Government can support or subsidize funding for the arts and should be prioritizing the voices of non-white and marginalized communities towards this end. Representation matters in how media is produced, and this is a problem we are only beginning to address. There is a long road ahead to even begin to address issues of representation and inequity, in America in particular
As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Patrick (PJ) Moynihan
PJ Moynihan is a filmmaker with Digital Eyes Film Productions. He has been in the film industry for almost 20 years writing, directing, and producing impactful documentaries. He received two B.A.’s from Columbia University in history and creative writing.
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?
The concept of making movies was not on my developmental radar. After completing an undergrad in 2002, in place of any semblance of a career path, a buddy and I decided we could buy some time by moving overseas to teach English as a foreign language. We ended up taking a certification course in Rome, found an apartment in a little seaside town called Ladispoli 30 minutes north of the city, and began to look for work. Incidentally, this was in 2003 and the US was in the process of actively invading Iraq, so there was an increasing anti-Americanism throughout western Europe. If anyone on the street asked, we told them we were Canadian. However, the timing of it all translated into real-time issues like the inability to get work visas. We ended up spending several months trying to find work under the table, subsequently ran out of money, cut our losses, and headed home. However, during this period of unemployment, we began to mess around editing video footage in iMovie, which felt super high tech at the time, and had this crystallization that all we needed to produce a documentary film was a decent camera along with this futuristic laptop, wine, and pasta. So, the journey began with a couple of unemployed buddies eating and drinking and making art in Ladispoli. When we returned to the states I learned about a grant opportunity in the town I grew up in (Holyoke, MA) to produce a documentary. We applied for the grant and got approved, and set up my production company Digital Eyes Film in 2003 to receive that funding. It wasn’t much but it was enough to buy the gear we needed to deliver a professional product, and it immediately gave us a project to dive into. We produced a historical doc about Holyoke called “Fight Town” which subsequently aired on local PBS, but more importantly emerged with the tools and know-how to produce content at a high level.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
We’ve been at this for almost 20 years and it’s funny how we think about projects from the early days like they were these magical experiences. In 2006–07 we produced a 10-part independent documentary about amateur baseball called “Eye on the Dream’’ and spent two months brainstorming New England in a Buick LeSabre following players from the Keene (New Hampshire) Swamp bats in their pursuit of a professional baseball contract. We’d be in Sanford, Maine one night and Newport, Rhode Island the next, which sounds like fun except we were young and broke and had no idea how we were going to finance anything beyond production. We had no distribution and the kids we were following ended up not being all that interesting, quite frankly. I remember lying in bed dreading having to do it all over again tomorrow in Torrington, Connecticut. Yet, when we reminisce and tell stories about that time it all has a shiny glow. Turns out most of what sticks is the stuff worth remembering. Part of the burden of Producing is that it’s your job is to figure out the mechanics — from fundraising, to how to make the story work, to finding distribution — so that a given project stays on its feet long enough to either do something or at least lead into the next project. But it’s a reminder that these projects are also social experiences and the quality of your team both in terms of talent and character is crucial. This work is hard and comes with a lot of uncertainty, so it’s best to be in the trenches with people you want to be working with.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
We’ve been very experimental over the years in terms of the types of projects we take on. There are so many variables that, for better or worse, there is no better way to learn than by doing. So, we’ve produced historical films and documentary series, short films, feature films, and even a scripted feature with Hollywood talent. However, over the past 5–6 years, we have found our niche with social action documentary work. This includes documentaries that we produce ourselves as indie films, and also content that we produce for clients on a project basis.
What compels me most about so many of the stories that we tell is that they are about ordinary people. Sure, you need to build in experts and authors and folks with name cache along the way — that stuff helps with marketing, context, and credibility — however at the core of these projects and social issues are the stories of real people. We trust that people are the experts of their own lives. That they should speak for themselves instead of us or someone else speaking on their behalf. In order to trust us to tell their story and for them to be fully authentic in its delivery, step one is to establish a meaningful connection.
This applies most directly to our feature documentary work which follows people over an extended period, but even in the day-to-day work of conducting interviews, it’s critical to connect with people, to set them at ease, and in many ways, help them forget that the camera is there. I often joke that we specialize in working with “non-professional talent”, but it’s true, and that’s not a knock on our subjects. There is a lot of vulnerability in sharing your story in a public forum, especially when you are not accustomed to being a public figure. So, my primary role as a Director is to set subjects at ease, communicate to them what we are producing and why, and then treat the interview process no different than a conversation we might be having at a bar or cafe or coffee shop.
