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DOC NYC Women Directors: Meet Sarah McCarthy

DOC NYC Women Directors: Meet Sarah McCarthy

Born in Sydney, Sarah McCarthy studied film in her native Australia. After graduating with first-class honours, she moved to London, where she worked in development for the BBC and RDF Media before moving into documentary directing.

The Dark Matter of Love is Sarah’s fourth documentary. Her directorial debut was entitled Murderers on the Dance Floor, which told the story behind a YouTube clip of 1500 Filipino prisoners dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” The clip has been viewed by over 50 million people and the film premiered on Channel 4 in the UK. McCarthy followed up her debut by producing Black Widow Granny for BBC 1. It tells the story of a 77-year-old Grandmother Betty Neumar, who stands accused of killing her five husbands and her own son, each time for life insurance money.

Her third film, The Sound of Mumbai: A Musical, premiered in the Real to Reel section of the Toronto International Film Festival in 2010. HBO and Chanel 4 acquired the film for their 2011 seasons. [Filmmaker’s bio]

The Dark Matter of Love will play at DOC NYC on November 17-18. 

Women and Hollywood: Please give us your description of the film playing.

SM: Here’s the short version: The Dark Matter of Love tells the story of an 11-year-old Russian girl, Masha, learning to love her adoptive American family through a scientific intervention.

And the long version: Can love be learned? That’s the question at the heart of this complex story about Masha, an 11-year-old Russian girl, who learns to love her adoptive American family — through science.

Former Disney employees Claudio and Cheryl Diaz live in a Wisconsin suburb with their biological daughter Cami. Masha isn’t the only Russian child joining the Diaz family; they’re also adopting twin five-year-old boys Marcel and Vadim. Nothing can prepare the Diazes for what’s to come.

When the reality of bonding with children who have grown up in institutions hits them, the Diazes turn to Dr. Robert Marvin, a developmental psychologist who has spent a lifetime creating a program that draws on the past 100 years of scientific discoveries into love.

His framework draws from experiments on monkeys, birds and human children. Rare footage of these extraordinary experiments is woven through the story of Masha, Marcel and Vadim learning to love for the very first time.

I followed the Diaz family for the first year of their new family dynamic. The ability of both parents and children to adapt over [that time period] is extraordinary to witness in compressed time.

The Diaz family is a testament to the mix of perseverance, improvisation and blind faith required for parenting. The Dark Matter of Love shows we all have a lot to learn.

WaH: What drew you to the story?

SM: This film is a kind of homage to my parents and a kind of preparation for having kids of my own. We are all products of our histories and our environments and science has just started to unpack the elements of the healthy parent-child relationships that drive a child’s brain development. The love of our parents doesn’t just affect our emotional development; it also affects how competent we are and how resilient. So the fact that my Mum picked me up when I cried as a baby showed me that I’d be able to rely on other people, than I can share my secrets and talk to people about things that upset me. And the science shows that is an absolutely essential element of any healthy relationship. Our relationships are such an important part of our lives. I was curious to explore the mechanics of love through a scientific lens.
A staggering statistic I came across during my research was that scientists can predict with 77% accuracy whether a child will graduate from high school based on the strength of his/her relationship with Mum. Incredibly, the strength of that relationship with the parent is a better indicator than IQ. I was fascinated by all of this research and started talking to scientists who taught families how to build bonds of love with their adoptive children — because I wanted to be there for the start of a love story.
Our relationships are everything. They define us and they comfort us. They make bearable all the aching and longing and uncertainty that is being a human being on a tiny planet hanging in infinite space. All we really have is each other and if science can help us love each other better, I want to know everything I can about that. My hope is that my film will give people a chance to engage with the science of love emotionally as well as intellectually. To give people insight and the tools to love each other better.

WaH: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

SM: When to shoot and when to leave the family alone.

Witnessing the the love story between a parent and a child is incredibly sensitive and we were acutely aware that the filming process was likely to affect key moments in the building of these new relationships. For example, our main character, Masha, swore she’d never cry in front of her new parents. She’d grown up in a Russian orphanage and was far too tough to show any kind of vulnerability. But after a year of living with her new family, Masha performed in a school concert and cried in front of her parents for the first time. Liam, my camera man, and I were there, and we were sort of part of that moment. It was incredible. Little ice queen Masha had these big fat tears rolling down her cheeks and Cheryl was rubbing her leg and saying, “It’s okay, baby.” It was this extraordinarily tender mother-daughter moment.

And Liam and I were so torn between being immersed in this amazing moment and wanting to film this amazing moment. We kind of looked at each other and headed down to Masha’s room, where the camera was, and had a very intense conversation about whether we could come back up the stairs with a rolling camera. And it was hard. I adore Masha, but you live or die by the quality of material that goes through that lens and we were letting this key moment pass us by. We decided that we couldn’t do it. It was too important to leave Masha and her new Mum alone in that moment. And we were kind of jumping up and down on the spot to try and deal with how hard it was. And the filmmaker part of me still kind of wishes we had that material but the human part of me is glad we didn’t shoot it.

WaH: What advice do you have for other female directors?

SM: Ignore any resistance you come up against because of your gender and use the advantages we have over the boys wherever possible. Hanging out with world-class scientists has proven something to me, something I already sort of knew anyway: girls are so much more emotionally intelligent than boys.

There was this great experiment done on 4- and 5-year-old children, where all the kids in the class were asked about the social hierarchy of their class. At four years of age the boys were asked, “Who’s the toughest kid in the class?” and they’d all answer, “Me.” But at five years of age, there was a big shift and they all agreed on the top five toughest boys in their class. Unsurprisingly, the boys had no idea at four or five years of age who the most popular girl was.

Meanwhile, at just four years of age any girl in that class could tell you not only who the top five most popular girls were, they could also tell you who the top five toughest boys were. Girls naturally have a [better] understanding of social interactions. We can decode them and draw meaning from them in ways that boys just can’t. All drama is the making and breaking of relationships, and we [women] have the edge on the boys in understanding the subtleties and intricacies of those relationships. Go Team Girl.

WaH: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

SM: I’m not sure I’m famous enough to have any big misconceptions about my work!

WaH: What are the biggest challenges and or opportunities for the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films?

SM: I’ve been selling copies of The Dark Matter of Love through our website and Facebook page. It’s so easy and actually a really decent revenue stream. People just pay through Paypal and I send them a digital download or DVD. It couldn’t be simpler and it means that I receive 100% of those revenues as opposed to the ridiculous 10% you receive after an iTunes sale minus your sales agents and distributor fees. 

It can be difficult to negotiate the right to do so with certain distributors, but with some clever structuring of exclusive windows and geo-blocking the territories that the film is available to purchase, it’s absolutely worth the fight. I figure, you’re giving your distributor a cut because they’re marketing the film for you, but if you’re doing the marketing as well as the filmmaking, you should receive those revenues. And if your distributor thinks that a filmmaker has the time to focus on marketing in a way that’s going to detract from their sales, then they’re probably not the distributor for you.

WaH: Name your favorite women directed film and why.

SM: Kathryn Bigelow is a big heroine of mine. I loved The Hurt Locker. It was so alive and deft and brilliant. She doesn’t care about the fact that she’s a female director in a man’s world — and I think that’s a big part of it too — backing yourself to play with the big boys.

Watch the trailer for The Dark Matter of Love

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