Today we interview filmmaker Pamela Cohn, author of the Still in Motion blog and a producer, writer and photographer/videographer. Pamela’s passion for film, particularly nonfiction film, shines in her answers, and her dedication to successful creation is also readily apparent.
Pamela’s documentary with Lisandro Perez-Rey, “La Fabri_K: The Cuban Hip Hop Factory,” was screened at the AFI International Film Festival in Los Angeles in 2005. She is currently writing a book on international female non-fiction filmmakers and covers nonfiction film festivals at Still in Motion and other arts, media and film sites.
Pamela has a lot to say about the creative process, and all of it is worth reading. My favorite quote from the interview below is this tidbit about creative blocks:
“I don’t believe in creative blocks. To my mind, a block occurs because you’re just being lazy and talking yourself out of the hard work that’s involved … Fear is the ‘block,’ and the way to overcome it is to just ignore the hell out of it and carry on.”
Tell us about your creative pursuits, paid and unpaid.
Cohn: I am a creative producer, assisting designers, filmmakers, video artists, photographers, and other artistic folk, in realizing their vision and finding funding for projects. I also make films and am a still photographer and videographer. I consult a lot with young up-and-coming creatives, and enjoy shepherding projects from conception to completion.
I screen films for many festivals and broadcasters and have dipped my toe into programming this past year, as well. I also produce events and a couple of my proudest achievements this past year were bringing together American, Iranian, and Gulf region filmmakers for a symposium in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and producing something called the Cinema Eye Honors, a new award ceremony celebrating craft in nonfiction filmmaking. We had our first ceremony in NYC in March and it was fantastic. We’re gearing up for our sophomore effort and I’m very proud to be a part of it. I get to work with a lot of the shining lights of the independent film community, both established and emerging filmmakers and producers.
I also make part of my living as a gun-for-hire writer for everything from articles and reviews on film and the craft of filmmaking to writing for a men’s fashion line. But my pride and joy is my own blog (lots of work and unpaid!) called Still in Motion, which I started in April 2007. The emphasis is on nonfiction filmmaking and storytelling, but I write very often on the creative process itself and why artistic voices are so vital to the health and sanity of our society.
It’s my place to cheerlead other filmmakers and artists whose work I admire and to share with the world what’s currently inspiring me, personally—the things I encounter that enable me to keep pursuing my own creative journey. I’m also working on a book project on female nonfiction directors and am currently shopping around a proposal to publishers.
Do you have any formal training in your creative discipline(s)? Do you feel training is important in creative development? Why/why not?
Cohn: Yes, I do have some but, honestly, the best school I’ve found is the School of Actually Doing It. I’ve been a media producer for close to twenty years and have been incredibly blessed to have worked with some stellar talent. To my mind, everyone has creative potential. What sets the successful creative apart from the rest is just sheer dedication and lots and lots of hard work—persistence and never-ending supplies of faith in your own talent.
I’ve trained in digital filmmaking and editing at La Fémis, the national film school in Paris through the New York Film Academy and have taken the odd course and workshop here and there to enhance my education on more technical things like lighting and sound recording.
Training will stand one in good stead, of course. However, what I find is that the connections you make with your fellow students is usually the most valuable thing to come out of it—collaborators, friends, comrades, community—that’s so key.
I also think that a strong background in reading, writing and studying poetry (which I did in college at Sarah Lawrence) is the best thing a writer can do for him/herself. And studying other languages, of course. And being a student of history!
What habits do you cultivate to facilitate your creative ‘flow’?
Cohn: Allowing myself to stare at the wall and let my mind wander; going to museums and galleries; seeing lots of films; going to watch musicians play; getting out into a community of like-minded individuals and peers on a consistent basis. There happens to be an incredibly rich community here in New York. It amazes me how many wonderful, exceedingly generous, talented and inspiring people I meet on a regular basis—that remains my key inspiration, really.
The other thing that I think facilitates my creativity is traveling. For me, travel is both exhilarating and terrifying, and I try to fling myself out of my familiar surroundings into strange and new ones on a regular basis—even though I’d prefer to stay in my apartment! Giving up control and being a “stranger in a strange land” is the best thing one can do to expand your heart, mind and spirit. Ultimately, it really does make the world a smaller, more manageable place and I now have friends all over the world, which is just divine. Cuts down on hotel costs, too.