Our recent documentary about mental health (“Healing Voices”) is an example of this. We followed three subjects — Oryx Cohen, Jen Constantine, Dan Sullivan — for nearly five years, and told the story of their respective pathways to heal outside of the traditional mental health system. Through the process of producing the film, one of the greatest bi-products is to count Oryx, Jen, and Dan as my friends. That connection was the special sauce that made the movie authentic.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
We recently released a documentary entitled “The Changing Reality of Disability in America: 2020” now live on YouTube. It was produced in partnership with a Boston based non-profit, Institute for Human-Centered Design. It’s a 30-minute film that reflects on the evolving prevalence and demography of disability in the US in connection to the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). What has compelled me about the project is that it is not a traditional disability rights narrative — we look at stories ranging from the fallout of the lead water crisis in Flint, Michigan to the relationship between disability and incarceration, to issues facing military veterans with traumatic brain injury. According to CDC data, there are more than 61 million Americans with some form of disability today, and many of these disabilities are caused by social and environmental factors. So, the film reflects on how we are creating disability in America, which of course ties back to broader issues of social and racial inequity that disproportionately impact low-income communities. The 30th anniversary of the ADA came and went, and no one else is talking about disability in this way. So, I commend my friend and colleague Valerie Fletcher, Executive Director of the Institute for Human-Centered Design, for taking a leadership role in telling this story and engaging us to produce it. One thing we pride ourselves on is finding and telling stories that no one else is telling. That’s something that has always felt like an inherent responsibility to me as a Producer of non-fiction.
We are currently in production with a docu-series in partnership with Boy’d Technologies called Frontline. The docu-series chronicling the evolving COVID-19 pandemic in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and those who stepped up to help. The series first premiered virtually on Wednesday, September 23, 2020.. This pilot episode entitled, ‘The Crisis’, will provide a detailed account of the early stages of the pandemic, the state’s prompt reaction and established protocols, and businesses and organizations that rose to the occasion to assist in the Commonwealth’s fight. The episode will also cover the establishment of the Commonwealth’s command center and the quickly formed Manufacturing Emergency Response Team (MERT) to support Massachusetts manufacturers in pivoting their operations to produce necessary PPE materials in response to the pandemic.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
We often use quotes in our films as a reference point to set up a story, or at times when we are drawing conclusions. Writers and activists inspire me most because the good ones usually have some real-life experience that they are drawing from. Hemingway was right to go to war if he wanted to write about war. You have to. I’m a true believer that our wisdom is in direct relationship to our experiences, so when we quote someone like Cesar Chavez or James Baldwin, it’s humbling. True change agents are the ones that are in the fight, and that’s where I like to think our work is coming from. The subjects of our films — whether it’s about addiction, or trauma, or disability, or public health — are on the front lines of these causes, and in many cases, have been personally or directly impacted by the issues. I am inspired by the collective resilience of people who have been knocked down, refuse to stay on the mat, and are fighting for change.
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?
I think it is important to acknowledge whatever success I’ve had in relation to my privilege. I’m a white, cisgender man who was raised by two incredible parents. I went to good schools and had all my needs met. We all have things we are going through — that happens along the way, but our formative experiences matter, and not only did I have a bedrock of support growing up, but I had great examples to draw from in my personal and professional life.
That being said, I want to do whatever I can in my life now and in my work to pay that forward. In particular, I think mental health and addiction are topics that we need to reexamine in society, as we often do more harm than good in our efforts to “help” people who are struggling. Mental health and substance use issues often arise in direct response to the conditions or events of people’s lives. This is an absolute fact which has been made abundantly clear through the countless stories of folks who we have chronicled over the years. That’s not necessarily how we view these issues in society at large — blame is often laid at the doorstep of the person who is struggling. We tell people to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, but that’s a hell of a lot easier said than done. People are complicated and need multilayered systems of support. We can’t just medicalize or institutionalize these issues away. So, I have been focused on supporting community-based organizations and programs that are building intentional communities and systems of support for people who need it most. So often, these end up being folks who have been marginalized or harmed by the institutions and existing paradigms of care that are intended to help them.
My contribution has been through volunteer board work, in-kind media work on projects that we believe in, and by choosing to produce documentaries that focus on critical public health issues that fall into problematic narratives. Mental health and addiction fall into that category for sure. I also think it’s important to financially support causes that you believe in, even in very small ways. You don’t have to be a high net worth individual to provide financial support. Donating 25 dollars or whatever you can afford to an organization running on a shoestring is a meaningful act, every dollar helps.
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 going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
There came a point about 5–7 years into my career as a filmmaker that the work evolved from being self-indulgent to mission-driven. It was important to start out with a passion for the craft, approach it as art, and walk a winding road to develop and sharpen my skill sets. That exact moment was probably during “Healing Voices” — when I met the subjects of the film and really understood that there was a whole side to this story that people were oblivious to in the mainstream — that I felt somewhat of a calling to deliver a story to audiences because they needed to hear the message. I don’t take that sense of responsibility lightly, and that was sort of a never look back moment. Now we’re on the lookout for those stories at all turns because they feel like the only one’s worth telling.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Sticking with “Healing Voices”, the response to the story we told was meaningful and significant. The film is now available for streaming on Amazon Prime, but the initial release was designed around a global grassroots distribution model that we developed and executed with a very small social action team. Our approach was to license the film for world premiere screening events to groups and organizations all over the world who were working to “change the conversation” about mental health, and empower them to produce mission-driven events that brought together a range of stakeholders on the topic. We provided a turnkey package including the film, some guidance around best practices for producing a viable screening event and town-hall style discussion, as well as pre-built marketing and promotional materials to actively solicit local and regional media. We ended up premiering the film in more than 130 communities across seven countries, and in many cases, the turnout far exceeded the expectation of the organizers.
