NYWIFT Blog

NYWIFT @ Sundance: In Conversation with Laela Kilbourn

By Katie Chambers

In a time when women’s reproductive rights are at the forefront of the political and cultural conversation, a group of teenage girls gather to assert their power, prepare for their futures, and determine the best way forward together. Following the smash hit success of their documentary Boys State at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss returned to Park City in 2024 with the companion piece Girls State.

This anticipated return to the captivating world of teenage-led politics follows ambitions unfolding as hundreds of teenage girls gather to build a representative government in Missouri during a session of Girls State co-hosted for the first time alongside Boys State. As the girls run for office, including governor and supreme court seats, they also methodically preside over a reproductive rights case while the real-life overturning of Roe v. Wade hangs in the balance. McBaine and Moss stay embedded in Girls State, following several charismatic candidates, but these aspiring change-makers keenly take note of the Boys State program, and the differences between the programs, sparking outcry and awakening.

NYWIFT Member Laela Kilbourn was one of seven cinematographers on Girls State, assigned to follow one of the protagonist’s throughout her week-long journey. Kilbourn’s accumulated credits include Best Cinematography award winner Swim Team (a NYWIFT Loreen Arbus Disability Awareness Grant recipient), and eight Sundance documentary premieres, including Girls State; DuPont-Columbia Journalism Award winner This is Home: A Refugee Story; Peabody Award winning How to Dance in Ohio; and Emmy-nominated Word Wars. Noted narrative films are HBO Max’s Crabs in a Barrel, Death of a Fool, and Park Slope Moms, winner of the NYWIFT/iWomanTV Best Dark Comedy and Audience awards. She has worked on projects for FX, NBC, PBS, Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Epix, Apple+, Amazon, AMC, A&E, TBS, Nick Jr., NickMom, ESPN, and History.

Kilbourn spoke to us about her experience on Girls State and the kinds of projects that inspire her.

NYWIFT Member Laela Kilbourn

 

Congratulations on your Sundance 2024 screening! What does inclusion in Sundance mean to you?

Thank you! It is so exciting to be returning to Sundance with Girls State. This is my eighth film to debut at the festival (the first was 20 years ago in 2004) and my fifth time being present for a Sundance premiere, and I will say it does not get old. The warmth and generosity of a Sundance audience are not to be beat, and the energy of Park City during the festival is inspiring.

 

How did you get involved in Girls State?

Directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss reached out to me about joining the team of seven DPs that would be filming Girls State, and I was interested and excited by the fact that they wanted to make a film following the story of girls engaged in political processes and democratic power: I think we need more films about girls, in all their complexity and with all their ambitions. I was thrilled to come on board the project and to collaborate in the cinematic approach.

 

A still from Girls State by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo courtesy of Apple.

 

Girls State is an interesting “sibling project” to its predecessor, Boys State, from the same filmmakers, which was a hit at Sundance 2020. Were you familiar with Boys State, and did you let it influence or inspire your work at all on this project?

I knew of Boys State because a number of the cinematographers who shot it are my friends and colleagues. In my conversation with Amanda and Jesse about the filming of Girls State, they brought to bear what they had learned from the Boys State filmmaking process, which informed the planning for the upcoming shoot. It was helpful to hear these experiences, and to discuss them with the other DPs; but ultimately I decided not to watch Boys State prior to our principal photography.

I felt that Amanda and Jesse had brought me on to the project because they trusted my creative instincts and my verité experience, and that the way to give them my most inspired work was to let the current events happening before me do the inspiring and to not be constrained by precedence – to allow for those moments of zen when the action taking place and the camerawork become one fluid connected experience that then translates onto the screen.

 

As you mentioned, there were seven (!) cinematographers on this film. That’s not surprising given that the main action of this film takes place over one intensive week, likely with a lot of the main characters spread out simultaneously who needed to be followed. How did you collaborate to maintain a cohesive style throughout the process?

Yes, seven DPs is a lot! Before the start of the shoot, we all met together with the directors and discussed the plan, including the style and look of the project and potential challenges. Each DP was assigned a specific girl at Girls State and filmed with that same girl throughout. By keeping the camera and sound people consistent for each girl, the thought was the girls would come to feel comfortable more quickly with being filmed. We were thus in small independent teams working simultaneously, yet coming together at our campus base camp to check in periodically with the directors and with each other.

