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Exclusive: Q&A with Director Jeff Zimbalist ’00

Zimbalist reflected on the challenges and rewards of making films in developing countries

Director Jeff Zimbalist ’00 delivered the 13th annual Casey Shearer Memorial Lecture Friday night in Salomon 101. The Herald spoke to Zimbalist about his inspirations, experiences as a director and the advice he has for undergraduates.


Herald: What at Brown shaped your career moving forward? Was there anything in particular that inspired you to go into film?

Zimbalist: I wanted to do the arts and I wanted to do development work, but what I realized was that … the reading, writing classes were really helpful and being able to think around subjects, but I wasn’t retaining the actual information as far as I wanted. And so I recognized that if I was going to be four years at this credited, really prestigious university, there was all sorts of resources (and) I would have an easier time retaining that knowledge if I was hands-on. And so I started taking film classes so I could use the cameras and the edit gear, and that was something that I was able to retain the information and get better at so I just started putting more and more time into film.


Was there a particular class or professor that really influenced you?

I was very influenced by the whole Modern Culture and Media Department, that whole experience where there was very little emphasis on commercial filmmaking or on career-driven film making and a lot of emphasis on pushing the boundaries of the art form, of the media, and that was a new way of thinking for me. And some of the professors I worked really closely with (were Professors of Modern Culture and Media Studies) Leslie Thornton (and) Tony Cokes (and Professor Emeritus of Modern Culture and Media Studies) Michael Silverman.


Do you have any particularly fond memories from your time as an undergraduate, either to do with film or completely unrelated?

No fond memories whatsoever — I’m just joking. I got tons!  I was very idealistic … and very ambitious and worked really hard and had tons of late nights, sometimes all-nighters in the carriage house behind the MCM building … I taught myself to edit over at the multimedia lab, and I remember my times there very fondly. Just being in a challenging environment with other great thinkers and the high expectations of your fellow students really push you to achieve more.


What was a certain challenge you faced as an undergraduate?

That balance of what you’re really passionate about versus what’s been presented to you in a persuasive way — that’s really challenging in college, and I think that if you can accomplish that in those four years, then you come out of there more or less knowing what your form is. Even if you don’t know what the content is, if you know what the form is, then that’s a massive achievement. And that was really challenging, to figure out how much of this is coming from me and how much of this is just me being really persuaded by great teachers and other people who have strong visions.


Can you pinpoint a specific lesson you learned at Brown? 

One of the really important anchors that I got at my time at Brown and I return to frequently is to not fall prey to the conventional way of thinking about a problem ... before I dive in to put out a fire on a film or in a financing stage of a project, I make sure I think it through from every possible angle and I have that confidence that there’s a solution out there that’s out (of) the box, that may not be conventional, that may not be typical, but exists. To be in a cocoon — a creative cocoon like Brown ... you can experiment and you’re not afraid to fail, that safe space encourages you to then take those risks and think out (of) the box when problem solving in your career.


Is there anything — any funny memory from Brown that you look back on? 

(Former Brown student) Casey Shearer and I were close, and the real reason that this is such an honor and that I’m embracing this experience and I’m excited to be there tonight, is because of Casey and his family ... I usually turned to (Shearer) for advice and he was a very logical, very persuasive, very opinionated advice-giver and so we had a lot of really intimate sessions where we would talk about certain career choices and the difficult decisions that you need to make, particularly in journalism, because he was a journalist, and that’s something I want to reflect on a little bit this evening.


Are there other influences or inspirations that you can point to for the ideas and the films that you’ve created?

I was very influenced by watching experimental films at Brown and the seriousness with which the film department ... takes avant-garde films, avant-garde media. That kind of seriousness and that analysis and those types of really out-there, experimental works (have) been extremely influential, even though I’m doing work that’s much more commercial than that stuff. It’s a really important reminder and sort of a control group to reference.


A lot of your work has to do with traveling and international development, like you said. In what ways have you worked to sort of achieve that wide reach with your films?

We tend to try to do things simultaneously, to do films that are very independent and also films that are very conventionally commercial. There’s an opportunity when you make independent films that are financed independent of studios and networks — there’s an opportunity to do educational outreach with the film so that it doesn’t just get shown in TV and movie theaters but you actually use it as a tool for education and for social development, and so we’ve done a lot of that. We’ve worked with the Ford Foundation on a film in Brazil, we’ve worked with schools and outreach coordinators for our films in Colombia, and that’s been really rewarding, that we’re creating entertainment but that we’re also giving the opportunity to engage with learning.