I would best describe the content of the film as a counter-narrative to the “medical model” narrative that dominates the discussion and the airwaves when it comes to mental health. So, this was a story that pushed back on some big ideas for people, mainly that mental health conditions were not these permanent brain disorders that could only be diagnosed and medicated away. We were reflecting on the root causes of what ultimately is diagnosed as serious mental illness, and telling people that they weren’t broken.
Now, this sounds like a positive message, it is. But it was not the message that many people had been given by their doctors or their families or society at large. You can imagine this brings up a lot of raw material for people. However, the fact that the events were produced in community-based settings, skillfully facilitated by our local partners, and created an opening for new conversations, was really a unique experience for folks. We had many people reach out to us directly or organizers who reached out to us anecdotally, to share that many people were compelled to share things they had never shared publicly before. Or that they were encouraged to think about things in new ways. And there was an exponential effect to this in communities from New York City to South Australia. In terms of what we set out to do, that felt like the best possible outcome.
Are there three things that individuals, society, or the government can do to support you in this effort?
Yes, three simple things. However, it shouldn’t just be about the social issues that matter to me, it should be about all manner of social issues and supporting the folks who are passionate about change.
- Individuals can support the sustainability of independent film or artists whose work they believe in by purchasing the content directly from content creators, whenever possible.
- As a society, we can be more careful in dissecting the messaging that we consume across platforms. With regard to mental health and addiction, these have become significant public health issues, largely because of problematic narratives. These narratives come from somewhere. For example, the US is one of the only countries in the world that allows direct consumer advertising of psychiatric drugs. Now, I’m pro-choice when it comes to medication, but it is hard to argue that Pharma has been driving the “mental illness” narrative for a long time. In a for-profit system that is hugely problematic, and this is just one example.
- Government can support or subsidize funding for the arts and should be prioritizing the voices of non-white and marginalized communities towards this end. Representation matters in how media is produced, and this is a problem we are only beginning to address. There is a long road ahead to even begin to address issues of representation and inequity, in America in particular.
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 think that social change in America is going to happen generationally, and that’s a hard pill to swallow for people who are struggling now. It’s really a volume issue when it comes to creating the type of critical mass necessary to enforce change on core issues — we see this with gun control and climate change right now. These are indisputably issues that a majority of Americans want to see addressed, and quickly, yet change is not happening at a systemic level. There is an incredible disconnect between the interests of those who create and enforce the laws and those who live with the real-time results of policy.
My message to young people is to take action and participate in the arenas where you feel change is needed, and the earlier you do that, the more likely it is to evolve into some form of professional or career path.
It is challenging and rewarding to find meaningful work, but the younger you engage the more likely you are to stay engaged. Living in a democracy required full participation, and I think that’s something we’ve taken for granted vastly in this country. It’s not enough to just get a degree and get a job and get what’s yours. It’s going to take all of us to break through this madness and set things right, and young people are the key. I want them to believe in their power.
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. 🙂
Yeah, that’s easy — I want the Obamas to recognize the value of the documentary work we are doing out here on the front lines of these social issues and use their leverage with a platform like Netflix to empower the voices of people like the subjects of our films, who are living these issues. We live in a world dominated by platforms and there are only so many portals of access for companies who choose to do the work independently and aren’t part of the establishment who choose to tell the right story at the right time, on their terms. They are an example of the types of gatekeepers that could open things up to a new, diverse generation of voices. We are tired of the same people telling us stories all the time, and the landscape is ripe with talent. So, Barack and Michelle are welcome to slip into my DMs whenever they are ready.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Martin Luther King, Jr’s quote “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” — mainly because I’ve been reflecting upon whether or not I believe this to be true. Certainly, I hope it’s true, but it’s hard to feel it these days when the world seems to be on fire, literally and figuratively, all around us. I want to believe in the American experiment and that we can evolve into a truly multicultural society that atones for its past and believes a future that holds equal opportunity for all. However, I just see us sliding so far down the path of inequality that I don’t know where to look for the emergency exit.
Our present moment with the coronavirus crisis is exacerbating all of this in the wrong direction and I don’t blame people for feeling disenfranchised. It is a slippery slope because we can’t give in and we can’t give up and we have to keep fighting, and before all of this, if you asked me what the problem was, I would have said that the problem is that people aren’t paying attention. That feels like it’s shifting, and it gives me hope. I love seeing all of these young people out in the streets advocating for change, and they’re walking in lockstep with people who feel like they already fought this battle decades ago. But it can’t be a phase and it can’t be momentary, it is going to take a sustained fight and I just hope we have the mettle to do the work that needs to be done.
How can our readers follow you online?
Through our website and social media:
This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!