Change, Passion, & Goodwill
Hager City, Wisconsin
Follow Risking Light on: Facebook and Twitter
Nominated by: The secret society, ETF
Dawn, in her own words...
I’m in that rollercoaster phase. Great joy and excitement as I see things come together . . . while simultaneously complete terror. It’s hard to share your baby with the world, especially when you’re asking others to give you parenting suggestions, as one does when they show their film to test audiences. That said, this feedback is crucial. Each new audience makes the film better, as long as I stay true to my vision as a storyteller.
"With Risking Light, I’m not trying to change an issue, I’m looking at how we change ourselves."
2. Risking Light is about forgiving the unforgivable. It shares powerful stories, from a mother whose son was murdered to a Khmer Rouge genocide survivor. What inspired you to come up with this film idea? Why is it important to you to do a film on forgiveness?
I’m always drawn to exploring things I need to deal with in my own life. Let’s just say I have held on to a lot of anger and bitterness over the years that was holding me back. I knew it. This film has forced me to face my own lack of forgiveness and taught me how to heal. I’m not saying that I’ve resolved everything, but I’m on that path.
On a higher level, I’ve always been drawn to things like restorative justice and peacemaking. It seems like every conflict, every atrocity, every victimization comes with the story of a person who was wounded. A person who hadn’t forgiven something in their own life and lashed out at others. If we could all figure out forgiveness on a larger level, what would we be capable of?
3. Emotions must’ve been high while filming each story. The trailer is absolutely riveting, especially how it ends with #CanYouForgive? How difficult was it for the four people documented to share their stories? Do you have a personal story of forgiveness?
Finding these stories was relatively easy. In fact, there are so many other stories that I have found along the way. Risking Light could easily be a series. I think that people who have truly let go of great pain are often eager to share that journey with others. They know what it’s like to be hurt and they also know what it’s like to be healed. When you have something like that in your pocket, it’s hard to keep it to yourself.
My personal forgiveness stories are much less dramatic than the subjects of Risking Light. They were numerous. They were about failed relationships, betrayals, my own failures, etc. What I found interesting was that whenever I ran into a roadblock in the production of Risking Light, I needed to look back at my own life. What was I failing to deal with? What was I holding on to? When I figured that out, the film would miraculously begin launching forward again.
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4. Filming Risking Light brought you to the U.S., Cambodia, and Australia. How did you discover the four brave souls that share their stories? What impact do you think their stories will have on viewers?
Goddess bless social media . . . or maybe I should just say human connection. All three stories came from people I knew. The first story was a local one and I was introduced by a friend. Then I put it out there to Facebook. Who knows of a good story? And a friend of mine said, “I know this guy in Portland, Oregon who has an AMAZING story.” That lead to our story in Cambodia. Then my partner Jim, our 9-month-old daughter (at the time) and I moved to Sydney for a couple months for my partner’s work. I asked my friends on Facebook, “Anyone know anyone in Australia?” The people I met in Sydney helped me find the final story of Risking Light. What this says to me is that we are all connected to amazing people and also that stories of forgiveness are EVERYWHERE if we choose to look for them.
My hope is that it mirrors that of some of our ealy audience members. After screenings I’ve had people say that they couldn’t help but reflect on their own lives. When I first started this film, I put together just a small clip of our first story from the U.S. and a woman who watched it told me her story. Within a few minutes, she moved from a place of pain to self forgiveness. Right in front of me. 5-years-later she continues to point to that day as one that changed her life.
Honestly, forgiveness is one of the few things that you can do that will dramatically change your life, as well as the lives of everyone around you. You are very powerful, even though you may not feel that way.
5. Wow! Your Seed and Spark crowdfunding campaign raised a whopping total of $60,210, with 346 supporters and 990 followers. Out of thirty documentaries on Seed and Spark at the time, Risking Light was #1 in money raised. When you read that back, what comes to mind? Why do you think people were so connected to your project?
