Meet MNFF: Alumni Interview with Margaret Metzger

Welcome back to Meet MNFF, a series of biweekly interviews with Festival alumni. This week, we talk to Margaret Metzger, whose short documentary Monty won the Jacob Burns Film Center Creative Culture Award at MNFF4 in 2018. Monty tells the story of an artist named Monty J., who makes makes one-of-a-kind ceramic planters. In the film, Monty reveals his process, how he thinks about his art, and what it takes to survive as an artist in New York today.

MNFF’s Sophie Hochman caught up with Metzger to chat about taking Monty to MNFF, the transition from being an editor to a director, and an upcoming documentary that she is editing – a story set in Kabul, Afghanistan.

You screened Monty at MNFF in 2018. What was it like taking Monty on the festival circuit? 

I didn’t apply to a ton of different festivals, and Monty was only in two festivals. One was the Harlem International Film Festival, which was nice, because it was our hometown, and Monty’s friends and the people who know him all got to go, but that was much more low key. Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival was sort of the big set piece festival for me and the film. The festival was fantastic. It was really a fruitful experience of meeting other filmmakers. A different film, the opening night film, was a project I had actually worked on back in editing school, and I knew the director, so that was a nice coincidence. And the screening of Monty was really fun. There was a question and answer session afterwards, and people asked good questions. People had clearly paid attention to the film and connected with it, and that was really rewarding. 

The other funny thing about my experience at the Festival was that I brought my six week old newborn. Looking back, I’m like, “that was crazy!” But it was great. I would’ve liked to have gone to more films, but she was sort of at an age where I could sit in the back of a dark theater with her as long as she was asleep and quiet, right by the exit, and then I would just dart out as soon as she started to squirm or make the slightest peep. I brought my mom and my husband – we were a big crew. It was also at a time as a young mother where I was like, “Oh, jeez, I hope this doesn’t prove detrimental to my career.” I really wanted to feel like I was still in the game, so it was nice to have that experience of going to MNFF as proof that I was still involved in the film world. It was like my first reentry to anything in the professional sphere. 

I know you’re primarily a documentary editor, and that Monty is your directorial debut. How did the process of editing documentaries by other filmmakers inform the process of directing this one yourself?

As an editor first and foremost, I made Monty out of a desire to have material that would be interesting for me to cut. I came at it from the back door in a way. As opposed to making the film out of some hope that it would launch my career in directing, it was a little more trepidatious; it was like, “I made this film, it’s about my friend, I think it’s interesting, I wonder if anyone else will think it was interesting.” Editors have a reputation of being complainers, saying things like, “Well, I can’t work magic, I can only work with the footage you give me.” So I think that in doing it for yourself, you don’t have anyone to complain to. I sort of cast myself in a way in two distinct roles: Director Meg and Editor Meg. Director Meg has to take care of Editor Meg.

Certainly at the beginning of my career as an editor, which I still consider myself to be, I like so much stuff that I work on, but I don’t have a ton of choice – a job comes along, and I take it. So for Monty, I gave myself an opportunity to work on material, stylistically and content wise, format wise, and sort of everything that I would like to work on. The film doesn’t push boundaries in any kind of revolutionary way, but I did get to push certain personal stylistic boundaries in ways that I was interested in doing, but was not sure that I would soon encounter a director that would want to do that same thing.

Would you mind talking a little bit about how you became friends? And then also what made you decide to tell his story through film? 

I met Monty through the ceramic studio where he goes. There were a few weeks where I would see his work before I met him. His work is so distinctive, and I wondered: who is this person? What is the brain that these things come out of? It was so remarkable, and I was so drawn to his work. Then I met him and we became fast friends, and we’ve been friends for eight years now. I was also just really drawn into his story, and his commitment to his craft, and it’s interesting to me that there are still people coming to New York to make art. I am interested in the extent to which that is still a reality now, whether or not New York is still able to draw artists and allow them to survive. Monty’s passion, that kind of undying passion for what he’s doing in ceramics, I think it makes him a natural protagonist. He’s got his clear goal. As an editor, looking for what makes characters appealing to an audience, to make an audience kind of connect with somebody, I was pretty sure that Monty was going to be readable and appealing on screen.

What projects have you been working on since MNFF in 2018? 

Since the Festival, I have been really trucking along in the documentary editing world. I have gotten to work with several collaborators who I have been really happy to work with and happy to find, and we try to work together as much as possible. I feel really lucky on that front. In terms of big projects, there’s a documentary feature that I’ve been working on for two years now, with first time filmmakers. It’s about a group of 18 to 24 year old young women in Kabul, Afghanistan, who are learning to mountain climb. Afghanistan is very mountainous and it’s in the foothills of the Hindu Kush, so there are really substantial hills and mountains, and it’s a beautiful country. But these women’s lives in Kabul are really tough. These young women are dealing not only with violence perpetrated against women, domestic violence, but also with the threat of dying in a bombing, or their loved ones dying in bombings. Their families are eager to marry them off at too young of an age, to men who in all likelihood aren’t the supportive partners that they deserve. Their horizons are really limited in terms of educational opportunities and career opportunities. I think that these women are in the prime of their lives in a way, and it’s going to get a lot harder in the coming years. But in the meantime, they’re doing this really cool, really difficult thing: they set out to summit the highest peak in Afghanistan, which is called Mount Noshakh. It’s a 7000 meter peak, so it’s a substantial feat, and it would be the first. They’re really awesome girls who are silly and  funny and support one another. For me, it’s the sort of fun sisterhood aspects of the story that are what I’m most drawn to.  I haven’t edited a feature doc yet, and I am very excited for this one to make it across the finish line.