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Documentary Filmmaker Patricia Gillespie on Cutting Through the Noise and Making Films That Matter

March 24, 2017

As someone who lives for movies, I am continually inspired by documentary filmmakers. Inspiration, passion and action; it takes all three to make your dreams a reality. 

I’ve got the passion, but my inspiration and action are a work in progress.

I was lucky enough to bump into Patricia (Trish) Gillespie at the Sundance Film Festival this past January. Gillespie  is a social-justice documentary filmmaker and had two films premiere at Sundance, Whose Streets? and Unrest. U.S. distribution rights for Whose Streets? were recently acquired by Magnolia Pictures, while PBS secured broadcasting rights to Unrest, so keep an eye out for Trish’s work in late 2017 and early 2018!

Gillespie was a line producer on Whose Streets?, a documentary that examines the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and the global movement that ignited in response. Gillespie also produced Unrest, a documentary that delves into the lives of the millions of people who are affected by Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (aka ME, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or CFS), a debilitating disorder that few people really understand.

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

While attending Sundance, I had the privilege of talking to Gillespie about her experiences as a young female director, why she loves films, and why making social justice documentaries are more important now than ever. Here’s what she had to say.

How does it feel to be making social justice films in this political climate?

I spent three years of my life making these films. Documentary filmmaking is not a glamorous lifestyle. It’s a struggle. So to have it culminate into this thing that I wanted for so long — and everybody who worked on these projects wanted for so long — in the middle of this inauguration… you think it would be sad. For me, it has kind of, in a way, been consoling. It’s like this is my weapon; this is what I have to contribute and this is what I have to do.

What attracts you to documentary filmmaking?

This phrase I keep coming back to is… whenever people ask, “What did you work on?” I keep saying, “I served as line producer on Whose Streets?” and “I served as producer on Unrest.

People are like, “That’s a really clumsy sentence; you should clean it up.” I don’t know how to say it any differently because I really look at my job like that — being of service to a movement that I care about. We’re living in a bad world and I think it has the potential to be a good world. Every human being here wants to be the hero of his own life and I think that these are two films that try to show that people who we don’t hear from a lot can be the heroes of their own lives.

Tell us a little about Unrest.

Unrest is a film about a woman, Jennifer Brea, who was struck down when she was a Harvard Ph.D. student by a mysterious illness, known as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis.... She had just married the love of her life and — all of the sudden — she was sitting at dinner one night and she couldn’t sign her name on the check… cognitive shutdown.

She went through B.S. diagnosis to B.S. diagnosis… people telling her “It’s in your head, you need to relax.” Finally, she was diagnosed with ME, and it’s this autoimmune illness that 17 million people in the world have. But it’s an area of medicine that’s incredibly underfunded so there has been no research to determine a biomarker or any treatment for it. The patient population is primarily female, so people tend to say, “Oh, it’s in your head, it’s in your head.”

That’s a familiar tune. We’ve heard it with epilepsy, hysteria… we heard it with MS, which people didn’t realize until the MRI was invented.

So Lindsey Dryden, the UK producer, and I travelled around the world with a Teradek (a device that allows for zero-delay HD-video transmission via a cellular network), dialing Jen in to do interviews from her bed so she could talk to other people with the disease.

Unrest and Whose Streets? are very different projects. What drew you to each of them?

To me, they’re the same thing. These are stories about underrepresented groups — people who you don’t ever hear from… people that the media makes disappear. To me, it is our mandate and our job to elevate their voices. Ordinary people do extraordinary things.

So, what’s next?

I’m a director, too. I’m working on this project, American Monster. We’re working with Warrior Poets, Morgan Spurlock’s company, and it has morphed from a feature to a multipart series. It’s a project that plays with the true-crime zeitgeist, but it is really an examination of the intersection between poverty and violence through the eyes of the people who are typically left on the outside of the true-crime narrative.

I grew up working class, which is not the background that most people with my job come from, and I think that the stories about the working class and the working poor are massively under told. American Monster is really about how the people — especially in the current political era — who have come to be seen as the villain… are actually just under-served people that, if served better, might be less of a problem in terms of violence, politics, etc.

How did it feel to have two films premiere at Sundance?

It’s a real pleasure! I knew that this is exactly what I wanted to be doing since I was teeny-tiny, and it’s weird that it is here now, but I am very thankful for it. But, you know, I’m here on the backs of a lot of people. Obviously, Jennifer Brea (director of Unrest) and Sabaah Folayan (director of Whose Streets?), are two fierce-ass women who I would not be here without. My job is to support them and elevate their voices. Also, Kyle Porter and Ryan De Franco — who did sound and cinematography — these films wouldn’t have happened without them, either. So, I’m incredibly honored to be here. But it just takes so many people; I hope that this fact doesn’t get glossed over on other films, because it really does take a lot of people to make a film.

Which filmmakers do you admire most?

John Cassavetes. My favorite film of his is A Woman Under the Influence; Gena Rowlands… I’d watch her paint a wall for 90 minutes. I really love narrative films and I am so heartened by a lot of the doc work that’s going on right now — you know, people like Laura Poitras (Citizenfour) and Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land). It’s a very exciting time to be making documentaries.

What has been your biggest takeaway from working in the film industry?

You have to work really hard and treat others with respect. I think there are a lot of people in this world that are interested in having done the work; I think you have to be interested in doing the work. As long as you do the work that you are interested in and you can see yourself being of service, you’ll be okay. Enjoy the process of doing the work rather than the reward of having done the work.

If you could give only one piece of advice to the young filmmakers out there, what would it be?

Here’s my advice: Work hard. Don’t be a dick.


Paris Nguyen

Paris Nguyen is Spark Public's entertainment writer/reporter. He is a writer and journalist who specializes in entertainment news. He graduated from the University of Washington in 2013, majoring in psychology and cinema studies. With a passion for all things film-related, Paris spends the majority of his free time exploring the expansive world of cinema. When not munching on popcorn in a dark theater, Paris enjoys cycling, rock climbing and feebly tossing a frisbee in the general direction of other humans. Paris grew up in Issaquah, Wash., where he developed a deep fondness for hiking and pronouncing the name of his hometown incorrectly.

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