Interview: Paula Eiselt, Documentary Filmmaker

Paula Eiselt is a New York-based filmmaker and director of programming at The Edit Center. Paula is a graduate of NYU Tisch School of the Arts, where she directed and produced three award-winning short films: My Mom the Dead Head (Cannes Film Festival’s Short Film Corner), The Fitting Room (NY Jewish Student Short Film Festival), and Priscilla (NY NewFilmmaker Series, Show Off Your Shorts Film Festival). Since graduating, Paula has gone on to work a number of documentary films and is now running a Kickstarter campaign for her first feature film, Following Boruch.

Access is everything with documentary filmmaking. Once you have access, you’re much more valuable.

How did you get your start?
In high school, I decided I wanted to make films [and was] really inspired by a dark film called Requiem for a Dream, [directed] by Darren Aronofsky. I ended up getting in touch with him and interning with him for three summers [beEducation College: NYU Tisch  Major: Dual major in Film and TV and Cinema Studies Additional: The Art of Editing at the Edit Center fore] I went to film school. I went into Tisch [at NYU] as a cinema studies major and then double majored in film and TV. I basically learned everything from scratch—filming, shooting, equipment, and even technical terms—and while [in college], I made two short narrative films and a short documentary.

[At Tisch,] I formed a bond with my professor who is a veteran filmmaker named Marco Williams. He became my mentor, and is still my mentor today. I think that it’s really important for people starting out to find that person who can really mentor you and take you under their wing: they’ll teach you things, help get you jobs, and lend you their name so when you make a project you have their name on it—literally, you just need their name

After I graduated, Marco was executive producing a film for two former students, Yoni Brook and Musa Syeed, a Jewish-Muslim filmmaking team, who were making a documentary called Bronx Princess about a first-generation American girl in the Bronx whose father is actually a prince in Ghana. I was an assistant producer on that film, and it was my first professional involvement on a film. And then after that, Marco started his own project called The Undocumented about illegal immigrants coming in from Mexico via the Sonoran Desert. Every year, a lot people die [trying to make the trip] and thousands of people have died in that desert trying to come into U.S. The U.S. knows about it, but doesn’t really do anything to stop it, so the film follows that and the process of trying to get the bodies that are found back to their families. I was a researcher on that documentary and it just aired on PBS’ Independent Lens this past year (in 2013).

how to become a documentary filmmaker paula eiseltI then started on my first feature length film called Following Boruch. That film follows my Hasidic uncle’s recovery from mental illness and addiction. A few years ago, when I started making it (about 4 years ago now), he had reached a turning point in his recovery and he decided he was now ready to look for a job, hopefully get married, and really integrate into society. I thought this is an amazing story: he’s recovering, but now what? He’s almost 50 years old—how do you start life now? I thought that was a great premise. And actually, in Marco’s class at NYU, I made a 5-minute short about him and Marco loved it. So when I told him what was going on, he said, “You’ve got to start shooting. And I’ll be the executive producer on your project.” So that’s how that project started and now I’m completely [done shooting]. I have a Kickstarter, I’m fundraising, and I have a letter of support from PBS’ POV, [who] are keeping tabs on the project and my progress, so hopefully when it’s finished, they’ll want to distribute it.

how to become a documentary filmmaker paula eiseltI have also started another documentary that kind of just fell into my lap. It wasn’t timely; I wasn’t looking for another project, especially before I finished Following Boruch and I also had another child in the midst of this, but it’s one of those things as a storyteller when you see a story and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, you have to just jump on it. So I’m in production [now on that project and am shooting]. And that project, coincidentally, also takes place in the Hasidic community—and I tell myself all the time this is my last one in the Hasidic community; I don’t want to just  make films about the Jewish community, but it just so happens that that’s where my access is right now and that’s where I’ve been finding stories, so I’m jumping on that. This film is about a group of Hasidic women from Borough Park, Brooklyn who are working to form the first all-women EMS service, because the Hatzolah, the men’s ambulance, banned women from joining. So they’re trying to make their own corps and they have a lot of opposition. It really gives you a glimpse into the life of a Hasidic woman and also this incredible mission to take back women’s health in their community, which is very male-dominated. So when I saw the story, I thought it was just amazing, so I’m in production on that [now.]

I think it’s really important for first-time filmmakers or people getting into the industry to do what you know best first. I had access to this community, so I wanted to explore that first because that’s what I knew. Access is everything with documentary [filmmaking]. You need access. So once you have access, you’re much more valuable.

On your Kickstarter campaign for Following Boruch, you say that the film is shot in “verite style.” What exactly does that mean and are there other styles of documentary filmmaking that you could’ve chosen from?
Verite is French and its actual definition is “true.” When you say you shoot a verite documentary, it’s an observational documentary, [which means] action is unfolding in front of you. You’re following a process of motion and following a story.

Another genre of documentary is a historical documentary, where you have a lot of images or reenactments. Or there’s more interview-based documentaries where, again, you’re actually writing a story and using a lot of archival footage and stuff like that.

Because of the nature of verite, I guess things don’t always happen as you think they’re going to. How do you create the story? Do you go into it with a story in mind?
Exactly. Verite filmmaking is definitely, in my opinion, a very exciting way to make a film and there’s a whole art to how you film verite. Basically, you have a whole plan and it’s like you’re shooting a narrative, you make a shot list and then the first day on set you

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