Corinne van der Borch is a Dutch artist and award-winning documentary filmmaker based in Brooklyn. Her feature length documentary “Girl with Black Balloons,” about the oldest living resident of the Chelsea Hotel, won the Grand Jury Metropolis prize at DOC NYC in 2011. Van der Borch created a video-installation for The Dominican Republic for the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2014. She is setting up a grassroots impact campaign around the launch of “Sisters on Track” on Netflix with the hope that the film will give people a greater understanding of the value of mentorship and coaching through sports.
Tone Grøttjord-Glenne is an award-winning Norwegian director and producer. In 2005, she founded Sant & Usant with a vision of creating an environment for strong visual documentary film with an aim to create strong impact. Her films “Brothers” and “Prirechnyy” premiered at IDFA, and her film “All That I Am” premiered in competition at Hot Docs 2020. Grøttjord-Glenne has produced nearly 20 films for a wide international audience, including award-winning films such as “69 Minutes of 86 Days,” “I am Kuba,” and “Bravehearts.”
“Sisters on Track” is screening at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, which is taking place June 9-20.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
TGG: For me, one of the core figures of “Sisters on Track” is coach Jean Bell, especially in the role she plays as a changemaker for all the young athletes in the Jeuness Track Club. She uses her voice to empower girls and teach them life skills that can help them embrace all opportunities in life.
Through the three Sheppard sisters, Tai, Rainn, and Brooke, and their mother Tonia, we get intimate insight into the hurdles they face, as well as the joyful and inspirational moments on their way to becoming strong athletes, students, and young women.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
CvdB: A friend introduced me to the Sheppard family; the girls had just come home with gold medals from the Junior Olympics and some friends had organized a fundraiser as the family was recently evicted and had to move into a homeless shelter in Brooklyn. Meeting the family and coach Jean was quite magical: at the time, Brooke was nine, Rainn was 11, and Tai was 12. All three were very inquisitive.
To meet sisters with such talent and a real drive to learn, to be able to join them in their journey of finding out what they want to accomplish and become was so incredibly beautiful and vulnerable. The fact these girls had coincidentally met coach Jean, this angel who was there to unlock their true potential, was what drew me to tell their story. I knew upon meeting them I would not want to ever let them down.
TGG: In many ways, this is a feel-good documentary. It has spark, energy, and joy written all over it. I think it is great to be able to tell a story that celebrates the empowerment of women and to help lift that message to a wider audience of both young women and adults. As aforementioned, I felt really connected to the changemaker theme. Many of my previous films have touched upon the importance of having someone in your life who can guide you, show you the world, and let you know that you can be part of it.
The girls’ story in itself was just unbelievable: three sisters who were previously living with their single mom in a homeless shelter become national gold medalists and magazine cover stars after one year of practice — and ultimately are set up in their own apartment with the help of Tyler Perry. I mean, that sounds like a story! However, it was important for Corinne and me to move into a more personal, intimate story that revealed the depth of each sister and other characters, and shine a light on what it is like to grow up as a young Black girl today.
W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?
CvdB: I hope people will see how much love and dedication and thoughtfulness we poured into this film and how it was a true collaboration between female filmmakers behind the camera and the strong female protagonists in front of the camera. Jean was our guiding light throughout production. As white filmmakers, she was also helping us understand her struggle and her story.
TGG: While we were filming, I was traveling with the girls and Tonia on a bus in Brooklyn and a mother with two young children approached us and asked if they were the Sheppard sisters. She had recognized them from the news and asked if her children could say hi. It was a very emotional moment, and the mother tearfully told the sisters what important role models they were for her kids, saying, “You come from the same circumstances as us and you have reached so far.” In that moment, I understood that the film had an opportunity to provide hope and inspiration.
Early on in production, Jean said, “As a Black person, you have to be excellent in order to be considered average.” In the film, we can see that this message is passed on to Tai, Rainn, and Brooke — in order to have opportunities, they live with the pressure to excel in all aspects of life: track, school, behavior.
Not all kids have the same hurdles before them, and many of these unjust hurdles are the result of society, representing the overall systemic problems that affect some more than others. I hope that the film can help bring this discussion into classrooms and relevant forums in a constructive way.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
TGG: The story is very rich and layered in so many ways. You have three girls, a single mom, a coach, and an entire track club. There were also so many big, amazing things that happened in the film that moved the story forward. It was a challenge for us as directors to stay true to the core of the documentary while there were so many exciting things happening.
Corinne and I set out to make an intimate film, getting as close to the participants as possible. Having each other to lean on during that process, while also seeking guidance from Jean, was really helpful. Our goal was to stay on the right track and tell the sisters’ story with the depth and respect it deserves.
CvdB: Earning trust takes time. It has been five years since we embarked on the journey of making this film. The first year of developing the story was all about building trust and being clear with our intentions as filmmakers, but also observing with an open mind and heart to uncover the story that Jean and the girls wanted to tell. When making a film, one must be aware not to lose the earned trust over the years. You also must trust this ebb and flow.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
TGG: When we started to develop and work on the film, we were financed through public funding. The Norwegian Film Institute, Freedom of Speech, and Creative Europe all supported the project and that gave us the time we needed to develop the film, searching and shaping the message, the storylines, structure, and tone without any “interference.” I believe this is an important phase for all films — it is the first vulnerable stage as you are uncovering the voice, heart, and soul of your story and to have strong public funding for that can be crucial.
