Sarah Moshman – “What would you do if you weren’t afraid to fail?”

Edited by Moses Shumow

Sarah and producing partner Dana Michelle Cook at the NATAS Chicago/Midwest Emmy Awards, 2013 PHOTO: Courtesy NATAS


I grew up in Evanston, Ill., and my parents always encouraged me to pursue any dream that came into my head. Despite their being very practical, they never saw a limit to my future. I am a great balance of them both. My mom, Diane Moshman, a chemical engineer who switched to law when I was a teenager and now works for the Illinois Attorney General as a lawyer. In a household with a working mother and no babysitters, she took care of us at home after a day at work. My mother was my very first ‘do-it-all’ women empowerment role model. My dad, Harvey Moshman, has worked as a television producer and is a documentary filmmaker. My parents are my role models. My mother excelled in her profession and remained nurturing

at home, and my father, a 26-time Emmy Award winner, is the person I aspire to follow in my career. Excellence in the field of production was an expectation I gave myself and in November 2013, I won my first Emmy for a short documentary called “Growing up Strong: Girls on the Run”.

I grew up in two worlds: one without the Internet and one completely dependent on it. With the coming of cellular phones, I saw how access to information grew exponentially. As I grew I became aware of various issues – issues involving the media, women and their objectification. While in college, the Internet was just becoming more prevalent, so it was a matter of paying attention and wanting to understand the issues that women face today. I guess it was an active choice to pay attention to those messages, specifically. It is easy to tune your entire media preference to the topics of your choice and this has helped me stay abreast of developments and events around the world. It’s a very interesting time and I am happy to be a part of it.

First Steps

My parents bought me my first camera when I was in high school and I used it to ask questions and express myself. In Family Isn’t Just Blood, my first documentary, I interviewed classmates and friends about their family dynamics. I realized that having a camera in hand allowed me to ask questions I might not otherwise have had the courage to ask and go places I might not otherwise be allowed to go to. I was hooked. Another short documentary I made in high school won an award from CSPAN, and I knew I should study filmmaking in college. The rest is her-story! My aspiration as a filmmaker is to keep asking questions. My mission is to empower women. Growing up in an image, youth, and celebrity-obsessed culture, I am searching for quality content. I want to create programming that uplifts and educates people. I want to continue making documentaries, but I also want to be an activist and a speaker. This mission does not stop when the credits roll; I want to live and breathe a message of women empowerment every day.

Reality TV and Heartfelt Productions

I started working in reality TV as a story assistant on “Dancing with the Stars” season 7. I logged tapes and assisted producers in the field, and ended up staying there for 10 seasons, working my way up to associate producer and then field producer. I was responsible for shooting and producing the rehearsal packages that air before the couples dance live. It was a wonderful experience to be a part of a team for 5 years on such a big show. During my hiatus between seasons I worked as a field producer/shooter for shows like MTV’s MADE, NBC’s “Minute to Win It,” Food Network’s “Rachael vs. Guy Celebrity Cook Off,” and Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters,” among others. My experience in reality TV complimented my passion for documentaries well. I was able to capture critical moments as they happened and learned to interview many different kinds of people.

Sarah and Dana on set of "Growing up Strong: Girls on the Run" PHOTO: Jessica Grossnickle

In 2007, I met my friend and business partner, Dana Michelle Cook. We were working on a youth filmmaking program by Dreaming Tree Films which took us around the country. We taught teams to make short films with powerful stories in a week and this adventure brought us closer together. We were both working in reality TV back then – she was in Chicago and I was (and still am) in Los Angeles. Reality TV teaches you a lot. It is an opportunity to work with experienced professionals on exciting projects but you also know that when you turn the TV on, sometimes, you just don’t find anything positive. There is objectification, violence, prejudice and judgement. At that point, there were only a handful of shows that made me feel better at the end of the day. It came down to a conversation with Dana where we decided to make a film that we wanted to watch. It was really that simple – there wasn’t a film that existed that we wanted to watch. I had read Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg where I came across the quote – ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid to fail?’ Dana and I had each already made two documentaries about women empowerment and we decided to make a national feature. We decided to start Heartfelt Productions to give form to our thoughts. We fed off each other’s energy and found creativity in working together. So we asked ourselves the same question – ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid to fail?’

