Be kind to yourself and others. Creativity is an energy exchange. When you are kind, you will find kindness.
As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Gabriela Tollman.
Gabriela Tollman is an award-winning writer-director whose films have played in festivals worldwide, including Palm Springs, Seattle, Cinequest, Cleveland, Mill Valley, Nashville, Sedona, and the Sundance Film Festival. Several of her films have aired on television networks, including HBO. Her first feature film, “Somebody’s Mother,” was released theatrically in October 2017 to rave reviews. According to the Los Angeles Times, “Somebody’s Mother tackles a terrible loss and its aftermath with knowing empathy.” “Somebody’s Mother” is now available for streaming on Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play. Tollman recently directed the short film LOVELY, co-wrote a feature about writer Henry Miller and is attached to direct several features, including the award-winning screenplay titled APART. She recently shadowed Hanelle Culpepper on the show NOS4A2 for AMC. Tollman’s dark-comedy pilot script, NASTY, was recently accepted to the Stowe Story Labs, highlighted by the Blacklist, a finalist for Screencraft and a second-rounder for The Sundance Episodic Lab.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?
I grew up in South Africa under the Apartheid regime; I experienced what happens to a society when access to media is restricted. Living under extreme inequality made me aware of racial injustice. However, television offered me a chance to observe cultural, economic, and racial diversity. Movies such as TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, GUESS WHO’S COMING FOR DINNER, and FAME revealed a world where people of diverse cultures clashed, collaborated artistically and formed a community. That is when I realized televisions’ immense power. I knew it could enlighten those living under oppressed circumstances, show them another world from their own, inspire one, give them hope, and raise consciousness. I have always worked from a personal place in my work; the idea that writing and filmmaking can be a ‘weapon’ for social justice resonates with me. As a result, filmmaking has become my creative weapon.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
One of my favorite experiences is after screening my short film titled THE LAST GUNSHOT, actress Karen Black and Tobe Hooper told me they loved my work, and then I collaborated on a short film with KAREN BLACK titled BIRTH OF INDUSTRY.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
Karen Black was a creative force and a stellar actress to learn from. Also, Alexander Payne was very supportive of my short film BIRTH OF INDUSTRY, which felt very encouraging. I recently shadow directed Hanelle Culpepper on NOS4A2, which was an educational and inspiring experience. The wonderful actress Maria Elena Laas of VIDA and WARRIOR recently read my pilot about women and anger, titled NASTY. It was incredible to hear her bring the character to life.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I am excited about a film I recently co-wrote with Jessica Janos and heralded by Lisa Rosas about Henry Miller’s spiritual transformation, and I have optioned a brilliant horror script by writer Josh Lee about grief. I am also developing a dark comedy pilot titled NASTY about women and anger and a feature about racism and reincarnation called YOUR BLOOD, MY BONES.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
Maya Deren’s uniqueness of vision inspires me. As does Margaret Mead’s powerful voice, Tina Modotti’s revolutionary gaze as a writer and photographer. More recently, I am inspired by Ava Duvernay for her beautiful work as a filmmaker and advocacy for female directors’ equality.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?
Some of the projects that I am excited about are my dark-comedy pilot, NASTY, about addressing mental health issues, healing anger, and finding love for oneself and others. I am also developing a feature titled Your Blood, My Bones, exploring acceptance through racism and reincarnation.
I am also very proud of my first feature film, titled SOMEBODY’S MOTHER, as it explores healing, and we screened it in grief groups to help those dealing with loss feel less alone. After screening the film at festivals, many people told us it helped them process their losses. You can watch it online on Amazon Prime.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
Writing and Filmmaking have always been a way for me to process and understand the world around me. When I am overwhelmed by anxiety, sadness, or anger, I write my way through. Filmmaking has always been very cathartic for me. It is the process of rising above the emotion to create something. It liberates me from that emotion and connects me to a deeper, more knowing part of myself.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
After our film, SOMEBODY’S MOTHER screened at Cinequest; a woman came up to me sobbing. She thanked me for sharing my story and said watching the film allowed her to process the intense grief she experienced many years earlier when she suffered a late-term miscarriage. She explained that watching the film gave her permission to feel these feelings she never felt able to experience. She explained the film was a cathartic and healing experience.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
Yes, if individuals, society, or the government would offer more significant support to female storytellers, especially those dealing with challenging subject matter such as mental health, grief recovery, racism, and injustice. Finally, people recognize the need for varied perspectives and female viewpoints. We need to balance the views by balancing who tells the stories; this will help us balance and heal society, community, and culture.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Find time to nourish your physical, mental, and emotional self. We exist in a society that places hard work above all else. I believe nourishing the whole self will ultimately allow you to create more vital work.
- Be kind to yourself and others. Creativity is an energy exchange. When you are kind, you will find kindness.
- Find Mentors; this is one I wish I learned earlier. I used to think I could do it all by myself, but filmmaking is a collaborative art, and the work will flourish with the support of those who believe in you and your work.
- Find a community that has your best interest in mind. Help each other. The energy is contagious, and it will help you to stay productive.
- Continue to do work and have faith that your work will find its place in the world.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
I believe in the power of storytelling. Telling stories is how we learn and heal as a society. I would tell young filmmakers to commit to a subject they are passionate about and develop it. As their passion can change people’s minds, open people’s hearts, and expand people’s consciousness.
We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
I would love to work with Ava Duvernay. I find her work as a director and activist inspiring and visionary.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“It’s not what happens to you but how you react to it that matters.” Epictetus.
We cannot control what happens to us in life, but we can control how we respond. As I remember this, it frees me as I know I can master myself through writing, filmmaking, yoga, and meditation.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!