When Your Film is About Your Neighbors

By Danielle P Orange
Posted on January 17, 2019

Going home can be challenging in many circumstances, but returning home to capture a nearby community in turmoil can add a whole new layer of complexity.  Rita Baghdadi and Jeremiah Hammerling, directors of ITVS Open Call funded My Country No More, described those challenges and share some insight into capturing the rural community of Trenton, North Carolina. 

ITVS: How did you discover the story and the community?

Jeremiah: I was born in western North Dakota just a few miles from where My Country No More takes place. Having moved out of the area at a fairly young age, I had always wanted to return to make a film about my hometown. In 2010 we got a call from Kalie Rider, a Trenton local and family friend who was worried about how rapidly the oil boom was industrializing the land in their small farming town. One of Kalie’s main concerns was a proposal to build a diesel refinery on top of their community church. With this image in mind, we were on a plane to North Dakota the next week to start filming.

What was the process for gaining access to and the trust of those within the community?

Jeremiah: My father was Pastor of the church in Trenton during the farm crisis and previous oil boom of the early 1980s, so my family had been deeply involved in the community during a turbulent time. When we returned at the height of the recent oil boom, there was already an intimate sense of trust that existed between the generations of our families. And because of the lack of housing in the area, we were invited to stay in the homes of several of the families in our film. Their hospitality is really what made the film possible. 

Why do you think it’s important that this story is told on public media?

Rita and Jeremiah: ...Because it offers a window into a part of America that is often overlooked. One way to foster meaningful dialogue about difficult issues is by having access to stories that both reflect our experiences and introduce us to the experience of others. With growing rifts in both the physical and ideological landscape of our country right now, public media offers a bridge between viewers and their neighbors. 

What were some of the challenges of shooting in a rural community?

Wide open space is part of what makes the Great Plains so beautiful, you can see for miles in every direction. Capturing this sense of space on camera, however, was a real challenge. For instance, neighbors who live “next door” to one another might be separated by a mile or more, so trying to convey proximity in such a vast sprawling landscape was a bit of a paradox. One way we solved this was with aerial cinematography. Another challenge was dealing with the weather. In the winter the temperatures can drop to -65o with the wind chill, and we had to drive from Fargo to Williston and back each time which is about a 7-hour drive. We definitely had some near-misses on icy roads. The first winter I remember when we filmed Ruben in the WalMart parking lot we only lasted about 45 minutes until our hands got so numb we had to go inside and warm up. Meanwhile, Ruben was living in his car!  

What have you been able to accomplish with ITVS as a funder and a partner?

After spending 6 years making My Country No More, financing production ourselves and each stage of the edit through small grants, to have ITVS come on board was truly the boost that got us across the finish line. With ITVS as a funder and a partner, we were able to finish the film the way we wanted to, and ultimately secure our broadcast through Independent Lens which was a huge honor.

The feedback filmmakers receive from ITVS can play a pivotal role in the storytelling process. Tell us about some of the feedback you have received from ITVS and your supervising producer.

The feedback we received through ITVS and our supervising producer Shana Swanson was incredibly helpful. After spending so much time alone in the field and editing, it was revitalizing to hear affirmations about the things that were working and receive constructive criticism about the things that could use more clarification. ITVS’s feedback encouraged us to ask important questions about our choices as filmmakers and ultimately helped us make a better film. ITVS staff and the community of other ITVS supported filmmakers who became our friends after going through open call orientation continue to be an invaluable network of support as we release this film, and go on to make new films.  

If you gave filmmakers one piece of advice based on your experiences producing My Country No More, what would it be?

Our advice to other filmmakers is to know the story you are trying to tell as best you can before you begin production. The more you understand about your story and your characters in development the more you will save yourself time and money in production and post. On the other hand, don’t be afraid to embrace the happy accidents. Someone once told us: “If you end up with the same film you set out to make, you weren’t listening.” Listen to your instinct. 

My Country No More premiered on Independent Lens on Monday, January 7, 2019. It was funded by ITVS Open Call production funding. 

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