Sarit Sandler On The Game Changing Power Of Storytelling
Sarit Sandler is a filmmaker from Jacksonville, Florida and CEO of MangoSoul Productions.
She has worked with production companies across the United States including New York City, Los Angeles, and Dallas on a variety of projects such as feature independent films, music videos, commercials, short films and documentaries. Overall, she seeks to advocate for social justice and educate through the art of film.
Sarit talks about being a filmmaker and how social entrepreneurs can use storytelling to make people care enough to take action.
Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)
[Natana Mayer] - Sarit, thanks for joining us today. Welcome to Melbourne! What brings you to Australia? [3:24]
[Sarit Sandler] - I’m Shooting a documentary here. I’m actually in Australia for two months - I'm in Melbourne for a month, then in Sydney for a month. At some point I'll also hop over to Canberra for some interviews for the film too. I get to spend a lot of time here, and have been really enjoying my time in Australia so far.
You’ve won 5 grants in two months for your work, that’s pretty incredible. Tell us, how did you get started in film? [3:54]
I started back in middle school, so I was about 11 or 12 years old. Whenever we had a project due I would hand in a film instead! I went to an arts high school, which is just like what you see in the movies, where people are playing guitar in the halls and there are art sculptures everywhere. It was awesome. The teachers that I had at Douglas Anderson, at that art school, were so influential to the filmmaker that I have become today. They're just so amazing. I'm still in touch with some of them. They really have been such an influence in my life, and on me as a filmmaker. Currently I'm in university for film and that's what I'm doing full time. I plan to continue to work on my production company, MangoSoul, and hopefully pursue a Masters degree in Film too.
What kind of impact do you want your work to have? [4:54]
When I was in high school I had this professor and his name was Dr Thayer. He always said that filmmakers are the most powerful people in the world. But when you're in high school and someone's talking about your art form in that way, you don't really believe them because you're confused; how can we (filmmakers) be the most powerful people in the world? But then you think about our culture and how it's shaped by the movies we see, by the film and TV shows that we have watched.
Film really influences our culture and it influences us.
It's pretty awesome that as a filmmaker I can help make an impact and really influence what people are seeing.
That’s really powerful. Your film Fred won the Audience Choice Award at the Austin Film Festival, and first in West Palm Beach International Film festival, to name a few, and you’ve also been a panelist on Women and Minorities in Media Festival. With all that work being so well received, do you find that there's a particular kind of story that you aim to tell in your film? [6:36]
Absolutely. I want to tell important stories, powerful stories, inspiring stories. I just want people to walk away with a message not to leave the theatre with nothing.
Your production company, MangoSoul, was started when you were only 20 years old. What key lessons did you learn during the process of starting something up that you’d like to give to other social entrepreneurs? [7:24]
Last summer I created MangoSoul productions where our mission statement is connecting souls around the world, one video at a time. I named it MangoSoul because mangoes are sweet and I wanted to create soulful work. So that was my mindset when I made mango soul. The key lessons I think I learned from it is to use your resources, use the people around you, they want to help you, your friends want to help you. You can reach out on Facebook for people to help you. For example, here in Melbourne, I made a post on one of the online platforms, on a creative group, just asking for help and within an hour I had 25 responses. People want to help you when you're doing something good when you're trying to make a difference. The other words of advice I would give someone, is to use your time wisely. Don't waste a minute throughout the day. When you have free time, use that time to dedicate to your project, use your time usefully. There's 24 hours in a day, use part of that time to sleep and also take some time for self care, and in between those times, just use it for good. Don't, don't let those minutes slip by throughout the day.
I know you touched on the idea of letting people help you. Sometimes entrepreneurs feel like they've got to do everything themselves. They don't know how to ask for help, how did you learn to ask for help? [9:37]
No one does absolutely everything by themselves. You're gonna drain yourself to the point where you're not going be successful because you're so exhausted. I got to that point and that's when I realised I needed help, I cannot do this alone. Unfortunately, it took me being drained to realise that, and I wish someone would have told me to ask for help before that happened.
People want to help you; just ask.
You’ll find that people will think it’s awesome that you want to create something, and they’ll want to be a part of that process.
