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Hot Docs 2015 Women Directors: Meet Erinnisse Rebisz – ‘Shoulder the Lion’

Hot Docs 2015 Women Directors: Meet Erinnisse Rebisz - 'Shoulder the Lion'

Erinnisse Rebisz is a seasoned editor for television and film, born and based in NYC. Her credits include numerous unscripted TV shows and documentaries such as “What Not To Wear,” “24 Hour Restaurant Battle,” “Toy Hunter,” “Candy Queen,” “Jersey Couture,” “American Pick Off” and “Imagination Unleashed – An Artisan’s Journey.” “Madonna of the Mills,” a feature-length documentary she edited, premiered on HBO in 2011 and was nominated for a Genesis Award for Best Television Documentary. “Shoulder The Lion” is her debut feature as a director. (Press materials) 

“Shoulder the Lion” will premiere at the 2015 Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto on April 29. 

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

ER: “Shoulder The Lion” is a visual essay that makes [the viewer] question how our abilities dictate how we see the world around us. Through the experiences of three artists who have each lost a sense defining their work, the film is an attempt at understanding what it takes for someone to keep on going in times of uncertainty and uses unique film form to produce the answers.

A photographer who is blind questions the power of images in today’s visually saturated culture. A musician plagued by hearing loss must give up his dream of playing music and reinvent a new future. A painter who was the inspiration for the Academy Award-winning film “Million Dollar Baby” searches for her place in life after a traumatic brain injury scrambles her senses.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

ER: When faced with enormous challenges, we seek answers, but often those answers are shrouded and undefined. By finding artists that kept producing artwork — which in turn created a tangible reflection on their state of mind — we wanted to discover how finding new paths in life occurs. At the same time, we wanted to make a film that goes far outside the traditions of documentary filmmaking — first, because this subject matter would fall too easily into cliched sentimentalism, and second, we simply got bored with the typical docs.

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

ER: We set out to express the stories in our film in non-illustrative visual language. “Poetic reenactments” was our term to describe this other visual language we wanted to go after. Nobody knew what we meant by this, really, even the subjects of our film, so we produced a mood-trailer to exemplify the style, and that got everyone excited to do something that would not be typical. It was incredibly painstaking to search for how we could “show” the story, but not show literally what is being described. We searched for “otherness” in every detail of each character’s story, because through this otherness, the audience is left to define much of the meaning. The hope was to produce a film experience where the audience creates answers and can begin to empathize beyond the superficial circumstance.

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

ER: I want people to look around and see their world in a slightly different way. We so easily develop patterns of perception — and it’s not only us. For instance, if you cover a kitten’s eyes for a few weeks during its early life, it will never “learn” to see. We, as humans, do the same. For example, there was no color blue in ancient times. People had to learn how to make it for it to enter our visual and verbal vocabulary. The world is being manipulated left and right to put us into certain states of mind, so it’s very important to understand that all our perceptions come from something that we’ve learned. Once we can identify this, that is where we can go farther in our overall understanding of each other and the world.

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

ER: I find it difficult to articulate the ideas that I experience within me. You believe that you know something, but that knowledge has to be translated to your production team in order to produce concrete results. So you are forced to search for language that can clarify what’s abstractly in one’s mind. Without challenging yourself to verbalize your ideas, you are cheating yourself from really saying what it is you intend. Finding that specific language will open up a trove of self-discovery to make something more powerful and a “bigger” story that talks to people on more than simple-feelings level.

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

ER: People assume that, as a filmmaker, I’m here to entertain or tell stories — or as a documentary filmmaker, inform. Yet none of these roles excited me. I appreciate many films that are doing just that, but in my case, I’m not good at creating these kinds of engagements. Yet I have something important to say to the world, and thus the search became how to make a non-story/non-entertainment/non-information-driven film and be engaging to an audience. Then you discover that the reason why you love certain films is not for the story, but for the ideas that the scenarios excite in you while watching.

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

ER: Seed money came from winning a pitching competition at the WestDoc Conference. We crowdsourced funding for our first shoot and were given an incredible donation of air travel for one year from an airline attendant. My husband’s brother invested (read: donated, though he would probably want to imagine that it indeed was an investment of some kind!) some money. New York City Women in Film and Television’s Loreen Arbus Disability Awareness Grant provided a portion of finishing funds. Honestly, we were turned down by pretty much any grant maker out there — maybe we were just too abstract in the way we spoke about the film. So a lion’s share came from me editing non-scripted television and producing through my production company, as well as a number of PSAs, including a major campaign for the Department of Transportations in NYC. My husband, who DPs, shot a number of commercials, where the money from those shoots ended up going towards our film — if only all those companies knew that their money indirectly goes to support abstract films about esoteric qualities of life!

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

ER: My favorite woman-directed film is Agnes Varda’s “Happiness.” The story of infidelity is tragic, and yet her use of music, color and lighting celebrates love and life. The film captures infinite love as a kind of fantasy of the real. When you watch it, you are swept up in the beauty and the belief that this scenario can be true, but as you think back to it, you realize that beauty was filled with so much pain. If this film was directed by a man, it would be a mess, as it wouldn’t have this ephemeral quality of loss from the passion.

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