Interview: Director Sarah Moshman And Producer Dana Michelle Cook Talk ‘The Empowerment Project: Ordinary Women Doing Extraordinary Things’

By James Lindorf

Empowering someone is the process of helping them becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their lives and claiming their rights. Everyone has the right to pursue their passions and chase their dreams independent of: age, race, gender or station. Unfortunately, in the real world those things can hinder us or convince us that we are unworthy of the things we desire, leading us to accept the world the way it is and settle for less than we want. A group of women lead by Director Sarah Moshman and Producer Dana Michelle Cook are fighting back on the behalf of women everywhere with their 2014 documentary, The Empowerment Project: Ordinary Women Doing Extraordinary Things. After spending years working in Hollywood the pair decided to put together an all-female team of filmmakers to travel across the country proving that women are not just the fairer sex, they are smart, talented, powerful and silently impacting every aspect of our world. I recently had the chance to talk to Sarah and Dana about their experiences, both leading up to, and making the film. They are both wonderful, and if you enjoy their work as much as I did, you should make use of the contact information they provided and let them know.

Film making process:
What was the main inspiration for the film and how did you ultimately end up going to Kickstarter for funding?

SM: The biggest inspiration for us to make The Empowerment Project was a frustration with the media and how women are often portrayed on screen. We see so much objectifying, over-sexualized imagery and we felt like there was a huge gap missing that could provide content for girls and women to see strong female role models in a variety of industries. We set out to make a film that we wish we had seen growing up and also a film that we still need today. It has been such a dream come true.
Kickstarter and crowdfunding in general is an incredible way to build an audience and rally people behind your cause and your dream. We didn’t have any funding for the project when we set out, and through the process of crowdfunding learned so much about PR, social media, marketing, and getting people excited about your idea. Our campaign was 60 days and we raised $28,590 from 404 backers! It was incredibly difficult, but so valuable.

DMC: Sarah and I had been working on the frontlines of witnessing this ‘Hollywood Machine’ failing women in front of and behind the camera. As content creators and aggregators, we decided to take responsibility for what we were creating and putting out into the world, with the desire to no longer be part of the problem, but rather part of the solution. The Empowerment Project was the result of these frustrations and our dedication to spotlighting strong women on film for future generations of women to see what’s possible in their lives. Kickstarter was a fairly new fundraising platform at the time back in 2013, so it was the best way to introduce the concept and this ambitious idea to a wider audience (404 to be exact) and ultimately connecting us with our Executive Producer, Lynn Webb who truly helped us fund and finish the film.

You started this project to provide a different point of view of women than what is available in everyday media, after doing something this special and woman-positive, do you think you will ever return to mainstream productions?

DMC: The creation of this film truly changed the trajectory of our lives and the commitment that we’ve made to positive and uplifting content shining light on inspiring women. So, everything we do moving forward from here on out will fit that scope and that space. We’re so proud to continue this journey with our new projects – for me, a documentary series about women making impact around the world called Seeing Brave, and for Sarah, her feature-length documentary Losing Sight of Shore. We’re steadfast in our passion to continue making films that show the ripple effect of women creating change and stepping into their power in the world.

The Empowerment Project has a bit of a unique distribution strategy. You do community screenings of your educational version (50 min) and a longer version (99 min) is available on Amazon and iTunes, with perfect scores on each. How did this path come about?
SM: We finished the film in April 2014 and truly that was just the beginning of our journey. With the help of our incredibly innovative distributor Indieflix and CEO Scilla Andreen we have been screening The Empowerment Project in schools, groups, organizations and corporations of all sizes to start important conversations about gender equality and not being afraid to fail. We do assemblies, conferences, keynote speeches, and panels all surrounding female empowerment. It has been such a valuable and impactful distribution strategy for this movie and movement.