You’ve worked at different production companies across the states. Based on all these experiences, how do you go about building a story? Do you have a certain approach or formula that you’d recommend other changemakers use? [11:10]
So in film we have a formula. It's called the three act structure, in other words there's a beginning, middle and end. We use that both for narrative and in documentary work. Every story is different.
When I go about building a story, I look at it like a puzzle.
There are so many ‘pieces’ that you have to put together; you have your archival footage, your b-roll, your interviews, and it's about piecing them all together.
That's so interesting. I've never heard of that approach before. Does that mean there's an air of mystery to your process? [11:50]
A little bit, but that's what's so fun about documentary work! Going in [to the project], you may have an idea, but then someone says something completely different. My job is to put it all together in the edit room. Everyone has a unique story and it's all about connection. How can people connect to the story?
How can people connect to your personal story or your project? At the end of the day that’s what it's all about. Connection.
How do you make these stories intriguing enough for strangers to engage in them? In other words, how do you give people a reason to care? [13:37]
You give people a reason to care by giving them a connection and telling their story.
You want to bring people on this emotional journey when they're watching. Everyone's on this journey; both the subject and the audience.
You approach it in a nonlinear way, which is how I approach a lot of my documentary work. For example, I just did a piece on this young man named Judd who's a skydiver - he got paralysed while skydiving but he still skydives. You would think that I might start with the accident and then move forward with his story from there, but I wanted the audience to connect right away with him as a cool individual, as an adrenaline junkie that just loves jumping out of planes. So that's how I started it, with him talking about the feeling he gets when he jumps out of a plane. Then we get to the accident maybe a minute into it, but the accident is not where I chose to start. I started in a non-linear way where I just talked about him in general jumping, whether it was before or after the accident and in the beginning you didn't even know he was in an accident. That's the purpose of the film - you just think, okay, this guy is really awesome because he jumps out of planes, but then you learn to realize he's really awesome because he jumps out of planes and he doesn't care that he got hurt doing it in the past. He’s still going to do it because that's what he wants to do. That's how he lives his life every day, is by doing the thing he loves.
So you're taking people on an emotional journey instead of a historical journey, right?
Yes. There's a lot of historical documentary work out there (that uses historical storytelling) and there's no wrong way to do it.
I like asking myself ‘how will my audience connect to this individual?’
I think you make a really interesting point there. It reminds me of quote I heard by Simon Sinek who’s the author of a great book called “Start with why”.
To paraphrase he spoke about the difference between being a leader and leading. He said that being a leader simply means you hold the highest rank. However leading is completely different. When you lead people follow you not because they have to, or they're getting paid for it, but because they WANT to.
Leading means other people care enough about what you’re saying and are willing to follow you. Building on that I wonder how film can be used to lead. Do you have any advice for our listeners on how they can use storytelling to lead people to action? How do you make people want to follow you? [17:58]
I think we can actually take away something from TED talks themselves. A lot of TED talks start with anecdotal stories. They start with these personal stories because people want to connect. They're trying to find a way to connect to you as a leader or someone who's speaking or pitching an idea, so my best advice to someone is just tell a story. People will connect to you. People will connect to your project, connect to what you want to do, and the impact you want to make.
Tell stories, important stories, anecdotal stories, whether they're your own or the story of a young girl who connects to your startup.
If we go really, really far back, we pass down histories through storytelling. The Bible is a story, everything's a story! So of course storytelling would be the most impactful way to get people to click with the idea and become so invested in it that they want to actually act on it.
So as a social entrepreneur, tell a story, you don't have to be a filmmaker to be a storyteller. Anyone can be a storyteller.
When you tell a story, do you worry about overwhelming your audience? Do you think that having a beginner's mindset and keeping storytelling simple is important? [20:38]
You've got to run it by your friends and your family, you’ve got to take a step back. I have to leave the edit room sometimes because I spend so many hours watching the same piece over and over again. When I come back to it the next day I ask myself, why did I leave this out? Or why did I put this in? And then I have to sit there for another couple of hours and try and figure out how am I going to redo this. That’s why it's really good to have outside unbiased people come in and watch it, and see how all the puzzle pieces fit together.