When we pitched the film for the first time, Netflix was in the room. That was nerve-wracking in itself because we had Netflix on our radar and thought it could be a great match. The pitch went well and through several conversations with its creative team, we were convinced that this would be a fantastic partnership for the story. Being able to give people around the world access to “Sisters on Track” through Netflix is an incredible opportunity.
W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
TGG: Growing up on a small island in Norway, I was not exposed to culture very much and filmmaking was not even something I thought ordinary people like myself could do. At 19-years old, I happened to be present when a documentary filmmaker did a presentation. He showed cuts of his latest film and talked about how documentaries could change entire structures and shine a spotlight to injustice.
This was a defining moment for me. Right then, I just knew that I was going to become a documentary filmmaker. What I’ve since learned is that becoming a filmmaker is an ongoing and ever-evolving process. I am still becoming a filmmaker, film by film. It’s a great thing to have a profession that allows you to always learn.
CvdB: I think it was when I realized that a documentary is a portal to empathy and creativity. I was excited by the idea of creating with empathy and an open heart, and excited to be able to give the time it really takes to tell a story. I believe as a filmmaker, I am always learning, and by being vulnerable, it allows the people around me to open up and be vulnerable. I love films through which you can be part of someone’s life and feel the raw beauty and complexity of life unfolding.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
TGG: The best advice I’ve received was to always look five years ahead. Where do I want to be in five years? I think being able to make a plan and work towards that goal has helped me a lot. Deciding to build my own company, Sant & Usant, at the age of 23 was a direct result of that advice. Sant & Usant is still run by that philosophy — having eyes on the future for the company, but also expecting each employee within our company to articulate a plan for how they want to develop as producers or directors and work towards that.
I’m not sure if I can even remember if I’ve received bad advice. I don’t think bad advice sticks very well to me. I just shake that off and navigate the good advice I’ve received. With that said, I’ve definitely made mistakes along the way, but they are my own mistakes and hopefully help in shaping me as a filmmaker.
CvdB: The best advice I’ve received as a filmmaker is to have patience and trust your intuition, and to be confident and true to yourself.
W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?
TGG: Find your own voice and trust your intuition. Build confidence in yourself as a filmmaker over time. I think it is much easier to take opportunities and create your own path if you have a strong belief that your voice is important, that your work matters. As a female filmmaker, you might find that you will need a strong and confident voice in order to get into position.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why?
TGG: I really admire director Kim Longinotto. I love the fact that she gets so close to her characters and is able to tell such intimate and sensitive stories. Her style of cinéma vérité allows us as an audience to observe and follow untold stories and struggles, often about girls and women, but at the same time are able to say something about society at large. I highly recommend “Divorce Iranian Style,” “Gaea Girls,” “Runaway,” and “Sisters in Law.”
CvdB: I really love Pernille Rose Grønkjær’s “The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun.” She is a Danish director who spent 10 years living in an RV on the land of a man with a dream to convert his castle into a monastery. The film plays as if it’s a fairytale. It’s so cinematic and has a lot of humor.
W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?
TGG: “Sisters on Track” was edited and post-produced during the pandemic and even though it worked surprisingly well, I still feel like I missed out on one of my favorite things: to be in the editing room. On the other hand, I feel extremely lucky to have been able to move our work forward and stay creative when the world closed down. I really feel for all the productions that had to completely pause their process.
“Sisters on Track” will launch on Netflix June 24 and I am now in the process of finding my next film. I do feel that I am looking for more local, Norwegian stories because I’m still mindful of hesitations around travel and restrictions in a post-pandemic world. At Sant & Usant, we have tried to adapt as a company during COVID: we built a digital platform to distribute films that were supposed to screen in theaters and we also launched our film “Gunda” for theatrical release in more than 30 countries in a flexible manner.
CvdB: We are setting up a social impact campaign around the release of “Sisters On Track” on Netflix. It’s been very fulfilling to continue the journey with the girls and Jean by creating ways to bring the film to communities in the U.S. We hope this film will resonate, activate, and inspire all young people to ask themselves what it is they want and deserve in life, and for everyone to consider becoming someone’s changemaker. As Jean says, “They always had that talent deep inside of them, but they needed someone to show them how to use the talent — that’s what I’m there for.”
W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color on screen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?
TGG: I think that the reckoning this past year in the U.S. has rightfully brought a spotlight to this topic. It has been an eye-opener for me both personally and professionally. The protests and conversations reached Norway with new weight, helping our local community and industry understand that we must keep improving our diversity and inclusion efforts. At Sant & Usant, we are continuing to actively invite diverse filmmakers to work with us as we search for new projects and partnerships. Everyone in our industry must continue to do the work to improve and create a structure that can truly uplift underrepresented voices.
CvdB: We set out to make an inspiring film filled with hope and understanding the importance of giving Black youth a voice. We hope this film and our impact campaign will help in doing just that.