DMC: We have teamed up with forward-thinking brands like Nordstrom, American Girl, Microsoft and Charles Schwab to do several national tours with the film. We have had the great pleasure of meeting boys and girls, fathers and mothers across the country and around the world who are hungry to have these discussions and use the film as a jumping off point to talk about many other issues we are all facing today. In January of 2017 we began our digital release and our 99-min film is available on iTunes, Amazon, Hulu, and more. It’s great to have the movie available for everyone to watch in whatever way they choose. We love the in-person events, but it’s nice to have it out in the world as well. It’s been truly the last 4-5 years of our lives and it’s been a wonderful experience. If anyone is interested in hosting a screening they can go to empowermentproject.com.
In the version that I watched, you did 17 interviews, which struck me as an interesting number. Were you hoping for more and had to settle or was this as far as you could bring yourself to cut the list?

SM: We actually began with a goal of 10 women, but as we started doing research and planning our journey we were able to add on more and just couldn’t resist doing more interviews if our time allowed. 17 is the number of women because we didn’t want to leave anyone on the cutting room floor. In our educational version, we have 8 of the women represented.

DMC: When we set out on the journey the goal was to shine a light on amazing women doing work around the US in a variety of careers, and even as we were traveling on the journey in the minivan, we had the opportunity to add additional women because of various circumstances (Beckanne Sisk for example in Salt Lake City came about because we selected an alternate driving route due to flooding in Boulder, where we were originally scheduled to go). Admiral Michelle Howard and Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky also came through in the final days leading up to their interviews. Ashley, our co-producer, and I were taking conference calls with the NAVY from the backseat of the mini-van as we were trying to secure Michelle’s interview. We’re still in awe that it came through!

Who was responsible for the idea to turn the reflected lights into heart shapes? That was a touch I really liked.

SM: We worked with a very talented Cinematographer named Alana Fickes and she introduced the idea of the “Lensbaby” which is a special tilt-shift lens you can add to a Canon DSLR and it also has magnetic aperture rings in different shapes. So as we drove and it was low lighting, we would use the heart shaped effect. For us, it was a symbol of how we felt on the journey and finding love and kindness everywhere we went.

Your Experiences during and after filming:

Of the women you interviewed, whose story impacted each of you the most?

SM: It’s so hard to choose one, and honestly as time passes the women speak to me in different ways. Presently I feel especially inspired by Four Star Admiral Michelle Howard who we met in Arlington, VA at the Women’s Memorial. She is such a powerhouse and a pioneer. Her work and her impact will be felt for generations and it was truly an honor to meet her and have her be part of The Empowerment Project.

DMC: Depending where I’m at in my life in the moment, I’d say each woman and her wisdom can speak to me differently and uniquely represent how I’m feeling at the time. Lately, it’s been Molly Barker, who said, “when you’re in the middle of creating something, that is the greatest moment.” I often reflect on the journey of making this film and riding the wave of overcoming daily fears and taking the time to celebrate the small victories along the way, and that phrase really encapsulates that feeling. Since we’ve been traveling and sharing the film for the past 4 years, that also speaks accurately to that feeling as well.

What was it like driving across the country over 30 days? What day were you ready to be out of that car for good?

SM: It was such a special moment in time and I think all 5 of us knew that. We dropped everything to live in this empowered bubble and I was so grateful and proud of the work we did during that month. It was truly a life-changing experience for many reasons. We are glad we didn’t drive back to LA from NYC, but I was sad to leave the minivan!

DMC: The most powerful moment for me was that first few minutes in the minivan when we were leaving LA. Sarah and I had been living in this idea – this dream to make the film – for the past 10 months and it was actually happening. It wasn’t just an idea anymore. I remember looking around at Alana, Ashley and Vanessa, who had so bravely volunteered to join us on this journey, our luggage strapped to the roof of the van, our gear safely packed in the backseat, firing up the go-pros in the car and thinking, “okay, let’s do this!”

You showed us what an amazing athlete she is, so how tough was the workout that Kacie Cleveland put you through?

SM: It was very tough! Kacie’s workouts are no joke! We needed it and it was exhausting. She is a machine!

