Capturing Narratives with Steffie van Rhee
In the age of heightened social awareness, creatives of all mediums have used their talents to shed light on social issues and give voice to the marginalized. An evolution has taken place in the messaging we receive through music, art, literature, film and television. Most specifically, millennials have been widely regarded for honing a paradigm that has challenged our ideas of humanity. Gone are the days of only having one type of human experience represented in the media. It has always been true that every human experience exists in a spectrum of complexities and intersections. We have entered a social renaissance in which many of us are forced to acknowledge the privileges we hold, how they affect the world around us and more importantly, how we can use those privileges to help others. At age 24, documentary filmmaker Steffie van Rhee has reinforced this new and revolutionary standard through her work.
From producing films about Hijabi beauty bloggers and the harrowing effects of online harassment to creating films about deaf families and the aftermath of losing a child to police brutality, van Rhee has chosen a path that pushes forth narratives that often go unheard and unseen in mainstream media. In this interview we chat about the responsibilities that come with telling stories that are not our own, the power behind documenting tragedy and of course the importance of allowing space for bad ass women filmmakers.
L: You started off as a writer which seems to be the starting point for a lot creatives regardless of where they end up. Tell me a bit about your journey-- how you started writing, went to school for Journalism in Utrecht and eventually moving from The Netherlands to New York for Grad School.
S: I've been writing for as long as I can remember. You guys have English Lit, we have Dutch Lit and that was always my favorite subject in school. I loved when we got to write stories and just reading a lot too. When I was done with high school and went to college it was kind of the obvious choice to go to Journalism school because it gave me the opportunity to write more. At that time I wanted to work for magazines--- I'd always have stacks and stacks of magazines. I thought it’d be so cool to interview people and it seemed like the natural thing to do.
I started to film review and I was a sports reporter for 5 years all throughout journalism school. It was just fun to get to write and be paid for it or go to movies and write about them. At some point I started an online magazine about TV Shows with a friend and we did that for about 2 years. I think it was my second year of journalism school that I had my first television class and I was like “this is really fun” especially because I was already writing about films and TV. I started learning about it more so by the time graduated I was working for regional television and started to work on documentaries. Eventually I moved from being interested in covering the news to wanting to do longer pieces. I kind of strayed away from journalism because I felt like it was so much more about entertainment.
L: The term journalist is almost a bad word nowadays because everyone thinks they're a journalist but they really aren't -- they don't fact check anything.
S: Exactly and that was kind of annoying to me. Everyone with a Twitter account thinks they're a journalist. For me that's not really it but I also realized that as much as I really appreciate and believe in good journalism, I'm also not the hardcore person that you can drop into a war zone [laughs] -- I would never do that but I am interested in people and telling their stories.
L: There is definitely a common thread in your work of telling stories about people who are marginalized and I know before you got into directing you started off doing research and producing. How do you go about selecting the type you projects you want to be on?
S: It’s pretty new wanting to talk about social justice issues and feeling like that it’s important to do, especially coming here from The Netherlands. I've realized how privileged I've grown up. Sure we have our issues but not like here. What happened in Charlottesville, VA -- we don't have shit like that happening. Working here the past few years, I've also had to deal with a lot of sexism which I never really had to before. On one hand I'm still pretty young and when I lived back home and worked I probably just wasn't aware but in general a lot of the problems here in the US we just don't have back home.
When I moved here and started to make A Life Before This I wanted to tell a story I wouldn't be able to tell at home. I thought if I’m going to come here to go to grad school, I might as well make something I can only make here. After working with her [Ramarley’s mother Constance Malcolm] on that story and meeting people at the rallies I just felt like if you hear about all of these things that are going on, you can't not show up. I was very aware of my own privilege but also of what I can do to help. I'm a documentary filmmaker and there's art in that but also it’s sort of my power. I can tell stories I think need to be told and that's what I have to offer and I feel like it's a waste if I don't use my skills and talent to make these kinds of stories.
L: Watching A Life Before This, it reminded me a lot of the Kalief Browder story even though their stories are different. There’s so many intersections to a lot of the issues in our communities, it's not a monolithic thing. Yes, people are dealing with police brutality but we're dealing with it terms of police coming into your house and killing you or police wrongfully arresting you and you're not able to get out of prison because your family can't afford to post bail. We're so inundated with these stories and it's easy for people to just say "oh just another police brutality story" but there's intricacies there. What made you choose Ramarley Graham’s story?
S: I am came into this field of documentary as a researcher, it's what I love and where I feel my strengths lie. I decided to talk about something I could only talk about here, once I had the idea of talking about police brutality I was kind of afraid of it.
L: But that's good, you have to do the thing that makes you afraid.
S: Yes, totally. That's such a true thing. You know you're onto something if you're like "uhh, I'm not sure". I think I was mostly afraid of it because I was like “do I tell someone else's story?”. A lot of times people will say “men shouldn't tell women's stories” or things like that. I don't necessarily agree with that because I think there's a nuance. If you only tell stories you know it can be very limiting but with Ramarley’s story there was some sense of "I have no experience with this". So far, back home we've had one case of this [police brutality] but it's nothing like here.
L: It's so common and normalized here.
S: Yea, and in communities like the Bronx. They all knew him but they also know other people who were shot and killed in some other way as well. I felt like I was such an outsider and I didn't want to mess it up or make a cliché out of it.
L: There's definitely an art to letting the subject tell it's story itself and you capturing that in the best possible way, especially with documentaries
S: Exactly. I came across his story in the New York Times or some other publication like that. I had so many questions, I was very confused. I was like wait "It was in his house? And his grandma and little brother were there?" They said they found some weed but it sounds like they maybe planted it but even if they did find weed you don't have to shoot someone over a little bag of weed. There were so many question marks for me and at first I wasn't sure if it was just because I didn't know about this or because it's just a lot of things went wrong here and were very questionable -- it made me want to look into it more.
