Amy Ziering is a two-time Emmy Award-winning and Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker – and a woman who is not afraid to challenge big institutions through her work.
Best known for producing The Invisible War, which exposed the epidemic of rape within the U.S. military and went on to win two 2014 Emmy Awards (Best Documentary and Outstanding Investigative Journalism) and receive an Oscar nomination, Ziering’s most recent film, The Hunting Ground, was also a shocking expose of systemic sexual assault, this time throughout top U.S. university campuses.
cinemathread spoke to Ziering ahead of the celebration of International Women’s Day, where The Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce, in partnership with the Santa Monica Commission on the Status of Women, is honoring her with an OWLIE award. These annual awards, from The Organization of Women Leaders (OWL), celebrate women of achievement.
cinemathread: Firstly – congratulations on being honored with an OWLIE.
AZ: I am honored to accept it on behalf of my colleagues and all the women and men who have spoken out in our films, not for personal gain or self-aggrandizement but simply to help make the world safer for others. A gender balanced world is one that is more equitable and just.
CT: There is a through-line of fierce and accomplished activism through your work as a film-maker – have you always been this brave and bold?
AZ: (Laughs) You do what you do, right? To be honest, I don’t really spend much time thinking about how these institutions will respond. It’s who I am.
CT: So tell us how The Invisible War came about.
AZ: I came across an article online, in Salon, about women in the military, and I noticed that half of those interviewed had admitted they’d been sexually assaulted. I called the reporter and asked, “How widespread is this?” She didn’t really know – that wasn’t the original focus of her story, it was a fact that emerged. So we dove in and did our own research and found that it was systemic throughout the military – and an epidemic, in fact, in scale.
CT: Was it the same process for The Hunting Ground?
AZ: No, that film came about as a result of our screening The Invisible War on university campuses. After each screening, young women would come up to us and say: “That happened to me too, right here at my school.” And then as the documentary got released more widely, we began getting emails from students from all over the country sharing with s similar stories and imploring us to make a film – so we did.
CT: It sounds like stories come to you, waiting to be explored.
AZ: It’s true. It’s a very organic process.
CT: Not sure how to put this, but many documentaries can be a bit dull but your work as a producer (with director Kirby Dick) is compelling.
AZ: Well, we do stories that break ground, and do our own thorough and independent investigative research. But we also try and forge a very compelling work of cinema – yes, there’s a real craft to it.
CT: Take us back to the beginning of your career – did you always know you wanted to make documentaries?
AZ: (Laughs) No. I was a very bookish child. I didn’t go to the movies much, and I still don’t, to be honest. I grew up in Beverly Hills, around lots of people whose families were in the business, or who went into the business themselves – which was useful because I’ve been able to call them for guidance in recent years. But no, I wasn’t enamored of Hollywood. I wanted to be an academic.
CT: In fact, you went to Yale. And that’s where you met the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida – who was, in fact, the subject of your first documentary, Derrida.
AZ: I did study under Derrida. But he was not a willing subject! I virtually stalked him for years. He’d always turned down requests from filmmakers.
CT: How did you persuade him?
AZ: I’m not sure I ever did actually! It’s a funny story after years of declining my requests, he sent me a postcard. His handwriting was indecipherable and in French and I couldn’t make it out at all – but, I figured, a postcard is a friendly gesture, right? So I took it to the French Embassy and said he’d given me permission to film him. They gave me a grant and I showed up on his doorstep with a camera a few weeks later.
CT: That was your first film with Kirby Dick – how did you two meet?
AZ: A girlfriend of mine was an assistant editor on Dead Poets Society and she knew someone that was working with Kirby – She got her to invite us both to a screening at Kirby’s house in Silverlake of a rough cut of his documentary Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist which I found to be sophisticated and well-made, theoretically rich and cinematic in style. I went up to him and said: “I’m going to make a movie about Derrida”.
CT: Now you’ve made four documentaries together – and garnered many awards as producer. But we have to ask – you co-directed Derrida – did you not want to direct again?
AZ: Being a producer makes the most sense in terms of our collaboration. But yes, sometimes I think I should be directing. Maybe I’m scared. Maybe I need to spend some more time thinking about this question.
CT: Moving swiftly on – final question – what’s next?
AZ: We have a four development deals with NBC Universal to do some scripted and unscripted series. We’re also making another documentary, but I can’t speak about that as we like to keep our stories under the radar until they’re ready. And Tobey Maguire, through his production company, is developing a feature film based on the making of The Invisible War.
CT: So you’ll have the wonderful opportunity of seeing yourself portrayed by (hopefully someone fabulous) on screen?
AZ: It will be a deeply curious experience. But of course, I’m most pleased that they’re shining a light on what we uncovered. If we were a more transparent and honest society we would all be so much healthier, happier and sane – My biggest hope is that our work helps promote this kind of much-needed growth and healing.