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Episode 9: Ora DeKornfeld

A monthly dive into nonfiction video's new frontier.

Nikita Mandhani

BBC News November 17th, 2022
Episode 9: Ora DeKornfeld

Hello all and welcome to our new home! For this month’s In Sync, I spoke to Ora DeKornfeld, an Emmy-Award-winning documentary filmmaker, shooter and editor. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the LA Times and The New Yorker, and has been showcased in numerous film festivals. I first saw Ora’s work when I stumbled upon her June 2022 film about getting an abortion in Texas.

In this conversation, Ora and I talk about using art in video, the power of documentary, and what the news industry can learn from the “heart space.”

Nikita: Hey Ora! My first question, as always – how did you get into video journalism and filmmaking? And what kind of work are you doing now?

Ora: I got into it by accident. I went to the University of North Carolina and they had a great journalism program. SoI took some electives in the journalism class even though I wasn't a journalism major. I learned to make videos there and somehow got internships in the field. There was a natural momentum to it all. My first paid job was an internship at the Los Angeles Times. And then I worked at The New York Times for a little while and freelanced for them. Next, I worked for Explained, and now I’m freelance again – having landed in the feature documentary space. But what's strange about the way I’ve run my career is that I continue to shoot and edit and report and direct films. I’ll typically take an editing gig for a few months, and then film something, and then direct something. So, I’ve found that kind of fun. Although it definitely has its drawbacks too.

Nikita: What has shaped you as a filmmaker over the years?

Ora: I feel most driven by my curiosity about people and I feel sort of decidedly non-judgmental about things. I think I have a pretty open temperament and open outlook on people. I feel interested in people, and I think that's something that I could see little signs of from the beginning, from my years growing up.

Nikita: I recently watched your video How I had an abortion at home in Texas and I’d love to talk more about it. What I really liked about that video was that while it talked about such a sensitive topic, it didn't feel like it was intentionally made to be a super sad story. Tell me more about the tone of the piece and the process of making it.

Ora: I feel it’s important to make things that you would want to watch, and I typically like pieces that have a bit of character and a bit of humour. Regardless of the topic, you can find those elements in any story. I have had an abortion. Abortions are different for everyone, and I feel like the need for the abortion story to be extremely sad and an extremely hard decision is very valid because that is definitely an experience for a lot of women. But there are also a lot of women for whom it's just a medical procedure, and it's really something they're grateful for. That was my experience with my abortion. We wanted this video to share the experience of a woman who leans less on the emotional side, and more on the logistical side of how to achieve this goal, and what losing this right to abortion meant for her life.

Nikita: Did you pick a visual treatment that used props and design and animation because your contributor did not want to be on camera?

Ora: The person we worked with was actually okay with being on camera but we felt that given the current political climate, it would be safer to keep them anonymous. And given budgetary limitations, time limitations, and staffing limitations, it needed to be a video that I could basically do in my co-working space with a camera and yarn and paper cut-outs and things like that. I worked with Emily Holzknecht who flew out from New York and she and I just spent several days in the studio doing what felt like an art project at times.

Nikita: This video reminded me of some of Sindha Agha’s work. The most interesting thing about these sorts of video formats is that the objects and the cut-outs make you feel things. What should people who want to make something similar think about when they embark on such a project?

Ora: I'm so impressed at how carefully you’ve watched the piece. Sindha Agha is definitely an inspiration for this piece, and she’s a filmmaker I feel generally very inspired by. In terms of the process we followed, we first wrote the script and from there we made a visual column and thought of visuals for all of it. I tried to think of things -- some were possible, some unrealistic. From there, we looked at which visuals we could start with, and what materials we needed to really make those happen. It was an organic process of constantly trying things and deciding whether or not a certain visual was working.

When thinking about the visuals, you often start with an idea and then once you're actually working with the stuff, new ideas come to light. You know how they say in yoga classes that just getting to your mat is 90% of the battle. I feel that's true for video making as well. You just have to start and then it all unfolds.