I believe creative “flow” comes from discipline, doing your craft every day, even if it’s looking or listening to someone else’s work. There’s a wonderful essay by writer, Jonathan Lethem (who also lives in Brooklyn), called The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism that appeared in Harper’s Magazine this past year. In it, he says,
“Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself. Finding one’s voice isn’t just an emptying and purifying oneself of the worlds of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses. Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.”
What advice would you give to a ‘blocked’ artist in your discipline to free up their creative energies?
Cohn: I don’t believe in creative blocks. To my mind, a block occurs because you’re just being lazy and talking yourself out of the hard work that’s involved. There’s just no way around it, and every artist I know struggles profusely to keep barreling through. It’s easier not to, and then, that “not-doing” becomes a habit and you convince yourself you’re stymied when you’re just scared and intimidated. Fear is the “block,” and the way to overcome it is to just ignore the hell out of it and carry on.
Which artistic project that you are working on excites you the most right now?
Cohn: The aforementioned book project is probably the most exciting thing to me right now. I just attended a film festival in Woodstock, New York and I was talking to a young producer who was telling me that when she went into a major bookstore and looked in the film section to find something on female directors, she didn’t find one book dedicated to the extraordinary women helming film projects. She let out a loud, frustrated yelp right in the middle of the film section! I’m constantly inspired by my sister females—they are, to put it bluntly, kicking major ass and creating astounding pieces of cinema.
I’m also producing a short narrative piece on the Armenian genocide for an up-and-coming writer/director that will shoot the end of this month. The film will star the great Olympia Dukakis and is being shot on 35 millimeter by one of the most talented cinematographers working today. Getting to work with people of this caliber makes me feel very fortunate, indeed.
How do you select your creative projects? What elements of a potential project tend to intrigue you the most?
Cohn: A lot of times they select me. I really put myself out there in terms of taking on challenging projects; perhaps tackling something I’ve never done before or creating something brand new, like the above mentioned Cinema Eye Honors or staging and programming the very first documentary symposium to take place in Dubai. Creating something that’s never been done before is so liberating and really good for the old confidence—it’s a chance to launch an inaugural effort and that, in and of itself, can create tremendous opportunity. I jokingly say that I could now put on a three-ring circus in a couple of weeks if someone asked me to. And I could!
The attractive elements of a potential project can vary, from getting to work with someone I admire and respect, to doing the “impossible” with very little money and time. It also has to speak to me, I suppose, on some deeper level. I really need to work on things I believe in, that I think will make the world a better place, bring beauty, understanding, connection, change.
I’m not an overly political creature, but the quality of my work, what it brings to the larger purpose, is important for me. Would I work on some dumb reality TV show for lots of money for a bit? Yes, probably. But I wouldn’t really like it very much. And that is mostly what I sacrifice for my loftiness—money. I worked for big bucks for many years in the worlds of design, fashion, advertising and entertainment. I find it difficult to do that anymore and I do suffer financially for that. It’s a trade-off I’m willing to deal with right now.
And practically everybody in my immediate circle, for the most part, is not rolling in dough so I don’t feel like such a weirdo. There’s a wonderful term coined by video maker and media strategist, Mark Schoneveld, called “The Poverty Jet Set” (that’s also the name of his blog). I am a card-carrying member of that club and proud of it!
Any other advice to artists to help them create more effortlessly?
Cohn: Again, if it’s “effortless,” something’s wrong. That sounds pretty hard-line, but I think it’s true. The struggle is key to producing good work. Unfortunately, we live in a society that doesn’t really value the artist very highly. I purposely moved myself to a place where most people I know are struggling artists. It’s less lonely that way and it invigorates creative juices—it just does.
Creating a good workspace of your own is important, as well. It doesn’t have to be extravagant, but it should be yours and it should provide you with a refuge in which to sit and stir the pot. And after the pot is stirred, it should be a good place to work—well lit, comfortable, conducive to your craft, whether it’s writing, painting, sculpting, filmmaking, photography, what-have-you. I sound like a broken record about this already, but a good supportive creative community is so important to an artist’s well being. Sharing works-in-progress with others is essential, getting feedback on a regular basis or just having a place to talk about the creative pursuit with other artists and push one another along.
Inspiration is all around us, but we need to be the wanderers, the seekers, the explorers.