LEF Grantee Margo Guernsey on the First Camden/TFI Retreat

Massachusetts-based filmmaker Margo Guernsey’s LEF-funded project COUNCILWOMAN was one of five feature documentaries to participate in the inaugural Camden/TFI Retreat presented by CNN Films. The retreat, which took place from June 21-26 in Camden, Maine, also included the participation of Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill’s LEF-funded film THE REAGAN YEARS and three other works-in-progress from emerging US-based filmmakers.

COUNCILWOMAN follows the first term of Rhode Island politician Carmen Castillo as she balances her new role in public office with her day job as a hotel housekeeper, inspiring questions about democracy and its conditions.  

In the LEF blog this week, Margo shares some of her reflections on the retreat.

It is another day at the computer in my home office, which doubles as my two year old daughter’s bedroom. Left-brain me is arguing with right-brain me about next steps for my film, COUNCILWOMAN. I have been working on this film for four years and it feels like I am running a marathon I did not sign up for. I was expecting more of a sprint. No new funding is coming in with little chances of getting anything any time soon, and there are no obvious ways to reach people who might help. We will need at least $200,000 to finish. It feels like I have stopped at mile 17 to vomit, and I’m not sure I’ll make it to the end.

Then in comes the email. “On behalf of the Camden International Film Festival and Tribeca Film Institute, we would like to invite Councilwoman to participate in our inaugural retreat, presented by CNN Films…” My eyesight goes blurry. I feel dizzy. I am not making that up. It was a little too good to be true.

Many independent filmmakers, particularly early career filmmakers like myself, work on projects that extend for years and years very isolated from anyone. It is the unfortunate reality of unfunded or barely funded projects, and it is not good for creative work. Creative work requires collaboration on many levels. We crave it and the projects need it, but it can be hard to find.

The retreat took place the last week of June, and it was exactly what the film, and I as its Director, needed. Imagine the creative chemistry of ten early career directors and producers, and roughly ten late career filmmakers, in a rural setting focusing only on five films in progress, for an entire week. Mentors share their experiences, challenges, and ideas for tackling difficult situations. Workshop after workshop, and meal after meal, we, the early career filmmakers are engaged in tough open-ended questions: What is the central struggle of the main character? What is the fundamental nature of the film? Are you as close to the truth as you can get? Watch a scene independently and ask: what does this scene accomplish? Needless to say, each of us came out with a more meaningful and deeper approach to the stories we are already telling.

It is heartening that many successful filmmakers and industry professionals are committed to supporting emerging filmmakers. That does not mean it is an easy path. The documentary landscape is saturated with content, making it very hard to break through. If you have your own passion project, don’t worry about when your email may or may not come. It is your job to focus on your work, where it is at the present moment. Passionately film your story, be honest in all that you do, find collaborators who are at a similar career stage, and share your work often. For now, I am back to that game plan, just a little bit closer to the finish line. Thanks to the people at CIFF, TFI and CNN Films for bringing this together.

For more details about the film, check out the COUNCILWOMAN website here

To learn more about the Retreat, head on over to its website here.

Photos by Spencer Worthley / Courtesy of the Camden International Film Festival

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