By Katie Chambers
NYWIFT member Ilja Willems heads to the 2023 DOC NYC Festival with not one but two exciting new short films. Friendly Fridges shows how the new heart of the community is popping up in every neighborhood—in the shape of refrigerators. And When the grass must go follows a landscaper from Nevada who is removing grass lawns under a first-of-a-kind state law that will save water during an ongoing drought.
Willems spoke to us about how these two disparate films align with her creative sensibilities, the joy of screening in NYC, and more!
Congratulations on having not one but two films screening at DOC NYC! What does inclusion in the festival mean to you?
It means a lot to be part of this festival. DOC NYC is such an amazing, fun festival and to be able to celebrate a global documentary community in person and simultaneously see so many familiar New York faces every day at the screenings really makes me very proud of being part of all this. And of course, getting recognitions for the stories you have worked so hard on feels always very nice.
These films are both wildly different in subject matter. But do you find any throughlines between them? Or do they share something in common maybe that speaks to your sensibilities as an artist?
I am very passionate about making stories on climate change and social inequality & social justice because these films are essential in raising awareness. Awareness is the first step to enabling change.
In both films there is one main protagonist whose story exemplifies a larger social or environmental matter. Through their eyes and their personal story, we get to see the bigger issue but because of their personal perspective the viewer can hopefully relate a bit better.
Tell us more about Friendly Fridges. It’s such a quirky and interesting concept. How did this film come about?
It was during the never-ending pandemic. Everything was so grim and heavy and we had been making a lot of stories about the situation in New York, the protests following George Floyd’ s death and the 2020 elections. My dad had passed away from Covid, and I really needed to make a story that would give us hope. I had seen the community fridges and also felt how New Yorkers were taking more care of each other than before and immediately knew: this is it!
Through Collective Focus Hub I found Kymme Williams who wanted to tell her journey with the community fridge she’s hosting, and her story and passion brought back the biggest smile on my face.
I’m so sorry for your loss. When the Grass Must Go tackles a relatively new idea that is gaining traction among communities looking for ways to conserve water and build more sustainable environments in a rapidly changing world. How do you envision the role of the creative community in the fight against climate change?
When the grass must go is about a first-of-its-kind law in Nevada that bans all non-functional grass because the upkeep of the grass costs too much water. Documentaries about climate change are essential because – just like a lot of other problems in the world – if it does not immediately affect you, you might not be aware of it.
The creative community can play a very important role by showing problems from different (personal) perspectives, going beyond the headlines and the scientific numbers, and showing people that it affects all of us in various ways and action is needed.
What do you enjoy about working in the short-form filmmaking format? Do you find it limiting or helpful when crafting a story?
I am used to making longer stories and documentary series. When I started doing 15-minute films it was a bit of an adjustment. It is a challenge to find the right balance in conveying information, adding that extra layer and create a well-rounded story that is visually attractive at the same time. But I started to love it and am doing more and more short form. I feel people are also enjoying this length.
What do you hope audiences will take away from each of these films?
In my opinion one of the best compliments a filmmaker can get is “this film made me think.” A good story can help us recognize complex matter where before you would perhaps look at it more in black and white.
I believe an important purpose of making documentaries is to promote critical thinking and raise awareness. I hope people who watch both films start looking around in their community to see if they can contribute in some way to reduce social inequality and climate change because despite the fact these issues sometimes make you feel helpless, you can make a difference.
Tell us more about your production company, Bureau NY!
Bureau NY is Brooklyn-based cinematic content company recognized for our signature documentary style projects and expertise in authentic and conscious storytelling. Together with my husband and cinematographer Remco we started the company almost 10 years ago. We strive to expand people’s worlds by creating high quality and visual narratives, aiming to inspire, inform and amaze people no matter where they are from.
This is unrelated – but I have to ask! I saw on your website that you sailed around the world on a three-mast ship in the footsteps of Charles Darwin. Wow! Tell us about that – what inspired your journey, what you learned along the way, favorite moments… How does your sense of adventure shine through in your creative work?
