By Lisa Stahl
Talya Tibbon is an award-winning journalist and documentary producer and director. Her recent film, Sky and Ground, which screened on PBS World Channel last Fall and made the round of film festivals including DOC NYC, follows a Syrian refugee family on their hazardous journey across the borders of southern Europe en route to Germany.
On the eve of the film’s showing at the October 22nd NYWIFT Member Screening, Talya spoke with me about her own path.
Tell me about your background, training, and interest in documentaries.
I grew up in Israel, lived in England for a short time and then came to the US but I had an interest in journalism since childhood. At 11, I had a regular spot on the radio. I did military training in the Israeli Army in a highly selective radio journalism unit. When I came to the US, I learned how to make movies at Hunter College, earned a Master’s in International Affairs at Columbia, and became a producer at CNN. But I always wanted to produce documentaries so I left CNN after 10 years to do so.
The move to making movies was quite natural for me. I’ve spent most of my life away from my own culture and language. Being an outsider is a great advantage when you make documentaries. You approach people with a different eye, have a fresher approach to events than a person who’s been on the inside. As an outsider, people feel they need to explain things to you, tell you how they see things, which is how I like to make films.
What inspired this movie?
The refugee crisis of 2015 – 2016. It was time to look at this as it’s still a big issue around the globe. Telling one specific story is a good start.
Was the film scripted? What decisions did you make about narrating and in development? What inspired the “sky and ground” theme?
The initial challenge was finding a family. First we found a refugee camp and then this family. They were planning to leave the very next day but all the borders were closed. So, every border they crossed, they crossed illegally.
The film was unscripted and very spontaneous. I had no idea what they were going to say or do. In fact, at points, we couldn’t accompany them so I gave them cameras and let them tell their own story.
The idea for [the] title and theme came from an interview I did with Heba. I kept asking “what’s home?” Heba came out with “Home is sky and ground. It’s family.”
As for the story, that’s where my editorial judgment came into play. I pulled the story out of the footage.
How far did the family walk? What did it take to make this?
It took a great deal of patience and flexibility. Nothing about this journey was organized; you couldn’t do real planning or scheduling. This family walked some 180 miles after leaving Syria. It took three to six months to film…six or seven months to edit.
What decisions did you regret or do you feel enhanced the movie?
The best decision I made was to stick with this family…. For a while I was following two other stories. But in a way it was also one of the worst decisions because for a period I was juggling following three completely unpredictable stories which was a logistical nightmare.
What obstacles did you face as a woman producer/director?
The topics I usually tackle in my films are not light and there are fewer women working in these genres which can make things harder. When it comes to TV (and often production companies) they don’t associate women with making these kinds of films. I’ve found myself feeling like I’ve just crashed a “boy’s club.” It takes convincing to get opportunities.
How have things changed for women since you’re been in the industry?
There’s a whole new generation of young women who don’t feel they need to explain why they want to create. They are not waiting for anyone to give them opportunities. They are making their own. And there are a lot more women in decision making positions, although, sadly, that doesn’t necessarily always translate into them giving women better opportunities. Things are slowly changing but there’s still so much work to do.
What are your current projects and future plans?
I’ve been filming a new feature documentary, the story of a very courageous woman who decided to challenge an entire Baltic nation over the way that country is choosing to deal with the scars of the Holocaust. It’s a fascinating story.
Sky and Ground will screen as part of the NYWIFT Member Screening Series on Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019 at 7 PM at Anthology Film Archives. Tickets are on sale now and can be purchased here.
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