DMC: As you saw in the film, we were really hesitant before that workout! Kacie is in incredible shape so we were just trying to keep up with the routine. I can’t actually remember the last time I had done a pullup, and we had at least a dozen in that space in the workout! We definitely sweat it out and then had a huge meal after as our reward.

What has been the best response to the film that you have received, and alternatively, was there a negative reaction to the movie that really stuck with you?

SM: We have had so many moments where we looked at each other and cried because we couldn’t believe how powerful movies can truly be. One that sticks out to me is a note we got from a 6th grade boy in my hometown of Evanston, IL which I have hanging on my wall. It says: “Thank you Sarah Moshman and Dana Michelle Cook for coming to our school. You made me realize that the human mind can do amazing things when it is not challenged by doubt. I want to die knowing I changed the world in some way, however small.”

In terms of negative reactions, we have heard some people tell us they wished there had been more diversity represented in the film and we take that feedback to heart and completely agree.

DMC: It’s so difficult to pinpoint just one moment because we were so overwhelmed with amazing feedback at every screening and event! I would say one that stands out is actually our very first screening at the Wilmette Theater in Chicago. We had just finished the film and it was our first introduction to the public, so we were super nervous and excited to see how it would be received. When the film finished and the lights came up, we had a young girl in the audience stand up and say, “I just finished taking the SAT and I’ve been wondering what it’s all for and now I know.” That moment was so impactful for us because it made us realize that the audience we created the film for – young women who are our future leaders – really understood that they could be inspired by women on screen if they could see that potential for their future careers.

Does the experience of making this film continue to affect you today, or has that euphoria and bravado that you all possessed at the end of filming faded over time?

SM: The Empowerment Project is still a part of our lives today and although the impact isn’t felt day-to-day perhaps anymore, it’s safe to say making this film has changed our lives infinitely for the better. It is always a part of who we are as we move through the world and I’m so grateful and humbled by it.

DMC: Our lives have completely changed in the making of this film in all the best ways. We really believe that anything is possible in our lives and our careers, and the film gave us that gift and the encouragement to dream big.

The Future:

If and when you decided to make an Empowerment Project 2 what individuals or industries would be on your wish list?
SM: There are SO many extraordinary women we would love to shine a light on! I am inspired by Patty Jenkins (Director of Wonder Woman), I am fascinated by stories of entrepreneurs especially young female entrepreneurs starting their own businesses, and I would love to interview a transgender woman breaking barriers in any industry.

DMC: We had always talked about the idea of having The Empowerment Project spin-off into other countries around the globe. Imagine a group of young female filmmakers traveling their own respective countries – whether that’s Spain, or Japan, India – spotlighting women in their own communities doing inspiring work and making a difference. It’s still a concept we talk about leading and perhaps there will be a way to make that happen in the future!

What currently available or future project would you like people to know more about?

SM: I just completed my second feature-length documentary called LOSING SIGHT OF SHORE which follows the extraordinary journey of four brave women who set out to row across the Pacific Ocean from America to Australia. It is available now on Netflix worldwide as well as iTunes and Amazon. (losingsightofshore.com)

DMC: I’m working on a documentary series called Seeing Brave – spotlighting women doing brave work around the globe. The first season includes Leah Missbah Day with World Bicycle Relief and her work in Kenya, Anna Bimenyimana in Rwanda, and Lina Sergie in Turkey/Syria. It’s an honor to tell their stories and show the way they’re impacting lives. (freeheartcreative.com)
Where on social media can people follow and maybe even interact with you?

SM: The Empowerment Project is facebook.com/empowermentdocu Twitter and Instagram is @EmpowermentDocu

My personal twitter is @SarahMosh and @sarahmoshman on Instagram

DMC: You can find me at @danamichelle336 on Instagram and twitter and Dana Michelle Cook on Facebook.

If their film and their words don’t inspire you, I hope it’s because you have already met your potential and are living your dream. If not, even if you feel stuck in your current situation and fear is preventing you from taking the risk of changing careers, don’t forget to encourage your children. Empowering them could inspire a generation.

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