Setting Up

I like to work with a small, all women crew if possible. This allows everyone to wear many hats and dive into the process while working together. I like to create a warm environment, where my crew and subjects can be themselves, and in my opinion women are great at creating that space. Working with what I have creates a run-and-gun style which faithfully represents the natural environment. The advantages of this method, when it goes well, are exceptional interviews and great content. Sometimes however, you need more hands to get things done faster and of course women aren’t the only ones capable of conducting great interviews. There are also situations in which it is important to stop down, set up lights and make an interview look as polished as possible. In those cases, patience is important and seeing the bigger picture is vital. I prefer crews where people are willing to learn and willing to teach.

Sarah on set of "The Empowerment Project" in Virginia. PHOTO: Vanessa Crocini

Taking Stock

It is interesting that none of the women we interview ever let any obstacle get in the way of them achieving their dreams. A lot of them speak about failures in an interesting way. To them, mistakes are failures only if one doesn’t learn from them. I think that is a beautiful thought and it goes with the theme of our film which is – ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid to fail?’ The interviews were not about emulation. These leaders are accessible women just like someone our audience knows and looks up to. The interviews often feature very concrete steps on how to handle various issues, different ways of thinking and it was just a very beautiful slice of female life across industries in the U.S.We realized that we are all more

alike than we are different and that was a wonderful thing to discover about each other and about ourselves. We all think we have unique troubles but somebody’s probably gone through a lot worse than you have and done it with a lot more grace.

What is empowerment?

For me, the definition of the word empowerment has evolved a lot through my experience in The Empowerment Project and as I have been processing everything I learnt on the trip. I think women empowerment is a new interpretation of the term feminism. Feminism has taken on a negative connotation and it has its radical implications. I am a proud feminist but I really think we need a new phrase that can be more inclusive and help create a more constructive environment. Empowerment really means that you can be confident and be anything you choose to be just the same as any other human on this planet. You need not measure yourself by imposed standards. To me, it means to be able to find the power in yourself to go and be whatever it is that you can possibly dream of being. You may be helped in achieving empowerment but it has to come from within. Nobody can give it to you. For me, empowerment is this film and this film is empowerment. It is what drives me. I think everyone needs to find a definition of empowerment that they can be comfortable with.

Can Media Make a Difference?

Absolutely! Popular media has had a negative impact in portraying women’s roles in contemporary society. Everywhere you look, women are sexualized, objectified and pinned against each other to create a false sense of competitiveness. Today, it is necessary for young women to have inspiring role models in empowered women. This is one way in which women around the world can create an empowered society. We need more women leaders in all industries in order for women to have equal pay and equal say in the future, and I believe that my work can inspire today’s girls to become tomorrow’s leaders, even if it simply means leading their own lives. Strong, female role models are everywhere but media change makers need to shine light on their work in order to change the current stereotypes, discriminatory acts and leadership deficits. As a media maker, I have to peel away those layers and evaluate if I am a part of the problem or a part of the solution. I cannot be afraid to go against the grain and see things in a new way. It is important to be confident and have a clear message – there is so much noise today that you have to rise above to be heard.

The Future

Currently, I am very focused on women’s rights and their empowerment in America and on our road trip for The Empowerment Project we saw and learned a lot about it. I plan to take The Empowerment Project and tour with it in schools all across the U.S. to encourage the next generation of women to be all that they dream of being. I want this documentary to catapult my career in such a way that my name is synonymous with women empowerment and continue to make content that is positive for women whether that’s a documentary, a narrative film, music video, web series, reality show or book. The possibilities are endless and I look forward to the opportunities that come my way once this film takes off.
I want to build a movement, not just make a film. These themes and ideals are widespread and mutual in every other society or country. I think this message can be applied across countries and women can claim their rightful equality across borders. As I learn more about cultures outside my own, I hope to make documentaries that have an international impact. But for now, I hope to fight the good fight here in the US.

The five female filmmakers of "The Empowerment Project" at Yellowstone. PHOTO: Alana Fickes
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