Serious Sisu: Sarah Moshman
Sarah Moshman is an Emmy Award winning documentary filmmaker and TEDx speaker whose work has been featured on Upworthy, Marie Claire, CNN, and Good Morning America. After directing two short documentaries about female empowerment in young women, (Girls Rock! Chicago (2010) and Growing up Strong: Girls on the Run (2012)) she set out to direct her first feature documentary, The Empowerment Project: Ordinary Women Doing Extraordinary Things (2014) which has been screened over 350 times around the US and around the world in schools, groups, organisations and corporations starting conversations about gender equality. Sarah's second feature doc, Losing Sight of Shore is out now, and screens on Netflix. It follows the incredible journey of six women who rowed across the Pacific Ocean, from San Francisco, USA to Cairns, Australia.
What were your influences growing up?
I grew up in right outside of Chicago, Illinois and there was always a camera around. My dad [Harvey Moshman] is a filmmaker and a TV producer, so it’s always been a part of my life. The camera really helped me find my voice as a girl. When the camera was sitting next to me I felt like I could ask people questions I hadn’t asked before. I was an introvert, so it helped me open up. Putting a story together and sharing it with an audience and getting their response was such an electrifying feeling, I wanted to keep doing that.
Did you have any sense of limitations as a young girl?
My dad never said anything to me like ‘it’s going to be harder for you making films, because you’re a girl’—though that is certainly the truth. I’m so grateful that he didn’t tell me that. I didn’t enter the working world feeling scared. I just learned in my career that there are roadblocks for everyone, but particularly for women.
What are some of those roadblocks?
When I was in the working world in television there are challenges. First there’s your own self-doubt, these societal pressures that tell you you’re not good enough or you can’t do something and you have to bust through that and be confident and say, I’m here and I’m capable. You don’t always know how you can stand up for yourself. Over time you realise that you can’t complain if you’re not going to do something about it. I work for myself now because I wanted to create my own work environment that was healthy and happy, and hire people that I believe in.
Who encouraged you on your journey?
I’ve had lots of formal and informal mentors, men and women. Really my dad has been my greatest mentor in my career. I think you don’t have to have a female mentor to move up, but it’s so great to have a woman in a position of leadership because you can say: I want to be her someday. That’s what I’m working towards, to have her job. That feels like a concrete path, and there is something really important about that.
What inspires you to tell stories?
The Empowerment Project was my first feature-length documentary and the inspiration came from a frustration with the media, at least in America, women are often over-sexualised, constantly objectified. It’s exhausting. You don’t see yourself reflected back. You don’t see normal, human, complex, flawed, strong characters that are women; you see objects. Or women are ignored altogether. I was really tired of that, and came to the realisation that if you want something to change you’ve got to do something about it.
Looking back, what wisdom would you impart to your 15-year-old self?
Just to have more confidence. That stood in my way for a long time. Somehow as girls we wrap together appearance and success, even though they really have nothing to do with each other, we relate those two things in our brain, and I don’t know if boys do that in the same way. We think, oh, if I’m not pretty, I can’t be successful. Those things have nothing to do with each other, and also: who cares? I think I spent way too much time as a lot of girls do, caring about what other people thought, or how I looked and struggling with body image. I would say to my teen self: You got this. Stay focused. None of the other stuff matters.
You’re an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker. How have you come to measure success?
My short documentary Growing up Strong: Girls on the Run won an Emmy Award and The Empowerment Project was nominated as well. For me, the Emmy Award symbolised a lot, because my father has won so many of them, and I wanted to be like him, I wanted to be in the same league. Looking back now, it was wonderful. More than anything else, it was a sign that I was on the right path.
Ultimately, I just want to be able to make a living telling stories about strong female characters. I want to keep making documentaries that impact, inspire and uplift people. If I can maintain a career doing that my whole life then that to me would be massive success.
Losing Sight of Shore charts a remarkable journey by strong, determined women. How did you come to tell their story?
A UK blogger called Fiona Tatton, who runs a magazine called Womanthology, had just connected with Laura Penhaul and Natalia Cohen, members of the ‘Coxless Crew’, [rowing in memory of a dear friend who died from breast cancer]. Fiona emailed me about three months before they were going to leave. I thought, How are they going to do that? I didn’t even know that was possible!
I knew nothing about rowing, so it really didn’t seem like a project I would be interested in. I think my own self-doubt immediately crept in. I was sure I wasn’t the right person, but I was happy to speak with them, I went into it thinking if they wanted to know what camera to buy, I could recommend something. By the end of our first Skype, I was just blown away. It was so clear that this was never about rowing for them, or for me, it was really about the power of the human spirit, and what we’re all capable of when we push ourselves to the limit. I felt so much synergy between us, and I think they felt that too.
One of the rowers in Losing Sight of Shore says that everyone has ‘their Pacific to cross’ – what’s yours?
I said from the start that this was my Pacific, to make this movie. It’s two-and-a-half years of my life that I devoted to it. Making a film is certainly a Pacific to cross—you have to believe in yourself every single day. Having this film screen on Netflix was always my intention, so working towards this huge goal was not easy. I had many days when I wanted to hide under the covers, but every day you take steps forward, even if they’re just tiny, and some days you take massive leaps forward.
I love something that Stephen Spielberg said, which was that your dreams don’t really come up to you and shout at you. That’s just not how it is. Dreams—they often whisper. And I think that is such a powerful thing to think about, because this project certainly was a whisper. I was not looking for a new project, I could have missed it. Now I’m just listening for that whisper, and maybe it’s something I can’t even fathom. I think that’s probably the biggest message for me: don’t stand in your own way.
How have you dealt with failure?
The amount of times I’ve heard the word ‘no’ or had the door slammed in my face—in making Losing Sight of Shore and making The Empowerment Project and in general—is just countless. I think the problem with our society is we don’t share those things. On social media, I don’t post, hey guys, I got rejected for another grant today. Therefore it can seem people have overnight success, and things happened quickly, but it’s not true, and I am happy to talk about that. Other filmmakers come to me and ask, how did you do that? I say, you don’t want to hear this, but it was SO hard. You just have to keep believing, and working. Achieving your goal is so much sweeter when you’ve faced a bit of rejection, I think.
What message do you have for young people striving for their goals, and for those people responsible for supporting them?
I encourage anyone young just to create your own opportunities. Don’t wait for someone to give you permission. Don’t wait for someone to hand you the keys to the castle. That’s just not how it works, and it shouldn’t. You really should have to earn the right to have your spot, to stand where you stand.
I think a really powerful lesson to pass on to this younger generation is: get out there and tell your stories and find your passion and fail and fall down and get back up and you’ll be stronger for it. Get out there and don’t wait for someone to tell you you’re good enough, because it might never happen.
You decide if you’re good enough, no one else. The greatest moments of my career have happened because I decided I was good enough and I was capable, and maybe I wasn’t ready, but I still moved forward anyway. I would encourage anyone to just start. You don’t have to have all the answers. You don’t have to see the whole path, I certainly never do. Just start by taking a couple of steps.
Who do you think has serious Sisu?
I’m reading her book right now and she’s a real role model of mine: Sheila Nevins has Serious Sisu. She’s the head of HBO Documentary Films in the US. She’s a major powerhouse, and someone I aspire to be like in my career, and if I’m half as successful and impactful as she is, I will be a very happy lady.