman!
What has been your biggest failure?
I think there were several failures in the process of making this film . . . certainly many failed grant applications! And there’s many things I would have done differently if I knew more at the start of this process. Not every film can show every aspect of a context as multi-faceted as this one, but there are definitely more aspects of the story that I wish I could have included.
Where do you go to find filmmaking work?
Usually it comes to me through the communities I am connected with.
What’s your filmmaking mission? Name the most important thing you want viewers to experience when watching your movies.
I hope to uplift the work of people who are courageous yet ordinary—people you might see every week at the grocery store, but who bring food to picket lines and stand in the way of new pipeline construction. Organizers are some of the hardest working and least appreciated people out there, so I want my films to show how much we all need them.
For example, the young people in Objector ask us to consider how the machinery of power in society operates and what would happen if we pulled our own lever, however small, in the direction of dignity for everyone. My hope is that their acts of civil disobedience can be a stimulus for all of us, no matter what injustice we are facing, to get out and surprise ourselves with what we can collectively do about it.
What has been your biggest success?
My friendships—and the creative work that has been inspired by them.
Can we expect to see any episodic television from you anytime soon?
I doubt it!
What’s your five-year plan?
In the next five years I’m going to keep making movies about under-the-radar people giving us all something to believe in. And honestly, if I hope to have another 5-year plan ever again, I’ll need to help elect Bernie Sanders because he’s the only candidate who has a realistic plan to combat the impending climate catastrophe.
Who are your current influences?
Julia Basha, Jehane Noujaim, Talal Derki, Boots Riley, Annemarie Jacir, Hassan Fazili, Tamara Kotevska, Ljubo Stefanov, Waad al-Kateab, Rachel Lears, Ramona Diaz, Kelly Gallagher, Laura Poitras, Barbara Kopple.
What five TV shows do you think everyone should watch that dropped this year?
When They See Us
Independent Lens & POV
Are You the One, the Queer Season