My new female documentary director crush is Elaine McMillion Sheldon. She's an academy award nominated documentary director based in West Virginia. Her work largely focuses on the Heroin(e) epidemic affecting our country. Her first film to make it to Netflix got my attention long before it was nominated for an academy award. It's a stunning piece of work and is still on Netflix. I highly recommend you add it to your list.
As a documentary filmmaker myself, I know how hard it is to craft relationships and stories within a complex backdrop. The topics Elaine explores are presented with compassion for its subjects. Something I feel very strongly about in my own work. I think it is easy to present a shocking story about drug addicts. It's easy for an audience to gawk voyeuristically, say "how horrible," and move on. I think we larlgey have our news outlets and reality television to thank for that. Elaine's work does the opposite. She dives in deep with her subjects and presents them to her audiences with a tender curiosity.
I just finished her new film Recovery Boys and am equally inspired by the work. It's emotional, heartbreaking and compassionate. Her complicated subjects are treated with respect by her lens and it pays off in her ability to dive in with people and get them to reveal their true selves on camera.
I won't reveal much about the "boys," here. I'd rather you see the film. Social issue documentaries have the power to heal, create change, inspire and influence our society in ways that our media outlets can not. It's why I love it so much. I have spent a large part of my career helping non-profits fundraise through documentary films with my peeps over at fig media. I take great care to let my subjects be the voice as much as possible. That is not easy. Personal bias, the desires or my clients and the audiences who donate money to such causes make navigating the stories I tell difficult. So when I see work that I can relate to in this way, I get excited.
Elaine brings the human element of her stories into spaces that we only hear about in negative contexts in our news. She takes your hand and guides you through these spaces with her camera. She strays from being an essayist and lets her message evolve through the people she follows. This gives her subjects the chance to be the voice versus her directing being out front.
A quick look at her website, made me giggle. She and I use the same website template, we both shoot photography. I didn't realize that one of my favorite Frontline episodes is hers and damn it - she's six years younger than me. So, Elaine, I am officially a big fan. If you are ever in Chicago, let's have lunch. I promise not to gush too much.
I got some work to do to catch up.
*Opens a new tab and 'Googles' Documentary grants.*