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INTERVIEW: Filmmaker Vanessa Roth On Her Latest Projects, National Geographic’s "Impact With Gal Gadot" And Amazon’s "Mary J. Blige’s My Life"

Nicole Barylski

Tuany Nascimento, founder of the Na Ponta dos Pés ballet project, right, walks with her students to ballet class through the Morro do Adeus favela. The walk overlooks the Complexo do Alemão. (Left to right): Camily Gomes Vieira Melo, Nelma Rosa Pereira, Paloma Moreira Soares and Tuany Nascimento. (Photo: Sebastian Gil Miranda)

Academy Award, Emmy Honors, DuPont-Columbia and Sundance Award-winning nonfiction filmmaker Vanessa Roth had planned to travel the world to meet with women making a difference for her latest project, National Geographic's new documentary short series Impact with Gal Gadot, but then the pandemic happened. That led Roth, who created and executive produced the series, to work on the shorts mostly from her home on Shelter Island.

Impact takes viewers to Brazil, Puerto Rico, Michigan, California, Louisiana and Tennessee to meet six incredible subjects - Kameryn Everett, Kelsey Ellis, Arianna Font Martin, Kayla Gore, Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar, and Tuany Nascimento - that are rising above challenges to make an immense difference in their communities. The series is hosted by actress Gal Gadot.

We spoke with Roth about Impact, her next project, Amazon's Mary J. Blige's My Life, and more.

You actually created and executive produced the series from your home on Shelter Island, but I noticed that there was some footage from 2016. So when did you start filming?

VR: So the series was created because my executive producing partner, Ryan Pallotta, had actually shot in Brazil in 2016. And they made a little short film out of that. From that Gal Gadot got involved, Tara [Long] from eOne got involved, I got involved. From that short, we decided this should be a larger series about women around the world making an impact in their communities. We had already found six stories around the world that we were supposed to start shooting in 2019. I'm based in Brooklyn, I have been based in Brooklyn for 17 years and we have our house in Shelter Island that we would come to for weekends, but we thought we were going to be traveling around the world. So we came out to Shelter to use it like our base. The plan had been to homeschool my son while we traveled to all these places. And then when COVID hit, we had to shift, obviously. That's when we changed the stories we were doing. I went to a couple of them in person and a couple of them we did basically with local crews and sort of Zoom interviews - and all of the prep from home and all of the post production I did out of my barn. All the editing we did remotely with my editors from California and all over.

The impact of the women featured is truly inspiring - especially having such a profound impact even during a pandemic. How did you come across their stories?

VR: Each woman we found in a little bit of a different way. One way that I just sort of love, the full circle of the series, is that we found Chief Shirell, who's in Louisiana, and she's been fighting for her land and her ancestors against climate change, and timber and oil extraction, we found her actually through a photographer on Instagram, who posts all the time about the devastation and the land loss in Louisiana. So we'd seen these photos that she had taken and then got in touch with the photographer, who then put us in touch with Chief Shirell. In Puerto Rico, we learned about Arianna through an award that she had won for young people inventing things to help their communities. So a lot of stories we actually had found through social media in some way or even local stories, local newspapers that cover smaller community things.

What does it mean to you to be able to capture part of their legacy through Impact and tell their stories?

VR: For me, being able to showcase and celebrate and honor people's lives and voices that we don't usually hear from - and don't get those narratives out in the world has actually been so profound to me, because it's been my sort of mission and my core hope with the work I do is that I make content that matters, that shares people's lives that we don't usually get to see. For us, especially in the pandemic, for us to be able to tell the stories of these women, who the pandemic didn't stop them, it actually just added to the amazing work they're already doing. So to be able to have like a little fraction of their life and impact captured at that moment to me has just been really profound and the relationship that I've been able to develop with all of our crews around the world and the women in the series has also just been a really strong feeling of community. And so it's just been really special.

The series is hosted by Gal Gadot, whose role as Wonder Woman has inspired a new generation. How did she get involved with the project?

VR: From what I understand from Gal is she had been really looking for some way to make sure that she could use the platform that she has, and the reach that she has around the world for good, and really wanted to be able to put the spotlight on women and people around the world who, again, don't usually get that kind of acknowledgement. And so she was looking for a project that would do that. When she did see that first short film, that Brazil film I was talking about, I think that there was a sort of light bulb that went off of this is a great connection between what she was looking to do and the potential for what we could create. The way we've been talking about this Impact series is it's much more than short films, but really a movement, and hopefully something that is sort of a ripple effect. When people see these films and when people know about these women, they understand that you can make change, and you can make a difference in your community as small or as large impact as you set your mind to.

IMPACT will be released digitally (weekly) and then culminate in a feature-length documentary special on National Geographic channel on June 24, and then air globally in 142 countries and 43 languages. What sort of impact do you hope it has on viewers?

VR: I hope the impact that the series has on viewers is to both remind us all or show us all that there is good happening in the world, that there are people around the world really making a difference in their community. And then at the same time, I hope it's an inspiration for people to think about what's right in front of them where they could also have an impact. And that you don't have to wait to change the world in some huge way. The women in our series saw things and were affected and impacted by things in their life, and they chose to act. And that's kind of what I hope people take away from it.

And is that what you took away from your time with the extraordinary six subjects?

VR: What I took away and I still take away every day from anytime I speak with any of them is the sheer will of spirit that just drives them forward and they move forward in spite of the fear they may feel or insecurities or doubt, they still do the work that they know is needed. And by doing that, it just inspires me to keep going with whatever I'm doing and inspires me to share those kinds of stories with my kids as just great examples of not being stuck in fear or insecurity or doubt, but to just do what your heart desires and keep moving forward.

You're directing the documentary Mary J. Blige's My Life, an Amazon original. Could you speak a bit about that project?

VR: Yeah, that has been an amazing project. That started before the pandemic and that's coming out this summer on Amazon. Mary made her album My Life in the 90s, her second album, it was at a time when she was really struggling with a lot of depression and really trying to figure out who she was. The film, it's about the album, but it's really about... there's a line she says that I love, she says, "I didn't know I was me." And it's this idea about self-love. It's about trusting what you know in your own core and for women, and especially women of color, being proud to take up space, to make your voice heard. Mary speaks a lot to the idea of speaking your truth and that her music really saved her. So the film's about all of that. We had a great time, we were able to add animation into it. It's just a story that I love. I haven't done music documentaries, but to me it was this really beautiful blend of a music doc but also a film about just coming to terms with who you are and feeling good about whoever that is and this idea of self-love.

For more information, visit www.nationalgeographic.com.

Nicole is the Editor-in-Chief of Hamptons.com where she focuses on lifestyle, nightlife, and mixology. She grew up in the Hamptons and currently resides in Water Mill. www.hamptons.com NicoleBarylski NicoleBarylski

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