There were moments when we realised that a certain visual was looking a little too cutesy for the topic. When you're working with toys and stop motion animation, you want it to feel engaging and not infantilizing or tone-deaf.

You know how they say in yoga classes that just getting to your mat is 90% of the battle. I feel that's true for video making as well. You just have to start and then it all unfolds.
—Ora DeKornfeld

Nikita: I also watched two short documentaries that you made for The New Yorker – the one about a girl defying the boxing ban in Cuba, and then there’s USA v Scott. I loved them both so much. How did you come across these stories? Was it easy or hard to get access to be able to make something so powerful, so personal?

Ora: Both of those stories came out of just living. I had gone to visit my sister, who was living in Cuba, and I stumbled upon this boxing ring. I met Hatzumy and her mother, and we just started filming together. I directed and shot that story, and Emily Rhyne, formerly at The New Yorker, now at The New York Times, edited it.

And then, for USA v. Scott, I was living in the desert, trying to get over chronic Lyme disease. I was volunteering and Scott Warren, the protagonist of that film, was a fellow volunteer. When I heard about his story and worked with him, I felt like it was important to tell that story. He had had a lot of media requests and he really didn't want to become the centre of the story. He felt very uncomfortable in the spotlight, which I think is a very noble impulse. He wanted it to be more about the issue than about him. I co-directed that film with Isabel Castro. I started shooting and editing and thinking about the story on my own, but then when Isabel said we should co-direct this and she came out to the desert, we really got moving.

Nikita: What kind of filmmaking excites you the most and what are you thinking about when you're planning films?

Ora: I’ve worked a lot in the kind of explainer format or the created-world format, but I feel most excited by vérité filmmaking. I love every part of that process. I love shooting vérité so much and I love getting to meet people and witness their lives in that intimate way. I love editing scenes that feel like they belong in cinema. And so that's where I’m hoping to focus my efforts in this coming year.

Nikita: That sounds really exciting. For most of your films, I’ve also noticed that the characters are really strong. They are the people who are driving the story forward. How does that come together?

Ora: I feel like it's a balance of the story the characters are living and want to share, and whether that feels engaging to me personally. And then how we get along – is there a rapport? Does it feel symbiotic? Does it feel fun? Does it feel like there is interest on both sides of moving it forward? I fall in love with people so easily in this format. I've been thinking a lot about attention and how when you give someone or something attention, it equals love. Attention is love. So, when you really get close to anyone, I think they become a very fascinating contributor.

Nikita: You made a short film called Sensei that came out in 2014. It's so different from traditional nonfiction filmmaking in the way it brought together art and video. It's a beautiful way of handling a sensitive subject like sexual assault. Can you tell me more about that piece?

Ora: That piece was a homework assignment in college and it's really the reason why I’m in this profession. It won picture of the year in a national film competition, which was sort of strange that a college student would win that award. So, it opened up the opportunity to work at the LA Times and other things.

Personally for me, it was the genesis of why I wanted to do this work. I didn’t know Brenda, the woman who is featured in the video, before I filmed it. But I got to know her better while making the piece. I was so nervous of offending her or not doing justice to her story. When I showed it to her, I was so afraid. But she just cried and thanked me.

It was a very beautiful documentary experience, where I felt like the point of the documentary is not necessarily to spread awareness which I had previously thought. But it's a healing process for all the people involved in making it, or at least that's what it could be.

I used ink to depict certain parts of the documentary and that was because of the serious creative limitations to what you can show in a film given the budget and time and other constraints – something all documentary filmmakers understand. So, with the ink, I tried to think what's something that can help you kind of zone out. If you got stoned, what would you be really engaged in just looking at for a while? Something to just hold your eyes’ attention while your ears are absorbing the story. That was the idea.

