In This World is Not My Own, co-directors Petter Ringbom and Marquise Stillwell examine the life, work and legacy of renowned American folk artist Nellie Mae Rowe. We posed our Qs à la mode to Petter, and here’s what he shared!
If I had to describe our film using only three adjectives, they would be: Beautiful, surprising, original.
We decided to make this film because: We [Opendox] have made a number of films before about artists and musicians who make art in order to change or escape the world they live in. It’s something we connect with instinctively and can relate to in our own lives. Our producer and co-writer, Ruchi Mital, has dubbed them films about “creative underdogs.” When we first heard of Nellie Mae Rowe and saw her art we quickly knew it was a story we wanted to tell. Hers is the ultimate creative-underdog story, though I doubt she ever thought of herself in those terms.
The thing that surprised me most about our film’s subject/topic was: How much history reverberates and impacts present day. There are many examples in our film of events that happened decades ago, sometimes even a century ago, that still carry huge sociopolitical weight and emotional impact. We think that we can leave things behind us, but history is very much alive.
My favorite moment/scene/sequence in our film is: There’s a sequence where our subject, Nellie Mae Rowe, talks about how her art comes to her in her dreams at night. The sequence starts out with animated artworks and our actress, Uzo Aduba, voicing Nellie’s words. It’s very airy and dark, and we see fragments of Nellie’s art floating through space. Then we move into Nellie’s bedroom and see the animated version of Nellie sitting on her bed talking. The shot is only lit by moonlight, so again very dark and moody. Our composer, Matt Head, did a great job creating a dreamy and somewhat dark cue for it. Tone is important to me and I’m I’ve very happy with the tone in this sequence. It’s transportive.
The most challenging part of making our film was: We made a film about someone who’s been dead for more than forty years, and because of who she was and the time she lived in, there’s little archival material to work with. So, in order for an audience to connect emotionally with Nellie Mae Rowe and feel her presence, we decided to re-imagine her as an animated character and also re-imagine her famous home, known as the “playhouse.” Animation, especially character animation, is very complicated, time-consuming and expensive, but it’s also creatively rewarding and exciting. Ultimately, the approach we took was both the most challenging and rewarding part of making the film.
My most invaluable piece of doc-making gear was/is: I mean, this is a super-boring answer, but my MacBook Pro, without a doubt. Writing, correspondence, virtual meetings, financing, editing, animation, graphics, social media, etc., etc. — I use it for literally everything except drawing and shooting, so how can it not be the most important tool?
One piece of documentary-filmmaking advice I’d like to share with aspiring documentarians is: When you start out, have a day job you can stand, and make films about what you know. Shoot short films and vignettes, and learn the craft. Don’t be precious about it. Don’t rush to making your first feature. Watch a lot of films, and not just non-fiction — watch everything.
Want to check out Petter’s film, or just learn more about it?
Get the scoop, and your tickets, here!