March is Women’s History Month—a great opportunity to put an even brighter spotlight on women from the College. This week, we’re getting to know Maro Chermayeff, chair and founder of SVA's MFA Social Documentary Film department and an Emmy- and Peabody-winning documentary filmmaker. Her most recent directorial effort was the highly celebrated Atlanta's Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children for HBO which she co-directed with SocDoc faculty member Sam Pollard. Her work has garnered scores of honors, awards, significant critical acclaim and has appeared on TV channels all over the world, including CNN Originals, PBS, A&E, The Travel Channel, Bravo, Discovery, Arte France/Germany, France 2, BBC, Sky Arts, and Channel Four U.K.
Chermayeff and her producing partner Jeff Dupre founded the companies Show of Force, Force Film Foundation and Show of Force Social Good in 2006, and memorable credits include producing the award-winning feature documentary Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present and Kehinde Wiley, An Economy Of Grace. We recently interviewed with the SocDoc chair and filmmaker to check in on where she's at.
Tell us a little about your history with SVA.
I first was introduced by Steven Heller to David Rhodes and the SVA Community in 2006 and the seed of possibility for an MFA in social documentary film was planted. I had known about the school for many years through my father, graphic designer Ivan Chermayeff and his colleagues Milton Glaser and Henry Wolf. After pulling together an amazing group of documentarians—who are a core group of faculty that still remain today—we began to work with young filmmakers to create the thriving MFA program we have today. Now some 12 years later we have hundreds of alumni and numerous award-winning films that began in the department as thesis work and launched as first films for this next generation of working artists and filmmakers.
How has teaching filmmaking in a pandemic forced you to adapt and be creative?
Filmmaking is a collaborative and hands-on medium, so the pandemic has forced us to re-engage previously un-exercised creative muscles. We have been inspired to keep our students excited in online classes and to work together with our industry to create safe ways to work in the world. The very concept of documentary filmmaking requires being out in the world and being with other people, so though creating intimacy in a distanced world is hard to achieve, this will pass and we all will have learned from it.
In honor of Women’s History Month, who are the female filmmakers inspiring you right now?
Presently I am loving and appreciating Kirsten Johnson both as a friend and colleague (she was SVA SocDoc faculty). Kirsten’s first film, Cameraperson, was moving and evocative, and her recent film about her father, Dick Johnson is Dead, is now nominated for everything under the sun and shortlisted for an Oscar. It is heartwarming, funny and original and I absolutely loved it. I also love and was deeply touched and inspired by The Mole Agent. It is a very original piece of work by filmmaker Maite Alberdi from Chile. Her distinct voice as a Latin American filmmaker is inspiring.
How do you feel the film industry has (or has not) become more welcoming or hospitable to women filmmakers over the last several years? In what ways can it continue to improve?
It has become hospitable to women, but honestly, it was a long time coming, and it still has a long way to go for true equality. It is not only women that have been set back, but women and men of color and members of the LGBTQ community. Everyone deserves a level playing field, and equal representation needs to be aligned with equal pay. More women are directing and are in senior positions than in the past, but it’s still not enough. And that isn’t just a numbers game, it’s about the perspective and experiences of those voices and the understanding that the world needs to hear and see them. History in this country was written mostly by white men and they did not necessarily have the emotional capacity to understand the femaIe identity. I have always felt the inequity was more prevalent in the fiction film world than in documentary, but you see it everywhere and certainly in the executive ranks and decision-makers who are funding projects. Men have gotten the lion's share of the support financially. We promise you, women can handle the big project and women know how to read a room!
What advice would you impart to your younger self just starting out as a filmmaker?
I say to myself today what I have always said to myself and what I try to impart to my students: have a passion for your interests, follow your gut, be as creative and risk-taking as you can and decide every day what you are willing to “die on the sword” for. Don’t get precious because compromise and listening to others is a good thing. Knowing what funders, executives and audiences want and need and will respond to is important to take into consideration. I would also remind myself to keep working hard, keep pushing for your artistic voice. It will take a long time but you can get there if you persevere. Some of that glass-half-full attitude comes from my father who always believed in himself and that what he worked for would be recognized. But you have to put in sweat equity. Nothing comes for free, and it shouldn’t. I still live by his and my mother’s motto: "Trust me, you are one of the most interesting people in the room. Don’t forget to talk."
This year’s spring semester thesis presentations for MFA SocDoc’s graduating class, Showcase, will take place April 1-4 online. First-year MFA candidates will screen their initial year of work April 28-30 online.