This week, we began the second year of the Docs In Progress Fellowship Program. We were pleased to welcome ten new Fellows who come with a variety of experiences, backgrounds, and film projects. Throughout the year, we'll be featuring each of our Fellows as guest bloggers where they will share their thoughts on their films, filmmaking, or anything they think would be of interest to the documentary community. We start this month with Heather Taylor.
by Heather Taylor
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens
can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.
The smell of burning oil and gasoline filled the air and the revving sound of the radial engines awakened the senses as the mechanics swung the giant propellers to start the motors. Thousands of people stood along the side of the runway while pilots lined up their brightly colored airplanes in two rows at the starting line. Nineteen pilots, many in open cockpits, were sweltering in the 100 plus degree weather on this hot August day. The official timer stood in front of a black and purple monocoupe with a red flag raised, prepared to signal to the pilot to take off. Every eye in the crowd was on the race official. The pistol signifying the start of the race fired in Cleveland, Ohio, transmitted over the radio, through the PA system and broadcast on Clover Field in Santa Monica, CA.
The flag lowered, the pilot’s foot came off the brake, the throttle pushed forward and the first plane rolled swiftly past the race officials, the spectators, and the movie reel cameraman. Picking up speed, the plane slowly lifted off the ground and ascended upwards. The announcer blasted over the PA system, “in plane #8, sponsored by the monocoupe company, Miss Phoebe Omlie.” Two minutes later, another plane took off, and another, until all nineteen cabin and biplanes were in the air headed east to Cleveland.
The first women’s national air derby, one of the most amazing air races in history, was off to a roaring start. Twenty female pilots, including Amelia Earhart, raced across the country over a nine-day period in the summer of 1929 to prove that flying was safe and that women could indeed, fly (the 20th pilot took off a day later due to issues with her plane). Despite mechanical issues, emergency landings, navigational struggles, and threats of sabotage, the women succeeded and became legends in their field.
As a student in film school, I was looking for a good story to tell and found one in the derby. Unfortunately, I discovered the story at the end of my film school days, so did not have the structure of the program to help me develop the film further. For more than a decade, I tried unsuccessfully to find others to fund the project and produce the film. After much soul searching, I left my full time job, got a loan and produced the documentary as an independent filmmaker.
Leaving my day job to tackle the documentary resulted in a lot of work in isolation. It took time to build the right team to create the film. Like the women of the derby, I wanted to attract competent and skilled people who were passionate about what they did and were eager to bring their enthusiasm to the project. At first I found a lot of people wanting to tell me what to do or others wanting me to tell them what to do as I stumbled to find my own voice to express my vision for the film.
Various themes began to emerge as I worked to articulate this vision such as how the women built and maintained community. I was really struck by the courage these young women had to follow their passion and take a chance on something that was not the stereotypical norm; flying airplanes. Not only did they follow this passion, they created enthusiasm around the event that resulted in thousands of people volunteering to ensure the success of the race. What began as a small group proving the viability of aviation soon became a national event on the front pages of every newspaper. It was my hope that this story would inspire others to search for their own passion, no matter how illogical or unconventional the path might be.
The women built community through their enthusiasm. They also were unique in how they maintained their community. Here were twenty women with strong and vastly different personalities in a competition against one another, yet throughout the race they supported and cheered each other on. For example, in footage from the derby pilot Pancho Barnes shakes hands with competitor Marvel Crosson and says “Well Marvel, I hope I win this race but if I don’t, I certainly hope you do.” Marvel replied, “Thanks Pancho and may all your landings be slow and low.”
I wanted to build and maintain this type of community in producing my film. After a few bumps and bruises, the right team did emerge. Three years after I left my job, I premiered Breaking Through the Clouds: The First Women’s National Air Derby. The audience was as varied as the team that helped to create the film. There were pilots, air racers, and family members of the original pilots in the audience. There were also people who knew nothing about aviation but were inspired to hear the women’s story. As with the race, a larger community has developed surrounding my film. Through festivals, screenings, presentations as well as social media, I have met and continue to meet so many interesting people whom I never would have had a chance to know.
Now I am looking towards starting the process of producing a new film. This time, however, I don’t have to build a community from scratch. As a member of the Docs In Progress Fellowship program, I am eager to commiserate and collaborate with fellow artists who share a sense of purpose in bringing stories to the world's attention.
Choosing a path outside the norm can be lonely. However, it doesn’t mean one has to be alone. It might take time, but you can build your own community to support your dreams, much like twenty brave pilots did eighty-five years ago.
More information on Heather Taylor and her award winning documentary Breaking Through the Clouds: The First Women’s National Air Derby is available at BreakingThroughTheClouds.com.