Yes! In the Footsteps of Charles Darwin was the most memorable production I have ever been a part of. It was a 36-episode documentary series On the Future of Species. We re-sailed Darwin’s journey to assess what state the world is in. The project was almost like an open university for me because every leg of the trip we had new scientists from all over the world joining us to explain different aspects of evolutionary biology, natural phenomena, or climate change-related developments along the way.
I have so many favorite moments like sitting in the top of the mast near Argentina looking for whales to jump out of the water, swimming between the seals and ice rocks in the south tip of Chili in a neoprene survival suit, or seeing a field full of giant tortoises in the Galapagos.
I learned that the world is so very beautiful but also that it is up to us humans to not ruin it! Because the stories about commercial-fishing, water shortages and plastic in the oceans showed us that we are exhausting Mother Earth.
What’s next for you?
We have just finished a 10-episode short documentary series about various social-political issues in American society. We are now working on a couple of plans for new films that are more focused on creativity and hope, since I need a bit of lightness in my next projects. We are always open to new projects and co-operations so please don’t hesitate to reach out.
Ilja Willems, a Brooklyn based documentary director and creative producer, crafts character-driven documentaries exploring social-political and cultural-historical landscapes worldwide. Fueling her passion is a childhood immersed in her father’s bookstore, where she embarked on global adventures through books. Now, she brings others’ personal stories to life, navigating new perspectives and unraveling the unknown. Ilja fearlessly tackles challenges, crosses borders, and thrives in collaborative environments. From retracing Darwin’s journey on a three-mast ship to swimming around the Statue of Liberty, her life mirrors the adventurous narratives she captures on film. Ilja, who is a master of research and collaboration, balances the art of storytelling with a love for exploration and the unexpected, as evidenced by her award-winning work.
NYWIFT Member Elivia Shaw is a producer and co-editor of the fascinating new documentary How to Have an American Baby, which just make its New York Premiere at DOC NYC 2023. The film is a a nuanced, behind-the-scenes look into the booming shadow economy catering to pregnant Chinese tourists who travel to America to give birth in order to obtain U.S. citizenship for their babies. Told through a series of observational vignettes, and with extraordinary access to the maternity hotel industry and their clients, the film outlines the invisible contours of the underground birth tourism industry and its unexpected actors in the U.S. and China, while probing deeply into the lives of several protagonists caught up in the phenomenon. What results is an intimate and compassionate portrait of women’s reproductive journeys, family, traditions, and capitalist desires. Shaw spoke to us about her collaboration with director Leslie Tai and the unique joys and challenges of the project.READ MORE
NYWIFT Member Emily Sheskin’s return to DOC NYC 2023 is particularly meaningful. In 2017, she attended the festival with her short film Girl Boxer, about a 10-year-old champion female boxer and her adoring father. Six years later, Sheskin returns with a feature-length film following the same family, now facing an entirely new set of challenges. In Jesszilla, New Jersey’s own Jesselyn Silva, a three-time national boxing champion, is on her way to superstardom, dominating the junior ranks at the age of 15. With her every step of the way is her father, Pedro, a single parent who helps her navigate coaches, training schedules, and the angst of teenage life. When a devastating diagnosis threatens the father-daughter tandem, the pair turn to each other to fight their greatest opponent yet: cancer. Director and Executive Producer Emily Sheskin spoke to us about her unique journey following this family.READ MORE
Congratulations to NYWIFT Board Member Joyce Pierpoline, Executive Producer of Mediha, which just took home the U.S. Competition Grand Jury Prize at DOC NYC! In this immensely collaborative film, a Yazidi teen once held captive by ISIS takes us into her world of grief, pain, and hope. We spoke to Pierpoline (prior to the exciting win) about her involvement in this important film.READ MORE
NYWIFT member Luchina Fisher’s powerful new film The Dads features fathers tackling tough, complex issues of parenthood, masculinity, and more – learning to love and support their children the best they can. On a fishing trip with Matthew Shepard's father, five disparate dads discuss their love, hopes and fears for their trans kids in this short documentary. The film is screening now at DOC NYC, where is was named to the festival’s influential awards short list. We spoke to director and producer Luchina Fisher about her personal connection to the dads, her exciting Netflix opportunity, and the film’s superstar supporter.READ MORE