At MNFF3 in 2017 Martha Gregory’s documentary short “Three Red Sweaters” took home the inaugural Jacob Burns Film Center Creative Culture Award. As part of the award, JBFC invited Martha for a 6-week residency program at their campus in Pleasantville, NY. During the year Martha teaches at Kenyon College in Ohio and serves as the Film Studio Manager there.
MNFF sat down with Martha to discuss her current projects, her new lifestyle as a professor and the phenomenon of “bought nostalgia.”
By the way: “Three Red Sweaters” is screening 7/2 at Videology Bar and Cinema in Brooklyn as part of Vimeo’s Ladies with Lenses series. It will also screen 6/27 at the Jacob Burns Film Center.
MNFF: What are you up to now?
MG: I’m a week into the Creative Culture Residency at the Jacob Burns Film Institute. This month is an amazing gift. I can do whatever I want. I’m writing a feature with a former classmate, editing two narrative shorts I shot a while back and am in research and development for a short doc about Zoilamérica Narváez, the stepdaughter of Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega. I came ready to push myself and accomplish as much as possible during this concentrated period. That’s the right mindset. There’s no structure to this residency so I have to call on the organized parts of myself.
MNFF: Your work covers all different genres and styles. Do you intentionally build a varied portfolio?
MG: I started out loving editing and thinking of myself as an editor. I love taking a multidisciplinary approach. I’m not just a narrative or documentary filmmaker. My most successful film [“Three Red Sweaters”] was a doc, but I’m always working on narrative too. The filmmakers I look up to have done both documentary and narrative. It seems oxymoronic to become an artist then confine yourself to one thing. My ideal sphere of operation is to have radically different projects going at one moment. The only criteria is that I do projects I love.
MNFF: Speaking of “Three Red Sweaters,” the film critiques our obsession with photographing and posting every moment of life. Do you see filmmaking as an equally shallow practice?
MG: I was thinking about the ubiquity of digital photography with smartphones. Social media and the convenience of the iPhone tempt us to document every second of life. What matters to me is the intention with which I take a photo. Narcissism is now socially acceptable. Good intentions and shallow intentions often intertwine. For example, I take photos of my niece because she’s 6 and cute and I want those pictures. I also want to show my friends how funny and cute she is. The intentions overlap. In “Three Red Sweaters” I took these thoughts and asked: are we changing the way we remember? Are we using phones to remember for us? If we take photos with shallow intentions, what does that do to the way we experience and internalize those moments? I drew a lot of inspiration from Sally Mann’s book Hold Still. She talks about how she has photos from her childhood of memories she doesn’t even remember — she only remembers the photograph. The memories that don’t have photos are the ones that she remembers much more intensely. That’s an interesting tension.
Students should use film cameras at some point. With film you don’t have the luxury of infinite photos and takes. There are such differences between academic and social approach. We fetishize the analog version of everything. There is a fake nostalgia floating around, that’s a whole other phenomenon. Someone is going to write a sick dissertation on that someday — “Bought Nostalgia.”
MNFF: You also work as a film professor at Kenyon College. What’s it like being on the academic side of filmmaking?
MG: Being a professor is a lot like being a standup comedian: the room is with you or it’s not. That was a good lesson for me. I try to give students different types of assignments and knowledge. I spend a lot of time on the importance of organization, especially in film. Maybe I should just title the class “Organization is Great: 400.” It’s good to ask myself the questions I ask my students. What does your protagonist want and why? Why do they want to do things? Questioning myself makes me a better professor and a better filmmaker.
MNFF: Are there any particular tips you would have for filmmakers attending MNFF this year?
MG: It was such a treat to go to movies and also be in such a beautiful natural place. Being able to soak up the VT outdoors made the screenings that much more rewarding. MNFF did not feel stressful or frantic at all. MNFF was definitely one of my favorite festival experiences. You feel involved even when you’re alone. I’ve been to a bunch of festivals alone — that happens when you make a film by yourself. Wandering around alone can be awkward, but at Middlebury I never felt that. It was so comfortable and easy.
The latest batch of creative culture films are stunning. Definitely go to that screening if you can. It’s a really strong group this year.