No weekly round-up this week! At PFR, we’re trying to focus more on our communities and on work being done at the local level. So instead of a round-up, I’m using my trusty interviewing skills to chat with a filmmaker based here in Portland, ME about her work, her process, and navigating the industry as a woman.
Interview: Juliette Sutherland
Documentary filmmaking is often thought of as doing just that — documenting, presenting reality. But Portland-based documentary filmmaker Juliette Sutherland is fascinated by the interplay between documentary and narrative filmmaking.
“Documentary tries to pretend it’s objective, but you have your own biases, and you have your own interests which makes you focus on certain aspects of a story,” she explained.
Her senior thesis while in college — she studied both documentary film and anthropology — centered on this topic. “I was very concerned with how documentary sort of masquerades as objective. It can sort of trivialize its subjects and reduces them to these absolutes that doesn’t let them be these living, breathing, complex characters and stories,” she said.
Sutherland has spent the past 10 years working in film. She now runs her own production company and is the chairwoman of the Maine chapter of Women in Film and Video New England. Her work has taken her all over the world — from Nantucket, Boston, and Austin to Cuba, Hawaii, Switzerland, and India — and she said one struggle she often grapples with is how to not rob people of their agency while filming them.
“When you have a camera, people just assume you have some sort of authority. You’re taking control of someone else’s image. And that is a power. How can we document things and not take the power away?” she asked.
Sutherland believes that being a woman has made her a better, more sensitive cameraperson. “Being socialized as a woman, being sensitive and receptive and emotional and aware of people’s feelings, was enculturated in who I am, and that’s not necessarily the case with men. It gets encouraged in women where it doesn’t in men,” she explained.
She loves the work that she does — “I make my own hours, I get to travel, and I also get to say ‘no’ to people. I don’t have to take on projects that I don’t want to, and I make those decisions” — but working as a freelancer is sometimes difficult because she works alone.
So when she moved to Portland a year ago, she was thrilled to help create a Maine Female Filmmakers Facebook group, which acquired 50 members in one day.
Sutherland explained that the support of a group of women is especially meaningful. “There’s just something about asking a woman and knowing you’re not going to be mansplained or condescended to that just makes it feel so much easier to ask questions. There’s so much more permission and acceptance,” she said.
Some of her work entails creating promotional videos, corporate projects or working with local nonprofits. However, she said that her favorite projects are “doing things with creators, artists, entrepreneurs. It’s nice to just have that ability to do collaborations. And doing my own stuff just rejuvenates me.” Right now, she is working on films about her dad, a ship model builder; conservation efforts on Nantucket, where her family has a house; and a dance-film collaboration with her dance group in South Portland.
Her work, she said, is “a way for me to experience the world and process it and also articulate it. This is what I’m going through. This is my impressions. You’re sharing that with others who can relate and see the world in a different way.”
Sutherland believes that filmmaking should be more experimental, uncomfortable, and exploratory and tries to encourage that spirit in her work.
“I want viewers to be active participants. Film is so didactic. They’re hitting you over the head with ‘Here’s the bad guy! He’s super super bad!‘ There’s no complexity or gray areas.“
“No one has all the answers,” she continued. “No one knows what the fuck they’re doing. We should all stop pretending because then we can have interesting conversations.”
Check out Juliette’s website and the work she does here.