By Ozzi Ramirez
With a knack for merging film with her passion for science and journalism, Kate Walker has triumphed as an environmental and science producer, director, writer, and editor. Her projects, which have aired on networks such as PBS, Vice, HBO, IFC, and MSNBC, among other media platforms, typically raise awareness of prevalent social and environmental issues such as marginalized identities and climate change.
Furthermore, her ability to create content that resonates with viewers is reflected in the various accolades that her work has received over the years. Some of these awards include nominations for national Emmys and a Peabody and Producers Guild of America (PGA) award, respectively.
Read more about this former high school science teacher’s remarkable career journey as we discuss some must-see documentaries and Kate’s approach to developing a captivating filmic style that simultaneously educates and entertains audiences.
Describe yourself. Give us your elevator pitch!
I’m a not-naive idealist (hah!) dedicated to making a difference through journalism and documentary. I know how hard it is to communicate ideas which might interrupt the flow of people’s daily lives. After all, I’ve been working on environmental issues for more than 30 years. While I’m excited about the progress environmentalists have made in the past few years, the pandemic shows how much progress we still need in terms of more people feeling comfortable with scientific ideas. I sincerely believe that through clearer and more open information, life can get better on our planet.
You’ve had an extraordinary and versatile career as a producer and science enthusiast (among other roles). Looking back, what are some of your best memories?
“Science enthusiast” is such a nice term but “science nerd” is more like it! My best memories involve any of the diverse locations that I’ve had the opportunity to film and research, whether that was inside historically-significant mental hospitals, behind the scenes of the American Museum of Natural History, taking part in cattle branding with a bunch of Montana ranchers, or looking through original archival materials by hand.
Without a doubt, documentary films are a wonderful way to interest and educate viewers about topics they might otherwise overlook. In recent years, streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, etc.) have made documentaries more accessible to viewers. What are some documentaries that everyone should be watching and why?
Streaming services have definitely changed the landscape and made it possible for filmmakers to create films of different lengths, which is really exciting. Some recent documentaries that have stuck with me are Last Flight Home by Ondi Timoner. For me, the film is about how to live your life and leave a positive impact on the world. I was also really struck by The Tuba Thieves, which will be streaming on Independent Lens. The film should be watched holding an inflated balloon which is what Alison O’Daniel, the director, instructed us to do at her MoMA screening.
I also adored Love Bugs, which was available on POV, and is a short film about an entomologist couple and the beautiful jewel-like insects they study.
We live in a culture of over-saturation regarding individuals’ access to an abundance of media content. While there are pros to having more viewing options, information overload and misinformation can limit audiences’ abilities to effectively assess the content they consume. As a filmmaker and media professional committed to highlighting relevant societal issues such as climate change, voter suppression, and women’s representation in the workforce, what are some approaches that content creators could implement to optimize the extent to which their message is conveyed successfully to viewers?
While media is inundating, viewers, particularly those who are middle-aged and younger, are really savvy, so it’s important to keep your messaging real since people see through falsehoods and misrepresentations.
I also think people are still moved by impressive visuals and this should push media-makers to ensure our visuals stand out.
Persistence is also important. If your message has merit and resonates with people, they will respond eventually.
What brings you to NYWIFT?
For several years, I’ve been working on my first independent documentary and hope networking will give it a public life. Through meeting more people and laying the groundwork early, I hope my next film does not take as long.
What is the best and worst advice that you’ve received?
The best and worst advice I’ve received in this industry is probably the same in both cases. And that is to make yourself indispensable. It’s very challenging, particularly early in your career, to figure out the balance between always being available and making sure people appreciate what you’re putting into the work because you don’t want people to disrespect you and take you for granted.
How did the pandemic influence your work life?
The pandemic allowed me to spend concerted time scripting and editing an early draft of my documentary because I lost significant hours at my day job at the American Museum of Natural History.
The inequalities that the pandemic highlighted, in terms of access to food and who does what work in our society, also brought the message of my documentary into crisper resolution for many people and increased the audience for my film. See the next question!
Do you have any upcoming projects in the works?
I’m completing an independent documentary about Karen Washington, the nationally-recognized food and farming activist. Karen is from the Bronx and has won the James Beard Leadership award. She was also named one of the 100 most influential African Americans by Ebony Magazine. Together with three other women, Karen founded Rise and Root Farm outside the city in 2015.
The farmers’ story is about building a movement of Black farmers returning to their land and reclaiming the livelihood that was yanked away from them following emancipation. I received funding from the New York City Women’s Film Fund and hope to share the film with the world soon!
Connect with Kate Walker on LinkedIn.
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