Filmmaker Abigail Fuller (“Chef’s Table”, “Do You Dream in Color?”) was the recipient of the 2019 The North Face’s Move Mountains Film Makers Grant that empowered her to hire female department heads in her newest documentary, “Shepherd’s Song”. This female-backed film focuses on Jenya, a young shepherd who practices natural regenerative grazing with her herd of sheep. This ancient practice helps tremendously with fire mitigation, especially in the dry-land climate of California. Just like Native American burn practices, Jenya shows that returning to the old ways is what is best to prevent fire disasters that we’ve been seeing so much of in the last few years. Fuller’s film is a beautiful, cinematic look at this practice, and shows us that every little bit helps, whether that’s one ranch or one film set making a difference.
Shepherd’s Song can be found on YouTube.
What drew you to this story and how did you connect with Jenya?
In 2017 I moved from Los Angeles, where I’d been working as a filmmaker, and moved to a regenerative ranch. I married a rancher. That’s when I started to really sink my teeth into the world of regenerative agriculture, and started to see the land that we were based on transform from the use of grazing animals. Wildlife was coming back and lots of interesting native plants that had been lost in the seed bank. I knew very little about the positive impact of grazing animals, I think I had only heard negative stories about livestock. And so I wanted to tell some of the great work that was being done, and I loved the idea of also including a young woman who is a shepherd, farmer, rancher. I think oftentimes we think of old men that are doing that work. I wanted to feature a story around a young person who is doing something unconventional with their life, doing what they can to make the world a better place. And that’s how I found Jenya.
You’ve made this film, the series “Chef’s Table”, and some other doc work. What got you into this style of filmmaking?
I went to film school at USC and even before that I always knew I wanted to make films. And then when I graduated from school I started on my first film, which was a feature documentary called “Do You Dream in Color?”, and I was doing that simultaneously as I was starting to work on reality tv and cable documentary television. Out of film school, the documentary world presented the least barriers to entry. So whereas a scripted film was going to need more financing, casting actors, locations, a great script…with documentary you could just grab a camera and have Final Cut on your laptop and you could start making things. And then I realized I really loved that type of storytelling because I got to meet real people and have windows into these worlds that I really fell in love with, and got to share all sorts of different stories.
I realized I really loved that type of storytelling because I got to meet real people and have windows into these worlds that I really fell in love with, and got to share all sorts of different stories.
There was a line in the film that Jenya’s partner says “the work we’re doing has a purpose and an impact.” Can you talk about what purpose and impact filmmaking has in stories like this that inspire change?
I think there’s two parts to that. The first part was I wanted a story that could actually share some of the technicalities around grazing. There are some sequences where she explains how it works. It’s a process as ancient as time where animals eat the grasses they co-evolve with, and their hoofprints make the perfect space to collect water. So I wanted to have something that felt a bit educational and have an impact in that sense.
And the second part is I wanted it to be used as inspiration. What I loved about Jenya is that her story echoed a lot what I felt in that we’re seeing so many challenges in our world – war, inequality, climate change, it’s just this barrage of things to feel overwhelmed and often depressed about. Jenya really is finding purpose, impact and meaning through taking this corner of the world, and saying “how can I have a positive impact?” And that can really help us move through challenging times when you can feel overwhelmed by everything going on, and unable to fix it all.
Jenya says in the film “nature holds the keys and lessons.” What lessons did you learn while making this film?
When it comes to the grazing part, I learned more about the fire mitigation strategies. I learned a lot about the specifics of dry-land management.
But also one of the things that I thought was a really amazing experience, was because this was through a female filmmaker grant, I was able to put together this amazing group of women to make the film. So the producer, the cinematographer, the composer, the editor, I was able to find all of these very talented women as department heads. That was another amazing experience to be surrounded by all of these talented women, and have a lot of fun! I’m used to doing network things and commercials where you’re always in the place where commerce meets art, and having to balance that. This was a real great learning experience and being able to do whatever we wanted and let the storytelling take front and center. And that was a really beautiful experience.
Who and/or what inspires you in your work?
It depends on the project, but I mentioned I went to film school so I’m kind of a nerd and love watching films on Criterion Collection.
Right now we’re in an interesting space in the documentary world where there are better budgets and also more of an ability to push the genre than we’ve seen historically, where documentaries all felt like they had a certain style to them. Now there’s a place where films feel more elevated. We’re bringing more tools and styles that you would think of for narrative filmmaking into documentaries. There’s some elements of that in Shepherd’s Song. Like oh, we’re going to shot list out a sequence where she’s in the trailer making tea, and then we follow her journey out and it’s all on a tripod, which means it’s deliberate and she has marks. And we’re gonna build a sequence where we’re going to cut in all of these shots of the natural world around her. So there’s ways I think now it’s not just archival and handheld, and you can use a really cinematic approach in documentary filmmaking, and that’s something that excites me about where we can continue to push the genre of non-fiction storytelling.
. . . you can use a really cinematic approach in documentary filmmaking, and that’s something that excites me about where we can continue to push the genre of non-fiction storytelling.
It excites me too! I love documentaries so much, and they’re morphing and changing the way they’re being made now. It’s so cool.
Yeah, I’m such a visual person and that’s what gets me really excited about filmmaking. Obviously the story is always the first priority, but I love that there are opportunities to use cinematic approaches to enhance the storytelling.
What advice do you have for emerging female filmmakers?
I think it’s an exciting time to be a female filmmaker, and an emerging filmmaker! We’re seeing a lot of opportunities across the board in ways that organizations, film festivals, production companies, even the streamers are more mindful of hiring women and seeking out stories by, about and for women than they were when I graduated film school. So that’s something that’s encouraging to see.
Finding mentors and role models is really important. People that have been through the industry and have an understanding of how it all works, and can be a guide, answer questions and make introductions. So much of the industry is about relationships and forming those relationships. Finding somebody you respect or admire and see if they’ll share some time or coffee to share their expertise and maybe just be on their radar is a really important thing to get your first foot in the door.
Finding somebody you respect or admire and see if they’ll share some time or coffee to share their expertise and maybe just be on their radar is a really important thing to get your first foot in the door.
Is there anything else that you wanted to add?
I feel really excited that there’s all of these communities being built around female filmmakers. I do think that communities of women working together, hiring each other, supporting each other and sharing is really helpful for all of us to promote each other and rise up together. I really value that a lot. And I think there’s a change happening where we realize there doesn’t have to just be one woman in the room, we can have all women in the room, or ideally at least half women in the room in production companies or on set. I think these types of platforms and the work Cinema Femme is doing is really a huge part of supporting that evolution.
And I think there’s a change happening where we realize there doesn’t have to just be one woman in the room, we can have all women in the room, or ideally at least half women in the room in production companies or on set.