I saw Constance had a pretty active Twitter account at that point where she would post about rallies or articles and I just sent her a message and said "hey, I'm from The Netherlands and I'm going to grad school there soon and I would like to talk to you about maybe doing a film on this" and she was really open to meeting. When I finally met with her it was at her house in the Bronx which is also where the incident happened. We had a connection right away and she said some things that really made me feel like this was the story I wanted to tell. The title of the film came from something she said. She was talking about how she never chose this life, “I didn’t want to be an activist, I didn’t want to spend my life like this, I had a life before this but now this is what I have to do" It's such tragic story but also there was so much power in it. She's just so graceful to take on this fight and it's not just for her son anymore, it's for all people.
L: I noticed in the credits for that film, you're very hands on. You direct, you produce, you shoot and you write. Does this make the process more difficult? Do you have trouble delegating work because it's your baby and you trust yourself most?
S: Yes and no. I made the film in grad school and you just don't have any resources -- resources are you get a camera from school and you have your classmates. I definitely don’t trust just anyone to help make my films. It's different if you can hire people and work with who you want to work with. I'm hoping that eventually I get to just be the director and often when you are just the director, you're director/producer anyway because it just makes sense. Same with research, I want to tell certain stories and it’s important that I find those stories myself. I would like to get to the point where I have a crew and they can just film it.
L: I was reading some of your articles on #GirlCrew Collective's website and you talk about the differences between working with an all-female crew versus working with men and how we have to learn to work together so we can learn from each other, do you feel like that willingness to learn is one-sided?
S: Like we can only learn from men?
L: Not that we can only learn from men but only women are willing to learn from men and not the other way around.
S: I don't think so. I've worked with men enough, it's definitely not that all of them are like "you're just some girl". It's about finding the right people though that has become very hard. Right now there's such a narrative of strong women in film which is awesome and I love that's there's also men like Ryan Murphy in television pushing for more women directors. I believe in that because it's going to change if you push for it but at the same time it's such a pity that that's how it needs to be. I love working with all women but it shouldn't be because that's the only way I can work now.
L: There’s also that aspect of women directors being more nuanced in their approach to directing than men.
S: I think that's definitely a thing too and that's why it's important to have more female directors but I don't think that means the whole crew needs to be female. Definitely in some cases it calls for that like in My Hijab, My Business that was it was done by a production company called Rose Stories back home in Amsterdam and they're mostly women. It just made sense to work with only women because there were very sensitive stories, we were working with Muslimahs in hijabs. One of them would take it off a few times to pray. Obviously we didn't film it but it was okay that we were there because if men were there it would've been uncomfortable.
L: We're starting to see more people owning their own narratives in film and television. Earlier you touched on this saying how you don't necessarily feel like if you're a man you can't tell a woman's story. You do have to be sensitive to how you approach certain stories but at the same time if you're only telling your own stories that's kind of limiting you. For example with the film Detroit that recently came out there's talk of a white woman telling a story how she feels it should be told. What do you feel are the boundaries on that?
S: I'm just thinking of what stories would I be able to tell-- I probably would not have been able to make any of the films that I've made so far. The first project I ever did was about a deaf family, I'm not deaf but I made it with someone who was hard of hearing so that was definitely an approach. There definitely has to be boundaries and you also have to find help. For instance with this Detroit film, that's such a big difference of a white woman telling a story of Black America and very much projecting "this is how I think everything is". You should definitely have writers or advisors who are from Detroit and have lived that life that you're trying to portray. I think that makes it a little bit easier for documentary filmmakers. Sure, I pick what I want to talk about but the only way I can talk about it is by using other people.
L: You have to do your due diligence with documentaries.
S: Yea and I have to tell their story by winning their trust and having them say "I'm okay with you telling my story" it makes it so much easier to do the work of honestly portraying it. Also, sometimes saying "you know what, I don't know this. You have to tell me." It's okay to just ask for help.
L: It’s cool because unlike fictional films, in documentaries your subjects inform you.
S: Something people often say about documentaries is that in process of making a documentary you should never have an idea at the beginning and end with the same thing.
L: Do you see yourself staying in the documentary lane?
S: Definitely. I'm also interested in fiction in the sense that I just really love movies and telling stories. If there was ever an opportunity to tell a story that would just need to be told in that genre I would definitely do it but I'm not trying to go to LA -- it's not something I'm actively pursuing.
L: There's definitely that notion for fictional filmmakers that if you want to take yourself seriously, you have to go to Hollywood but a lot of New York based filmmakers who have more indie or serious subject matter like documentaries are like “mmm nah I'm not going to do that”.
S: There is. And I like it here and I really do love documentaries. I have a quote above my desk at home that says "when you want to fool the world, tell the truth" I don't remember where it's from or who originally said it but I look at it every so often because that's what documentaries are or just life in general. The craziest things are always true.
L: What is a piece of advice you would give an aspiring young woman filmmaker who may have trouble figuring out where to get started?
S: If you want to be a filmmaker, find a story that you really love -- a message you believe in or something you're really curious about. As a filmmaker you have to live with a subject for so long. If you don't completely love it or want to know everything about it it's not worth it. I really do love my work but there are definitely nights where it's 3AM, you're still editing and you're just not feeling it and I can't imagine having to work on something I don't love or I'm not excited about. I learn so much from everything that I work on. You have to really love it because then you can figure everything else out because when it gets hard or you don't see how it’s going to be a film, as long as you find that feeling of "this is the story I need to tell", it’ll be fine.
You can find Steffie on Instagram at @steffievanrhee