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“You Can’t Wait For Permission”: Chanda Chevannes on Breaking Into the Film Industry

Chanda Chevannes is changing perspectives, one film at a time. In 2013, Sydney’s Buzz on Indiewire named her a “Woman To Watch.” Her short doc SASA! has changed individual behaviours and national laws on violence against women and HIV. And Living Downstream, her first feature film, took on the chemical industry. It was broadcast on 6 continents and has been viewed by over 4 million people.

Chanda is also leading DOC Institute’s New Visions Incubator bootcamp, a creative bootcamp on doc storytelling. The Bootcamp will be held in Toronto, Belleville, and Sudbury. The application deadline for New Visions Incubator is March 26, 2017.

We spoke to Chanda about her recent work, how to tell a story visually, and her advice to young filmmakers.

Tell us about your most recent project. 

I’m working on Unfractured, an observational doc about Sandra Steingraber. She’s a mother and biologist who reinvented herself as an activist to go head-to-head with the oil and gas industry in New York State.

But when her husband started to have strokes, she was pulled between her family life and her activist life. The film shows that struggle.

What’s one thing you’ve learned from this project? 

Making a film isn’t always about making the film. It’s also about talking about it. The more I talk about it, think about it, the more it gets refined in my mind. It allows me to make a stronger film.

That goes for funding applications too. Every time you have to write a funding application, it teaches you something about the project. Everyone wants you to talk about it in a different way. It makes you hold the film up, look at it in different ways, sculpt it into something new.

You’ve had tremendous success with your film Living Downstream. What were some of the challenges of making it?

The biggest one was knowing how to tell a story visually. Knowing how to make an argument and lay out a case with images — that was definitely the biggest challenge.

New doc filmmakers often still think in terms of what will be said in a documentary, rather than what will be seen—and what will happen. In my previous work, I had an old-fashioned idea that the most important thing in the documentary were the interviews: that the visuals were secondary. With Living Downstream, I figured out that what happens and what is seen in the film is even more important than the interview.

If you could go back & give advice to yourself as a young/emerging filmmaker, what would you say?

I would tell myself to make a lot of short films as quickly as possible. A full-length documentary takes a long time to make. And what you learn from it — that takes a long time before you can apply it to your next film.

When I was a teenager, I loved the idea you could sit there by yourself and you could work on video until it was perfect. And then you put it out into the world.

It took me a long time to realize you can’t actually do that. It’ll never be perfect. Especially with doc. You have to live with the imperfections. But practicing over and over again will hone your skills. It’s the only way you really learn to make a film.

The industry is constantly changing. Over the past few years, the shift has been drastic. What would you recommend to young filmmakers trying to break into the industry today?

I got into the industry in 2001. Since that time, people have been saying it’s been in a crazy state of change. That’s what — 16 years? So maybe that’s just how it is. Change is a constant and we should just get used to it. I’m not a surfer, but I think there’s something about trying to ride the wave of the industry.

But regardless of how it’s changing, you can’t wait for permission for anything in this industry. It’s very rare that anyone will give you permission – so you just have to take it. You just have to find a way to do it yourself.

The deadline to apply to the New Visions Incubator is March 26 before midnight. Apply now!