And is there a particular place or effort that you’ve made that stands out to you as being very formative?

The two most rewarding experiences in all the films we’ve done are “Favela Rising” and “The Two Escobars,” the two films that got mentioned in the advertisement for the talk. But “Favela Rising” was made on a shoestring budget, I did everything myself, and it filled me with so much pride and confidence. What it achieved with so little and in terms of the reach of the film, the impact of the film ... that was a tremendous stepping stone for me in my career and a tremendous learning experience. I could go on forever about what I learned during that experience.

And “The Two Escobars,” I worked with my brother, and I feel like we refined our storytelling ability and stepped it up a little bit, and I was really proud of our ability to work together. So those are the two kind of turning points, landmark experiences that I’ve had ... but there’s also been a number of really hard, you know, failures and tragic films that we’ve worked on where because of a stick in the spokes of the wheel, the whole thing takes a spill ... You juggle these experiences and you try to keep an even head and keep plowing forward.


Can you think of a specific failure that you needed to sort of get over and that you learned from, moving forward?

There’s many — it’s traumatic. When you take your work this seriously ... you want it to be the best it can be, and you invest so much of yourself in it that emotionally it’s scarring when you have to let it go. And it’s often out of your control, it’s not a mistake that you made, it’s just the way things misaligned. I actually sit (in) Buddhist meditation as a part of my lifestyle, and it’s a helpful practice in terms of letting go and moving on.


What are your plans for the future in terms of what you’re hoping to explore, any projects in the running?

We’re planning on making a feature film, a fiction film, based on real events, on the soccer legend Pele. And if everything goes well, that would shoot this summer, and we wrote the script and will direct it. And right now we’re finishing another ESPN film, which should be premiered in the fall — which will premiere in the fall, and then we’ve got a handful of other projects at various stages.


Are there any people in particular you’ve really enjoyed working with, either from the industry side or as the subjects of any of your films?

Yeah there’s a lot of people, I want to be humble about this. I think that one of the most tremendous experiences — I’m gonna bring it back to the Brazil film, “Favela Rising” — is collaborating with the Afro Reggae movement. And those guys, they were the stars of our film but they’re also true social revolutionaries. They use music and culture and art to offer opportunities to youth in basically a war zone — the favelas, the slums are war zones. And they offer them a way out and an alternative to being drug traffickers and entering a life of crime. So of all the people I’ve worked with, really the people that have inspired me the most and kept me grounded and kept my eye on the prize and what’s really important are those characters who are changing the world in positive ways despite their circumstances.


When you’re making a film like that one, do you have any goals in mind at the outset that you hope to accomplish with the film, any particular message you want to spread to your audience?

Our mission with that film was to use their story as a vehicle to share this model with people for whom it was most relevant, that maybe could use that model in their communities. ... The only thing consistent with all of our work is that we don’t want to make cheap media. We don’t want to do stories that (kind of) appeal to the lowest common denominator ... We want to make something lasting that really captures some of the wonderment of existence and the value of life and these bigger emotions.


What do you learn going to new places?

I think that it’s all about experiencing a different set of values. The things that you take for granted, in a day or an hour or a minute of being in a foreign place that’s culturally and socioeconomically distinct, it all gets turned on its head and you’re left questioning, why am I in the rat race, for example? Or why am I working as hard as I’m working? Or how come I don’t spend more time relaxing with family? Or whatever it may be, these various central, basic sort of fundamental life choices — you question them.

Is there any piece of advice you could give to current Brown students about how to not get stuck in that rat race or how to take advantage of all these opportunities?

Decide what’s most important to you from your work. Is it money? Is it status? Is it social change? Is it creative satisfaction? And set that intention and return to it when you’re challenged or when you’re facing a difficult decision because there are difficult moral and ethical and career and life decisions all the time when you’re an entrepreneur and you’re doing it on your own, and you want something to return to as your anchor ... At Brown, that’s a tremendous opportunity to decide what’s most fulfilling and what’s your top priority. And that will guide you so you don’t get rutted into something that you got a lot of work and people are offering you jobs every day but it’s not what you want to do.


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