This Is A Time To Be Fierce Dreamers! (February 2005)

Interviews with Three Filmmakers from the WomenArts Network

Since Hollywood is not telling our stories, we decided to profile three women who make highly personal films on issues such as aging, violence, war, and racism. Sheila Margaret Sofian, Kagendo Murungi, and Ruth Sergel, spoke with The Fund for Women Artists about defining success on their own terms, their drive to tell the true stories of our experiences, and finding the right combination of perseverance, encouragement, and cash to keep on making the films we need to see.

To learn more about any of these artists, just search the WomenArts Network on her name. You can write to any artist on the WomenArts Network by clicking the email link at the top of her profile page.

Introducing This Month’s Artists

Ruth Sergel

Ruth Sergel

Ruth Sergel
Ruth Sergel’s most recent film, BELLE, is a fable of old age and beauty. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Her previous film, CUSP,is a portrait of Alice, a spirited 12-year-old hitting the wall of early adolescence. It is distributed by Women Make Movies. BRUCE, a visual duet between camera and dancer, is distributed by Hypnotic. Ruth currently serves as Video Curator at here is new york: a democracy of photographs , where she established Voices of 9.11 , a video oral history project that has collected hundreds of personal testimonies. Ruth recently completed a full-length screenplay, GONE and is collaborating with filmmaker Myra Velasquez on MICROCHIP OF LOVE.

Kagendo Murungi

Kagendo Murungi

Kagendo Murungi

Kagendo Murungi is a Kenyan feminist who works with artists and activists around the world to develop and produce independent film projects and festivals. Her current project, SUNSHINE BOUTIQUE, explores the creative sources of women artists of African descent in the context of daily racial, xenophobic and heterosexist violence.

Partly inspired by New York community responses to the murder of Amadou Diallo, SUNSHINE BOUTIQUE celebrates the leadership of women and people of all sexualities, spiritual beliefs, and political orientations in our myriad overlapping movements for social justice and peace. Drawing from memory and narrative, her previous film VIA NEW YORK explores the politicization of African students in New York and the participation of South African lesbians and gays in the anti-apartheid movement.

Sheila Margaret Sofian

Sheila Margaret Sofian

Sheila Margaret Sofian

Sheila Margaret Sofian works with the hybrid form of animated documentary,which combines a documentary soundtrack with abstract and surreal images. “Truth Has Fallen,” a work-in-progress, is a one hour 35mm live action/animated documentary that follows the work of James McCloskey, founder of Centurion Ministries, whose mission is to free prisoners who have been wrongfully convicted of murder.

Previous films include “A Conversation with Haris,” a painting-on-glass animation of a conversation about war and its aftermath with an eleven year old Bosnian immigrant to the U.S.; “Survivors,” about domestic violence; “Faith and Patience,” a conversation with a four-year-old girl about her baby sister; and “Secret Rage,” a film about a man tormented by feelings he cannot express in his daily life.

The Artists Speak Out – Interviews by Sarah Browning

Sarah Browning: Your films address a number of social issues: war, immigration, disability, prejudice, sexuality, aging. What moves you to tell these stories and how do you think filmmaking – and your films specifically – can and do have an impact in these critical areas?

Ruth Sergel: The scope of American film is so narrow. It’s actually remarkably easy to be out of the mainstream. So much of our experience is NOT represented in mainstream films. If you are at all truthful about representing your life experience you will be doing something entirely new in American cinema!

Kagendo Murungi: My greatest passion is to find ways to share African stories and realities with the world. The hunger of African audiences to see themselves depicted in more complex, respectful, historicized and entertaining ways fuels my own need to raise questions about contemporary social change issues via my documentaries.

Digital videomaking…represents a great opportunity for us to tell our own stories and distribute them ourselves… Our stories are often deemed controversial or unmarketable, yet the very act of creating our own films shifts the balance of power that dictates and often skews our perception of ourselves in community.

Sheila Sofian: I have been surprised at the impact my films have made on audiences. When screening “Survivors,” many women have come up to me in tears, impacted by the personal stories of violence. One observation which has been made several times is that people have mentioned that if they had seen the film as a live action documentary, they would have judged the person speaking based on their appearance. However, they were unable to make such a judgment when viewing “Survivors,” since the viewer never saw the actual person who was speaking. They told me that this allowed them to empathize with the person who was interviewed in a way they would not have been able to if it had been a live action film…I believe that the use of iconographic images impact the viewer in a way in which live action cannot. The images are personal and “friendly”. We are willing to receive animated images without putting up any barriers, opening ourselves up for a powerful and potentially emotional experience. The simplicity of the images relieves some of the harshness of the topic being described.

Browning: What are your goals for your films? Do you have different goals for different films? Who are your intended audiences and do you feel you are reaching them? In a society obsessed with celebrity and fame, how do you define success for yourself as an artist?

Murungi: My dream come true is when a film I’ve labored on with so many others is finally done. After that, my goal is simply to get the film screened and hopefully discussed. I think that when I was
making “Via New York,” I really wanted to present a non-essentializing perspective on African lesbians and gay men to the LGBT community at large. I have on occasion received feedback that I was over-complicating the issue by doing more than just sharing narrative sequences including African coming-out stories, or showing same-sex couples in love, maybe set in some lush African-looking settings. Relating such stories to questions of access to education in the context of the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements actually opened the film to wider audiences. Ten years after it was released, “Via New York” still has the interest of film festival programmers, community activists, and educators. I take this to mean that the questions it raises are still relevant or interesting, which is a success!