It was great to be in this stimulating and creative environment with all these talented people, united in one goal yet each bringing their individual expertise and artistry to it.

We were able to learn from each other’s experiences in real time and incorporate that learning immediately into the shoot days.

 

Tochi Hekona and Laela Kilbourn at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival (from Instagram)

 

What was your biggest challenge working on the documentary? And favorite moment?

I was assigned to film with Tochi Hekona, a spectacularly smart, engaged, and thoughtful girl, who was also one of the relatively few Black girls attending the Missouri Girls State that we filmed. As with any documentary project, it was both a privilege and a responsibility to attempt to capture her experience, and I was aware of the sensitivity with which she navigated her surroundings and made sense of what was happening to and around her.

In verité work I am always aiming to be as low impact as possible: to remain alert and observant yet unobtrusive, and to anticipate where events might go so as to put the camera in the right place at the right moment. In filming Tochi’s Girls State experience my goal was to attempt to let the camera see as she did: on all the projects I shoot I am trying to channel what is a specific and unique experience through me and out to the audience, with as little dilution as possible. This is never easy and always requires an open mind and a willingness to be present and bear witness.

There was one day when Tochi, who is the daughter of first-generation Nigerian immigrants, was asked by a few girls at lunch about her background and spoken languages. She firmly but with gentle politeness responded in such a way that she established her own clear boundaries as to what a thoughtful question really is, and as to when curiosity is not entirely innocent but emblematic of something possibly more insidious. It was an impactful moment and I think it was important that it was included as a scene in the film.

 

I remember that – it was such an incredible moment that spoke volumes about her character, intelligence, grace, and strength. What do you hope audiences take away from the film?

Girls State tackles big issues of great concern in America, and does it through a lens we don’t get to see often enough: it emphasizes how these issues impact real girls, how those girls respond to them, and how girls are or are not empowered to effect change in this society. I hope audiences come away with a perspective they perhaps didn’t have before on how important these girls are to us all, and also with a measure of optimism, because the girls I saw at Girls State were phenomenal, and despite the many obstacles and systemic challenges they faced they have a vitality and a level of determination that should inspire us all.

 

Faith Glasgow, Brooke Taylor, Anna Chellis, Cecilia Bartin, Jesse Moss, Amanda McBaine, Emily Worthmore, Maddie Rowan and Tochi Ihekona attend the world premiere of Apple Original Films’ “Girls State” at the Eccles Center at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. “Girls State” premieres globally on Apple TV+ on Friday, April 5, 2024. (Photo from Apple.com)

 

How was your Sundane Film Festival experience this year? Any favorite moments, events, films, etc? How was it seeing the reaction to Girls State?

I was at Sundance 2024 for the premiere of Girls State, and it was thrilling to see the audience respond with love, laughter, applause, and I think maybe a recognition of something of themselves in these girls. All the girls we followed came to the premiere and were present for the Q&A at the end, and if you didn’t know they were superstars before you would have known it then.

 

What kinds of projects excite you?

I am interested in shining a light on people, communities, and subcultures that are generally left unexplored, whether through documentary work or narrative fiction, which I also shoot. I think fiction work is equally important in developing characters and stories that represent a wider range of people and experiences, and it is always rewarding to immerse myself in those aspects of the stories that are unfamiliar and even challenging. My belief is that my role as a cinematographer is to provide a safe space in which actors can do their best work, or in a documentary for people to be themselves.

 

What is next for you?

I’m starting up on a short documentary project about a jazz musician and finishing post work on a comedic narrative film, and looking forward to the next great project to come my way. Last year the industry was pretty brutal for many of us due to the dual strikes, and I am hoping for an exciting and productive 2024 to come. Kicking things off at Sundance is not a bad way to start the year, and I am grateful to have had that experience.

 

Girls State will be available to stream on Apple TV+ starting April 5, 2024.

Connect with Laela Kilbourn on Instagram at @LaelaKilbourn and learn more about her work on her website laelakilbourn.com.

PUBLISHED BY

Katie Chambers

Katie Chambers Katie Chambers is the Senior Director of Community & Public Relations at New York Women in Film & Television (NYWIFT). She also serves as the Communications Chair of the New Jersey State Federation of Women's Clubs and is a freelance writer and digital marketing strategist. Follow her on Twitter @KatieGChambers.

View all posts by Katie Chambers

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