I’m not the only one who is looking for some hope. Honestly. Particularly in the last year, as the media and messages we consume is increasingly angry and destructive. The possibility of healing. The possibility that we could live in a different world, one that is nurturing, is profoundly appealing.
The more work I’ve done on forgiveness, the more I see the relationship between unforgiveness and anger. We are all walking around with wounds from others and from ourselves. They make us prickly and hurtful. And it’s exhausting. But seeing these stories of forgiveness is the opposite of that.
"Honestly, forgiveness is one of the few things that you can do that will dramatically change your life, as well as the lives of everyone around you. You are very powerful, even though you may not feel that way."
6. Risking Light has been in production for six years. This is your fifth independent film under your company, Emergence Pictures. How does production for Risking Light compare to your previous films? What are some crazy challenges you’ve faced along the way?
Risking Light reflects my own desire to find ways to tangibly make real change, without asking permission from the government or your community. By that I mean, that my previous films were about introducing a person or people who represented the human face of an issue: LGBT people facing discrimination, indigenous people facing environmental racism, and working-class union members facing globalization. With each of them, I was hoping that the audience would develop empathy for the film’s subjects and maybe rethink their views on certain issues. With Risking Light, I’m not trying to change an issue, I’m looking at how we change ourselves.
Challenges . . . besides getting in my own way . . . making a last-minute switch to send my colleague Miranda in my place to Cambodia was a big one. It definitely taught me about trust. Originally my partner Jim and I were going to film with Kilong and his family, bringing our 3-month-old baby along. Our doctor was supportive and we were getting everything lined up. Then the doctor called and said, “Do NOT bring your baby to Cambodia right now!” The CDC had released a warning that children under the age of 3-years were catching a rare virus and dying. As a new mother who was exclusively breastfeeding, I wasn’t comfortable leaving my brand new baby. So I made the decision to send a trusted colleague in my place. It was hard, but it was also the right decision.
7. You are the Executive Producer, Writer, and Director for Risking Light. Along your side, you have a talented crew, including these four women: Miranda Wilson (Producer), Lu Lippold (Consulting Producer), Emma Paine (Director of Photography: Australia), and Louisa Hext (Associate Producer). In an Industry dominated by men, what nuggets of advice would you share with a fellow woman filmmaker?
First of all, help other women. It’s a steep climb and this industry is built on relationships. Men remain in control because they consciously and subconsciously hire people that they are comfortable with . . . people like them. Men. In the past year, I’ve seen so many more women reaching out to support one another. Creating our own network of powerful women who are reinventing the foundation of this industry. It has been an incredibly powerful time to be a women in filmmaking. I will also say, speaking up more. It sounds obvious, but at least for women in my generation and previous ones, we were raised in a culture that discouraged us from drawing attention to our ideas. The very thing that will help you become a filmmaker that people respect.
Last spring I actually wrote an article about this, as I had a series of ridiculous experiences as a woman in film. That was a turning point for me. Here’s that article: “Giggle Less . . . Stand Up More: #Filmmakingwhilefemale”
"The more work I’ve done on forgiveness, the more I see the relationship between unforgiveness and anger. We are all walking around with wounds from others and from ourselves. They make us prickly and hurtful. And it’s exhausting. But seeing these stories of forgiveness is the opposite of that."
8. You are badass. You launched Emergence Pictures, a production company that focuses on film and television content, on your own in 2006. You are an award-winning filmmaker. How did you have the courage to start the venture alone? What two characteristics about yourself do you believe has attributed to your success?
Thank you. First characteristic: I’m impatient. Honestly. When I first realized that I wanted to do this work, I tried to find production companies who would hire me. I was willing to start at the bottom. But frankly, I was getting no where. And even if I did get that job, it would be a LONG time before I could do the kind of work I really wanted. I started making films with my ex-life-partner in 1999, because we knew we could do it. After working together for 7 years, we went our separate ways. That was scary, as I had always seen myself as part of a team, but ultimately it was an incredible gift.
