February 13, 2015

Pride, Work, and Necessity of Side Projects: “So Close to the Sky” by Documentary Filmmakers Anica Wu and Emily Kinskey

What are you working on—on the side?

We are currently in Panama working on our feature-length documentary “So Close to the Sky”, a film about one of the oldest indigenous tribes, the Ngäbe-Buglé, and the rural campesinos of Western Panama. As the country rapidly develops, these native and traditional lifestyles are increasingly unsustainable, and as they fade, so do the history and traditions of Panamanian culture.

We work on commercial and documentary projects in Chicago, where we are based, but our passion has always been to create international documentary works that bring a voice to the unexplored and undocumented. The Ngäbes graced the international spotlight in 2012, when their protests against a mineral mine in their comarca (indigenous land reservation) caused the police to react with force. The protests were effective, and the mining contract was withdrawn, but these private people, who live in the remote jungle, remained largely misunderstood.

In May 2014, we journeyed across the country to discover what the Ngäbe were protecting with such pride. We hiked an ancient trail that connects the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans. The eight-day hike across the mountain range introduced us to indigenous and rural families who are passionate about their land and lifestyles, and unsure about how to continue into the future of their newly industrialized society. We are spending the first months of 2015 living side-by-side with the people we met in order to better understand their story—we want the entire film to be in their voice, with no outside opinion or narration; so it is imperative that we spend enough time in the field to be able to portray them with honesty, dignity, and respect.

How do you manage to work on your side project(s)?

We’re both self-employed; so managing our daily schedules has allowed us to schedule in time to work on our film. Creating a feature film is a substantial amount of work, and we knew early-on that in order to get it done, we would have to prioritize the time; so we schedule in weekly office hours together specifically to work on the film, and hold each other accountable to those hours. Oftentimes, this means early mornings and late hours on our other client work, but it’s worth it to get to do both.

Once we started prioritizing our documentary alongside our day jobs, we made great strides. We were able to put together a website and trailer, garner feedback, and attend conferences. It was through pursuing our work as documentary filmmakers, along with support from the Chicago community, that has opened the door to new opportunities in filmmaking. Our side project is paving the way to turning this type of work into a full-time career.

Why have a side project?

We had been dreaming of hiking across Panama to make this film for over a year—and with Panama changing so rapidly, we knew that if we didn’t make this film now, the situation might be nonexistent in five years. No one was going to fund us in the production of a documentary film with an empty IMBD profile—but we weren’t going to wait for someone to give us permission. This was something we knew we had to do. The people and their situation were far more important to us than our fear of our own abilities.

There’s a stigma in the film industry, especially in documentary filmmaking, that you have to be a freelancer your whole life, and that independent films have to be a side project because the only source of funding is from grants and handouts. We don’t believe that. Our side project isn’t just a side project—it’s who we want to be, it’s our investment into the legacy of our filmmaking career. Of course that’s an easy thing to say, “jump first and figure it out later” is a commonly cited cliché. But to us, it’s more like—jump first and then work as long and hard as it takes to make it happen. We’re happy to say that it is working—the work we’ve put into “So Close to the Sky” has led to client work, and that work is financing the production of our film. What started out as a crazy dream, and a side project, is beginning to evolve into a dream job.

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Diptych and sample artwork courtesy of Anica Wu and Emily Kinskey.

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Read more about the joy of side projects.

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Directly related: Independent Filmmaker and Chief Executive Artist Ondi TimonerFaythe Levine and Sam Macon celebrate American tradition of handmade signs in film “Sign Painters”

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