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Bentonville Women Directors: Meet Elizabeth Van Meter – ‘Thao’s Library’

Bentonville Women Directors: Meet Elizabeth Van Meter - 'Thao's Library'

Elizabeth Van Meter’s documentary work has taken her from the Andes
Mountains of Peru to the Tohoku region of Japan. Van Meter has
directed/produced 40 short films for Gorgeous Entertainment, documenting the
lives of Japanese Americans. Van Meter has also founded The Purpose Project, an
organization searching out individuals who are bringing forth change in their
communities, helping them achieve a dream and sharing their stories. She
premiered her solo multimedia piece, “The Purpose Project: Thao’s
Library,” at the Cherry Lane Theater, NYC, with versions appearing
throughout the US. (Press materials)

“Thao’s Library” will premiere at the Bentonville Film Festival on May 6.

W&H: Please give
us your description of the film playing.


EVM: Forty years after the fall of Saigon [which ended the Vietnam War], a young
Vietnamese woman is among the war’s uncounted casualties. Born near
fields where American planes sprayed Agent Orange, Thao lives with severe
physical deformities. Halfway around the world, Elizabeth, a woman in New York, struggles to cope after the sudden death of her famed younger sister. In the
midst of her crippling depression, a friend shows Elizabeth a black-and-white
photograph from a recent trip abroad.

The image haunts Elizabeth. It shows Thao
sitting in a wheelchair outside a shed that houses pig feed, fertilizer — and
books. Despite her disabilities, Thao had set up a makeshift library for the children in her village. The photographer who captured the image had asked, “If
you could have anything in the world, what would it be?” Thao replied, “Three
hundred dollars, so I could buy more books.” Through this simple request, Thao
and Elizabeth are brought together, forging an unlikely sisterhood,
transcending language and culture. The two women reflect on the past and
confront the present, changing both lives forever.

W&H: What drew you
to this story?

EVM: I didn’t choose this story. It chose me, and I had
to tell it for my own sanity. It was a way through my own darkness. This was
truly a unique experience, in that I didn’t necessarily set out to make a
documentary film. I had been searching for a sign, meaning, purpose and
understanding. I saw a photograph that spoke to me. Had I not been in that
particular place in time and seen that photograph, the story may have been
quite different. It was a series of events crafted in the unexplained that
brought me to Thao and this piece.

W&H: What was the
biggest challenge in making the film?

EVM: The biggest challenge was my own depression. I
took this project on during the darkest moments of my life. It is actually part
of the story. But within those dark moments, I found flashes of the brightest, most beautiful light, and that kept me going.

Money has always been an issue, but we’ve
managed. We are the little engine that could, chugging up the hill, and
invariably, somehow, we reach the next goal, and the next one, and we just keep going.

I welcome challenges. I find these challenges
have compelled me to devise more creative ways to communicate story than I had
ever imagined.

W&H: What do you
want people to think about when they are leaving the theatre?

EVM: After watching “Thao’s Library,” I want
people to leave the theatre with hope — hope for the future, hope for humanity,
hope in the possibility and potential of all things. I want this film to
inspire people who might feel like they have little to offer, to encourage them
to reconsider.

As our planet shrinks, we realize more and more that we are
citizens of the world, brothers and sisters united in the human experience. I
want people to realize they can be of service to humanity with whatever gifts
they’ve been given and, in reaching out to help others, we can actually feed
ourselves.

W&H: What advice
do you have for other female directors

EVM: There have been so many moments during this
seven-year process that I have felt lost — completely in the dark and scared. I
never felt like giving up, but I was afraid, especially of failure. I’ve come to realize that this is all a part of the process, and it will not be the
last time I experience these feelings. Without self-doubt, without these
moments of self-reflection and inquiry, how will I ever know if I am asking the
right questions and wrestling with the issues that need to be tackled?

Creation
comes from facing the fear. When I’m afraid, it means I’m doing something; I’m
actively engaging in this process. It is important and imperative to get
dirty and scared and humbled and to keep going, marching through that
darkness and muck and fear. Just keep marching. For without the darkness,
how will we know when we’ve reached the light?

I think this is universal for both male and
female filmmakers, though I do think women tend to honor the darkness a bit more. It can
prove paralyzing, especially when the number of females who are creating films
or being given the opportunities to do so is so much less than those for our male
counterparts. I think the more women we see saying YES, the more that women are
given the opportunity to say YES, it inspires, and those numbers will grow.

W&H: What’s the
biggest misconception about you and your work?

EVM: This is my first feature film, so I’m not sure
I’ve amassed a body of work about which to have misconceptions. Perhaps on a
personal level, it might be that I’m sensitive, and sometimes sensitive people
can be perceived as weak. I was an actor in my former life, and looking back, I
was extremely sensitive during that time.

The process of documentary filmmaking
has given me the opportunity to channel those emotions, that sensitivity and
feeling, into something I have a greater understanding of. I have found this
experience to be the most powerful tool for me in regards to connection and
sharing.

W&H: How did you
get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

EVM: It was definitely not a studio film. Crowdsourced, but on my own — not through a company platform. Donations came in from
family and friends, friends of friends and their friends: small but mighty
donations, for the most part, that began to add up. I sold almost everything I
owned and took odd jobs to make extra money — all going towards the film.

I ate
a ton of soup, maxed out credit cards, pulled from every resource I could find.
I talked about “Thao’s Library” with everyone I met and handed them a
card. This was going to get done!

W&H: Name your
favorite woman-directed film and why.

EVM: Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker”: The film
is bold and brave. Bigelow shatters stereotypes. It’s a war film made by a
woman, yet it’s not a war film, but so much more. It’s a story about
passion, obsession and home. It’s complex and simple, scary and beautiful.

Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell”: I find tremendous vulnerability in this film.
It’s executed in such a creative way. It starts a dialogue, whether that dialogue is about the subject matter or the filmmaking style. Another inspiring and brave
offering. 

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