It was a very beautiful documentary experience, where I felt like the point of the documentary is not necessarily to spread awareness which I had previously thought. But it's a healing process for all the people involved in making it, or at least that's what it could be.
—Ora DeKornfeld

Nikita: Wow, that's such a great way to think about it. You mentioned that you continue to shoot, direct and edit. Which one do you like the most? Also, what are the benefits and the drawbacks of doing it all?

Ora: I like shooting, directing and editing all equally. I feel like they all ask for different parts of you. Filmmaking is one of the only things I have found in my life, where I feel like I’m in a flow state. When I’m working, or when I'm shooting, I feel like I'm scuba diving. You're just like floating around. It's not about you, but you're very engaged.

I also believe that it's great to divide the jobs because obviously new eyes bring new perspectives. Diversity in any sort of creative team is important, and I’m constantly learning from the people I’m collaborating with. I feel grateful that I have the skills to be able to go in and tweak something to make it look the way I want. But it's also amazing to learn from people who are dedicated to that craft. I think the drawback of continuing to try to cultivate all three is I'm not becoming a specialist in any one. But on the flip side of that, I do feel like shooting teaches me to be a better editor and editing helps me be a better shooter and director, and so I feel like the diversity there is helpful as well.

Nikita: How do you measure success for your videos and which video has been the most successful to you?

Ora: Obviously awards feel like a clear marker of success but the thing I love the most that I’ve ever made got into one film festival and won zero awards. It's called Zusha and it's just a thing I made with this amazing group of Hasidic men in Brooklyn, New York, who have a band. I think a lot about that gap between the taste you have and what you want to make, and where you are and what you're able to make. So, as that gap closes, I’d say the way I would measure success is making something that I would want to watch or making something that I would be moved by, and I’m still working on getting there.

Nikita: What’s one piece of advice that you’d like to give to people making nonfiction videos?

Ora: This depends a lot on your process and your personality. I’ve learned a lot from my collaborator Isabel Castro who is very good at soliciting a ton of feedback and then not taking the criticism to heart. She solicits feedback from people at all levels - the executives and people who don't work in film, and her mom. And I’ve just been very inspired. I was one of the editors on her feature film recently and I got to see how the feedback informed our process and just how this film continued very slowly to get better and better. It was fully from Isabel just soliciting lots of feedback and then making sense of it and taking the parts that we felt were going to make it better. I think doing that can really help you with every piece you make.

Nikita: What inspired you to move from video journalism to nonfiction filmmaking?

Ora: I think a lot about the sheer quantity of media that we sort of thrust upon ourselves every day. The work journalists are doing at news organisations is very impressive and thank God for journalists. They have such an important role in our society. But I feel that my disposition and the way I move in the world and what I’m good at is more in the heart space. I like getting to know people all over the political spectrum and all different kinds of situations and spreading awareness of soul experiences - what does it really feel like to be this person or to be on a certain journey? And that lends itself more to longer form storytelling and storytelling that doesn't necessarily have to be connected to the news story.

Nikita: What’s one non-fiction video made by a different filmmaker that you think people reading this interview should watch?

Ora: There’s one film that I saw a few months ago: Reid Davenport's I didn't see you there, which premiered at Sundance this year. It was like nothing I had ever seen before, and it was so moving without being sensationalised at all. I think it's one that really captures a unique perspective told by someone who has a very beautiful mind.

Nikita: What’s something that the news industry can learn from feature filmmaking?

Ora: I’m stumped when it comes to how the news industry has evolved. It's hard because you're moving so quickly, and you have to parachute in and out of places. In this moment of serious truth decay, we all have a different understanding of what truth is now and with the news, everyone's selecting what sort of truth they want to be confronted with. I feel like that’s where experiential pieces, where you get to understand one person's human experience and perspective can be really valuable because ultimately people's hearts and minds around issues are not changed by logic, but by the heart.

I feel like that’s where experiential pieces, where you get to understand one person's human experience and perspective can be really valuable because ultimately people's hearts and minds around issues are not changed by logic, but by the heart.
—Ora DeKornfeld

Here’s the In Sync Spotify playlist that now includes some of Ora’s picks as well!

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