Sergel: I’m actually working on two different films now. (No one was interested in GONE!) One is based on a novel written during the Depression about hunger – for survival, for a passionate life. The other is about a Chilean family that immigrated to this country after the coup September 11, 1973. After Sept. 11, 2001 here they are forced to re-think their silence and what justice actually means. I am completely confident that no major studio will want to produce either film so I don’t really waste my or their time by pursuing that.

I make my films because I have to. They are an expression of the issues that I am mulling over on a daily basis. The process of making the films and then interacting with audiences at screenings gives me a way to engage in conversation about the ideas I am already obsessed with. I think most people actually feel out of touch with the ‘mainstream,’ whatever that is. Who fits in with that??? I want to use my medium to lower the barriers between people rather than hammer home some particular belief of mine. For me success is getting to make the work. Not many people get to do what they want in life. I haven’t gotten to make all the films in me, but each film is a huge step forward for me as an artist and as a human being.

Sofian: I have worked on mainstream projects in order to make money, but my heart is in my independent filmmaking. I define success as being able to reach audiences with my work. I do not expect to receive traditional “celebrity and fame,” as my work is not traditional.

Browning: What do you think the climate is like for women writers and directors in the film world? Have you seen any improvement?

Sergel: We are a country at war. In times of war the last thing your government wants you to do is to think independently. Doesn’t matter what sex or race, anyone who is telling the truth and encouraging people to think outside the prescribed narrative is a threat. But that also presents an absolutely wonderful time to be an artist. People really need art now. They need the opportunity to hear the truth, to be encouraged to explore the complexities of our all too human interactions.

Sofian: I am optimistic. I believe the film industry is still male-dominated, and women have to work harder for recognition. However, some women have succeeded, and I expect more to follow.

Murungi: I think that the climate is different for those of us who are not making corporate videos or mainstream films, in that there is more creative latitude and room for freedom of expression. The trade-off is that marketing and distribution of the finished work is never guaranteed. I think that the number of women’s film festivals, women artist networks, and even foundations for women in this country has definitely increased in the past 15 years, as have the number of women writers, directors, producers, editors, directors of photography and so on. We have more colleagues with
a broader range of skills and similar goals, who are hopefully more accessible to us now.

Browning: How do you sustain yourself in your work over the long haul, especially in this political climate? Do you have any recommendations for other women artists and filmmakers who may be feeling discouraged or frustrated?

Sofian: It is discouraging to be rejected for the few available grants. I am driven to persevere, although it is difficult. My only recommendation is to continue to listen to feedback from those who have succeeded, and do whatever it takes to make your film or art. It only takes one grant to make it happen. I was rejected by about 20 grants before I received one for “Survivors.”

Murungi: That is always a challenge. I have learned the hard way about the value of long-term planning and having at least 6 contingency plans for meeting basic production and post-production expenses and playing the bills… I haven’t yet figured out how to put my heart and soul into a film project while also working a full-time job, so it does feel very challenging. Having come to the brink
of despair when the computer crashed repeatedly or a software conflict loomed invincible, I would say that laughter (even if you have to cry first) helps. Patience is unavoidable, friends (including those willing to trade or even donate their expertise) are indispensable, and thank GOD for family.

Sergel: I only survive by the grace of the wonderful community of people who surround me – friends and fellow artists. I absolutely could not be doing this work on my own.

Browning: What can our readers do to support you and other filmmakers like you? How can they see your films?

Sergel: My website ( is a bit out of date, but you can sign up to be on our mailing list which keeps folks informed about upcoming screenings. Street Pictures not only makes films but also creates community events like the upcoming CHALK which commemorates the Triangle Factory Fire. Soon you will be able to purchase DVDs of my films off the site. In general, we all have to make the effort. Claim our own power by staying connected and never, ever being afraid to speak our mind. This is a time to be fierce dreamers.

Murungi: Your lovely readers can continue to share tips with such resources as The Fund for Women Artists about where independent filmmakers can get research or finishing funds quickly, cheap equipment or loaners, in-kind contributions of DVD or Mini-DV duplications, contact us if they know about distributors, or make any contributions they feel able to. A dollar really does stretch further in the independent video production world than in the world of mainstream film, but more important than that perhaps is the power of word-of-mouth. If your readers work with community organizations or departments in educational institutions, which may have an interest in screening
innovative independent work and/or hosting Q&A’s with filmmakers, their collaboration as distribution partners is critical to the accessibility and ‘shelf-life’ of an independent film.

I am the distributor for “Via New York,” which is my only publicly circulated film. In the next few months I hope to complete my new experimental documentary “Sunshine Boutique,” which I will distribute via my website (under construction):, where I will promote future productions as well as publicize upcoming screenings and community events. If people are interested in a preview copy of “Via New York,” they can email me at

My films are distributed educationally – you can find a list on my web site. I also sell them myself on the site at: The best way to support independent film is to try to see it when it becomes available.

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About Sarah Browning

Sarah Browning is Director of Split This Rock and DC Poets Against the War, author of Whiskey in the Garden of Eden (The Word Works, 2007), and co-editor of D.C. Poets Against the War: An Anthology (Argonne House Press, 2004). The recipient of an artist fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities, she has also received a Creative Communities Initiative grant and the People Before Profits Poetry Prize. Browning has worked as a community organizer in Boston public housing and as a political organizer for reproductive rights, gay rights, and electoral reform, and against poverty, South African apartheid, and U.S. militarism. She was founding director of Amherst Writers & Artists Institute — creative writing workshops for low-income women and youth — and Assistant Director of The Fund for Women Artists, an organization supporting socially engaged art by women. She has written essays and interviewed poets and artists for a variety of publications.