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SXSW Women Directors: Meet Sandy McLeod

SXSW Women Directors: Meet Sandy McLeod

Sandy McLeod is an acclaimed independent filmmaker, having directed numerous music videos and short films in her 25-year career. Her short documentary “Asylum” was nominated for an Academy Award and an Emmy in 2003.

Seeds of Time, her feature debut, follows agriculture pioneer Cary Fowler in a race against time to protect the future of our food. Gene banks of the world are crumbling, crop failures are producing starvation-inspired rioting, and the accelerating effects of climate change are already affecting farmers globally. But Fowler’s journey, and our own, is just beginning: From Rome to Russia and, finally, a remote island under the Arctic Circle, Fowler’s passionate and personal journey may hold the key to saving the one resource we cannot live without: our seeds. (Press materials)

Please give us your description of the film.

This is a film about someone who saw a disaster in the making and was able to do something about it.

The foundation of agriculture is crumbling. Over the years we have lost over 90% of our crop diversity. Add to that all of the stresses already facing farmers: soil degradation, limited water, limited land, growing population, cost of fertilizer rising, and climate changing. Agriculture is becoming more and more challenging.

Cary Fowler saw this happening when very few others did and decided to do something about it. He thought it would take about a year of his life. He was wrong, but he stuck to it.

What drew you to this story?
I was sent an article from the New Yorker called “The Doomsday Vault” from two friends, which was in itself unusual. My friends don’t send me that many articles.

I was reading the article one morning at breakfast and my husband [venture capitalist Sam Dryden] was on the speakerphone with a overseas call. I noticed that he was talking to someone called “Cary” and I was reading about Cary Fowler. Then I heard him say, “How much did you get from the Gates Foundation?” as I read that “the Gates Foundation gave $50 million towards collecting the seeds.”

I was reading about the person that my husband was talking about! When he got off the phone, I said, “Was that Cary Fowler?” and he said, “Yes, how do you know him?”

Once I got over the initial shock that such an incredible coincidence could happen, I decided that I wanted to meet Cary to see if there was a film there. After that first interview, I began to understand the importance of what he was doing and realize that this information is fundamental to an educated conversation about food security (which we need to be having more of).

What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

Raising the money was very challenging. The scope of the film was something that required a lot of travel and expenses and I had never done a film of this scope. Also, getting a consistent “look” for the film. I worked with so many different shooters that it required a lot of diligence on my part to make sure the footage had a continuity to it.

What advice do you have for other female directors?

Don’t be discouraged. It’s so hard to make a film. You will need a day job to begin a documentary career, unless you have another way to support yourself. You need to have a certain amount of flexibility and stubbornness. Also realize that you have a unique voice, an important voice, and that you will tell a story in a way that no one else will. 

Do you have any thoughts on what are the biggest challenges and/or opportunities for the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films?

Right now distribution is in a state of flux. It makes for an interesting time, but it’s challenging for a filmmaker.

Name your favorite women directed films and why.

In the narrative realm, Chantal Ackerman was an inspiration for me. Her films were so unique and she was able to make them at a time when very few woman were working. I love all of the pioneers in both narrative and documentary: Maya Deren, Ida Lupino, Louise Brooks, all of the early women screenwriters. 

Now there are so many incredible women working in the documentary field: Laura Poitras, Sarah Polley, Lucy Walker, just to name a few that I admire. 

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