By Katie Chambers
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.
Congratulations on your DOC NYC screening! What does inclusion in the festival mean to you?
Inclusion in DOC NYC this year is extra special for us, seeing as how 90% of our team and our participants are local to the NYC area. Beyond that, the short Girl Boxer screened at the festival in 2017, so being able to bring the feature all these years later has felt like a wonderful full circle moment.
Right! You have had such a unique journey – and opportunity – with this story, since you started filming your subject when she was a little girl (Girl Boxer, 2017), have followed her journey into young adulthood. When you started filming 10-year-old Jess in 2016 did you have any idea you’d still be working with her and her father nearly a decade later?
I think the answer is that I hoped that would be the case! The process of making the short allowed me to get to know Jess and Pedro that only confirmed these were special people. Their positive energy is contagious and their outlook on life admirable. As much as I wanted to see her succeed, however that was, I think we were interested in continuing to work with them and have them in our lives as we enjoyed spending so much time with them.
Has your approach to filming her and her family changed for you at all? I would imagine your relationship has only grown closer…
I think we always had a pretty similar approach, even as we grew closer over the years. We had a few “big budget” shoots per year when she was at a competition and travel was involved, a studio shoot where we did our interviews and b-roll, and then smaller, more impromptu shoots that were often just me and a camera.
Jesslyn’s diagnosis of brain cancer must have been devastating. Was there ever a moment where any of you considered stopping filming? How did you as a filmmaker navigate this transition from the story you had set out to tell to an entirely different one?
Yes, in fact when she first got the diagnosis and Pedro told me I figured that was the end of our film. I was worried sick about Jesselyn, and calling to check in and see how they were doing both emotionally and physically (she had brain surgery very soon after getting the diagnosis).
Jesselyn was the one who asked when we were filming again. She knew we’d been trying to film some “back to school” stuff with her and the family had cancelled a few times because she’d felt ill. Pedro told me that she’d asked him that, and we talked about how we felt about continuing the film, and asked her why she wanted to film and what she wanted to say.
That conversation is what you see in the third act of our film, with Jesseslyn in the driver’s seat to a degree.
What was your favorite moment making this film? And your biggest challenge?
It’s hard to pick one moment, and many of them happened off camera. My biggest challenge was remaining objective as a filmmaker whose lines had been blurred after so much time. Katie Turinski, our fabulous editor, helped A LOT with those conversations in order to make this the best film possible as did story talks with Jason Kohn & Amanda Branson Gill (Kilo Films).
Is this the culmination of your journey with Jesselyn and her father or will you continue working with her?
We continue to visit with the family and Pedro has expressed wanting to do something that raises awareness around brain cancer. That said, this project has concluded, and we will not be filming any more.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?
A few things. I hope that this creates space for younger audiences to talk about serious illness and grief as much as it does overcoming challenges and staying positive in the face of bad news. I hope we raise awareness around this awful disease, which is now a huge mission of the Silvas, and eventually find a cure so no family has to go through what Jesselyn and her father have.
What kinds of projects are you drawn to?
I think I’ve always struggled to understand what makes people tick, and documentary filmmaking has allowed me to ask questions and explore where passion comes from. As a filmmaker I think I would struggle to do a film with someone who I didn’t think was a warm, loving individual, as our work can often act as a megaphone for the folks on screen.
Something I immediately saw in the Silvas from the beginning was their strong love for each other and those around them. Pedro has my favorite line in the film, which is, “Life your life to the fullest, and live it with love.”
Our world would be a better place if people lived their lives like that.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently working on a graphic novel that will hopefully have its first issue out in time for Comicon next year, and am nurturing a few germs of ideas for documentary projects.
Emily Sheskin is an award-winning director whose work has been featured in numerous publications such as (but not limited to) The New York Times, National Geographic, and The Atlantic. She was also named one of the 10 groundbreaking women in film to watch in 2017 by Vimeo. She holds a BFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and is a member of New York Women in Film & Television and IFP.
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