Amy Ziering: Documentary Filmmaker

Amy Ziering is a documentary filmmaker and producer of Invisible War, The Hunting Ground, Outrage and others. She is an Academy Award-nominated and two-time Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker whose work is deeply influential and incredibly important in this day and age.

What compels you to make films centered around sexual assault?

I’m not a survivor, it’s not from personal experience. There’s different reasons for each film that I make. For the first one, I was compelled by the topic and the injustice. I’m a feminist so it resonated with me on all of those fronts. I became so invested in the issue with making the first and that interest and passion drove me to make a second film. Now it’s something that I really understand and is definitely much more on my radar. When students came up to us and asked us to make The Hunting Ground, it was very much something that I was extremely interested in and wanted to do. Now we’re thinking of doing a third film in the sexual assault arena since we really understand the space and we’ve been able to influence and shift the national conversation to great extent on this issue.

Was it challenging to find people willing to share their experiences? How did you go about that process?

It was more challenging to find people with the Invisible War than it was in The Hunting Ground because I think with The Hunting Ground, women and men felt more comfortable stepping forward because they had actually seen the other film. They got courage from watching the survivors in the previous film come forward, but the Invisible War survivors really didn’t have a model and it was the first time that many of them really opened up to anybody about the experience. I think that our whole country actually owes those men and women in their military a debt of gratitude because they really opened up the space for this conversation. They not only stepped forward at a scary and very vulnerable time, but then acted as this leadership model for others to come forward. It had a domino effect so it’s pretty amazing.

Was there a statistic from either The Invisible War or The Hunting Ground that really surprised you?

 A lot was really shocking so it’s hard to narrow in on one statistic. The incredibly infinitesimally low percentage of convictions for sexual assault in our culture at large was surprising. I didn’t realize the frequency that these crimes are committed compared to the infrequency with which the assaulters and rapists are punished. As far as we can tell, it’s an extremely small percentage of people who commit these crimes and because there’s no mechanism in place designed to punish them, they do them over and over again.

I remember seeing The Hunting Ground for the first time and seeing the montage with the statistics of the sexual assaults in college reported compared to the convictions. I was amazed by that because the drastic difference between the convictions and cases reported hadn't really clicked before and it was just shocking to see that.

 What interested you first about film and producing them?

I wasn’t at all interested in film, I was an academic and was working on a PhD on comparative literature at Yale. Film just wasn’t my thing. I was mostly interested in exploring the work of this philosopher I was working with, Jacques Derrida. He was one of the greatest thinkers of the second half of the 20th Century and he was my teacher. I wanted to engage with his thinking in a way that would really challenge and test me so I asked him if he’d be okay if I made a film about him. He thought it was a joke at first and didn’t think I would really make it, but finally after a long pursuit, he reluctantly agreed to be in it. I stumbled into the film industry. It wasn’t from a passion for directing or producing, but really for telling interesting stories and engaging with his thinking in a different way than reading a book or writing a paper.

Your documentaries are often centered on political and social issues. If you were to make a film that wasn’t political, what would it be about?

It would definitely be a feminist comedy. Satire, non-patriarchal. I love the stuff that Jill Soloway makes, and I think she’s really groundbreaking in representing a world that doesn’t conform to the conventional narratives and tropes that you see so often in Hollywood. Everything’s political though. Even feature films have a lot of ideologies in them. My comedy would be a feminist comedy because it would champion and represent women in a non-objectified way and as powerful agents in their own right. Everything is political. Even the ways you engage with someone in any activity or in any kind of work is political. How you respect them, position yourself towards them, how you treat them, are they equitably paid. There’s no escaping politics so even if I did something ostensibly not political, it would have some political impact. People who work in fiction film have some responsibility and have to understand there’s implications to the stuff they put out. If the work they put out disadvantages women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community and represents them in a certain way, that’s not an apolitical film.

Would you say you have a greater duty to exposing the truth and telling political stories now than before with Donald Trump as the President?

 I think the duty is as great and definitely there. The challenge is that it’s hard to figure out how to speak up in this current space and landscape. As a filmmaker, I have to think about what kind of film would not only speak to the way I think as well as many others, but would also reach across and be heard by the people who need to be persuaded to think differently. The urgency is absolutely there, but the question that’s so confounding to most of us is: what will get heard in this space? Kirby and I had a film in first position, this was pre-election, and we had another film in second position. We decided post-election that our second film wasn’t quite urgent enough and we should try to do something right now that’s much more engaged with what’s going on. I think it’s important not only for documentary and social justice filmmakers, but for everyone in the entertainment business to really rethink what they’re doing and what they’re putting out there. Trump is a product of our media and of reality television and Apprentice; he is composed of materialistic values and antagonistic and aggressive ideas. Maybe we should look to different forms of entertainment so we don’t get stuck with these types of monsters.

How has your work impacted you as a person and your outlook on the world?

It’s impacted me tremendously. I have a much deeper, richer and more complex understanding of our military and of trauma than I ever had before. I understand the differences between secondary PTSD and PTSD, I understand the ubiquity of sexual assault in our culture. It’s been very interesting to see how important it is to do this. I really am an advocate for the power of speaking up and how much that can shift things. Just the power of one voice being amplified and heard. I have a much greater sense of empathy and respect for people who do social work because having myself be on the front lines of hearing these stories, you don’t come out the same person which shifts you too. Not for the worst, but it’s not easy to live through all of the dark sides of life that you might not have to confront if you weren’t doing this type of work. That changes you too.

What advice would you give to young women who want to be in the film industry, either on screen or behind the scenes, who want their work to make a difference?

 I think it’s great for young women to be in the film industry, whether on screen or off. There’s a lot of work right now in the entertainment industry because it’s growing. You should feel empowered and confident that you can do anything you want and be who you want to be. Nothing should stop you from believing that. Even though there is a lot of sexism and racism in the industry, you shouldn’t be daunted by that and you should pursue whatever path you want.

There’s a lot of opportunities now to make a difference. It’s hard if you’re starting out, but the first step is getting a job. Once you’re in a position of power, it’d be great if you read scripts with an eye to more diverse casting. Less sexist representations of women and men. Less typecasting of people of color. Less unbridled reverence for imperialistic and nationalistic narratives. I would try and start putting out different movies that espouse certain really problematic representations and ideologies. If you can’t do that because you’re just starting out and can’t tell your boss that you want to to do a different script, do your work and do activism on the side. I just met with a relative of mine who is younger and she was asking for advice about doing social justice things, but there aren’t a lot of jobs right now that match that. You shouldn’t feel bad about getting a job in reality television if that’s the only job that’s out there, but you should really work on activism on the side and go to protests on the weekends and truly just get involved. In the beginning, you could do one thing and the other and they’re not matched but as you get more power and influence, opportunities will arise for both those opportunities to meld. I was just at an activist meeting and these filmmakers who work on narrative films were so troubled by what has recently happened that they volunteered to shoot PSAs for the nonprofits that were presenting. Maybe right now you’re just working in the fiction world and in a space that might not feel particularly inspiring to you in terms of making an impact, but you can always use your filmmaking skills to help out an organization or cause that is trying to do good. There’s all sorts of ways to make an impact and get involved.