Second characteristic: I’m like a barnacle. I stick to tasks and commitments. I was afraid to be on my own in 2006, but I also knew that I LOVED this work and that I just needed to keep doing it. One foot in front of the other.
9. Your films shine light on topics from U.S. workers losing their jobs to outsourced jobs in China to tracing the source of “green energy” back to the displacement of the indigenous Cree and Metis in Northern Manitoba to forgiving the unforgiveable. Which documentary do you think has had the most impact on viewers? Which one has changed your personal perspective the most?
You’re going to make me choose between my babies?!?!?! What kind of cruel person are you? ;-) Honestly though, can’t rate them that way. They all continue to have impact. I still meet people who have just seen my first or second film in a class or on television. That’s what’s so cool about this work. It goes on, long after I’ve moved on to other things.
As for impact on me, I’m currently marinating in Risking Light, so that would be the one that has the most immediate impact on me. That said, Green Green Water, the film about the Cree and Metis communities of Northern Manitoba made a profound impact on my life on so many levels. It really made me look at my own privilege as a white middle-class western woman, in a way I hadn’t before. I’d naively felt that since I was queer and female, that I understood what it was to be discriminated against. It was incredibly eye-opening and humbling to work with these communities, as they showed me what real power looked like in the face of incredible discrimination. That film has impacted how I work in the world personally, as well as professionally.
"When I first started this film, I put together just a small clip of our first story from the U.S. and a woman who watched it told me her story. Within a few minutes, she moved from a place of pain to self forgiveness."
10. Your growing career has taken you all over the world, to Venezuela, Australia, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore, to name a few. Like a boss, you still manage to run Emergence Pictures and co-parent your two daughters. How do you and your family make it work when you have to travel?
I’m lucky to have an incredibly equitable partnership with mu partner. So when he has to travel on business, I take on more family duties, and the same applies to him when I travel. In August, I was gone for over two weeks to SE Asia and we would do Skype visits as a family. That was really a lifesaver. Probably more for me than for the girls. That was my first big trip in years, as I was not comfortable leaving the girls for too long until then. But now that my youngest is 2, they can handle me being gone for longer periods.
From the beginning, I knew that I needed to keep doing this work, as a parent. It is a huge part of my identity. I want my girls to see that following your passion is important. That giving back to the world with the things you create and the people you support is what we are called to do as humans. I also want them to know that they are the most important. So balance is always a thing. But I don’t think you get to do life without juggling the balance question in some way.
11. High-five! Fist bump! You’ve made another independent film! While you wait to hear which festival Risking Light will premiere at in 2017. I’m curious, what’s next for you?
Yay! I’m not sure. I’m developing a number of projects and it’s hard to know which one will launch. I’m currently interested in a number of topics from restorative justice to life in rural Midwestern America to a small community of artists in Caracas, Venezuela. Within each of these topics, there are people who inspire or intrigue the heck out of me.
I’m also interested in developing stronger networks between storytellers who are women and persons of color. I also want to continue supporting the storytelling that’s happening here in the Midwest. I think we’re often overlooked as the “flyover zone”, to the point where filmmakers from the coasts will be flown in to tell stories of the unusual beasts they call Midwesterners, ignoring the incredible storytelling already happening here. That needs to change and I’d like to be a part of that.
"I want my girls to see that following your passion is important. That giving back to the world with the things you create and the people you support is what we are called to do as humans."
12. I Admire U, whom do you admire?
So many people . . . Honestly. If we’re talking professionally and about people we know:
I admire the hell out of Laura Zabel, the Executive Director of Springboard for the Arts. That woman took this itty bitty organization serving artists in the Twin Cities to become a national player in helping artists around the country build careers and change their communities. And she’s a snappy dresser. ;-)
I also admire Abbie Betinis (Bartlett). Abbie is a nationally sought-after composer of choral music. Yes, one can in fact make a living composing choral music. And she’s damned good at it. Besides that, she’s also a wonderful human being, who has overcome incredible odds, including being a 3-time cancer survivor. And she’s 36 for God’s sake.