Tony Gerber ’86 P’20 has always used art as a form of resistance, both as a filmmaker and as cofounder of the independent production company Market Road Films. Fresh out of Brown, Gerber began his career directing theater in New York playhouses and has since become the director, producer and cinematographer of Emmy-nominated documentary “Full Battle Rattle,” which centers on life inside the U.S. Army’s Iraq simulation in the California desert. In 2016, he released the critically acclaimed “We Will Rise: Michelle Obama’s Mission to Educate Girls Around the World” with CNN.
Herald: You recently released a documentary about Michelle Obama’s mission to educate girls across the globe. Why do you think this is an important message to publicize?
Gerber: In many parts of the world, education is not an option for girls and young women. Those of us in positions of power with access to political agency, power and voice need to fight for those who don’t have agency. Statistically, it’s been proven that investment in girls goes further in terms of creating liberal societies and improving the gross national product of a nation. Any dollar invested in girls’ education becomes an investment of thousands. This is one of the reasons Michelle Obama, with (the) help of Barack Obama, launched Let Girls Learn. She has the power to reach people and make policy and this is the issue she has chosen. Our film, “We Will Rise,” is the beginning for Michelle Obama of what will be a campaign that I imagine will occupy her for the rest of her life.
Were there any particularly meaningful moments you witnessed while filming?
The interaction with the girls was so poignant. For the young African girls to see Michelle Obama and see someone who looked like them in a position of power was remarkable. When the film aired, there was a screening in the White House. Ten Liberian girls were flown over for the screening. The first lady wept after seeing it for the first time. She told them: “This is my house. You’re here. You belong here. This is also your house.” In other words, access to this kind of power needs to belong to the people. It’s not about closing doors, it’s about opening doors. It’s about making knowledge and the capacity to learn open to everyone, but also letting girls around the world know that they need to dream big. There was a moment in our town hall in Liberia when Secret Service was taking Michelle Obama away and all the girls mobbed her, just wanting to touch her. It speaks to this reality that in her they saw a small piece of themselves.
You co-founded Market Road Films in 2003. Why did you feel the need to start your own film production company?
The industry is indifferent to the individual by and large. It’s about doing work, but also it’s about making money. There’s a kind of fortitude, a kind of reinforcement you get by having your own company. Not just emotionally, but you can build a family of like-minded artists. I have members of my team who have been with me for years now. We have an intuitive understanding of how things work. It gave us the ability to take on larger jobs and increased responsibility in those jobs. We handle everything from the development of an idea through the production and execution.
Why are you drawn to creating documentaries as opposed to fictional stories?
I’m drawn to both, actually. I don’t see a tremendous distinction between the two in terms of the impetus, which is to create empathy and understanding in an audience. The films I’m most drawn to use cinematography to get their point across. When I teach, we often speak of the line between nonfiction and fiction. That line is becoming less and less firmly agitated. You saw that this week in Washington D.C. — the notion of what is truth and what is “alternative fact.” Not to necessarily take this in a political direction, but I do think it’s become increasingly difficult in this day and age to define fiction and nonfiction. What’s important is honesty and emotional clarity — the necessity of creating a richer and deeper experience for an audience. If the audience can go in with an assumption of the subject or character and come out with a different understanding, then I’ve achieved something.
Are you worried about creative freedom under President Donald Trump? What do you think his election means for the arts?
I am worried that government funding for the arts will be cut. I think it’s an opportunity for folks in the arts to fight back using the tools we have at our disposal. We had a very fortunate eight years, and we were luckier and better off than we all realized. New forms will emerge, new audiences will be born. The arts will be critical to reach folks in the red states. If you look at a map, funding of the arts exists mainly in the blue states but not the red states. Folks in the red states have not had the same access to this wealth of dialogue. The belief among myself and my colleagues is that art can change and affect positively a community. The next four years are a prime time to test that belief system.
How did your path at Brown shape your career?
I gained the courage to go out into the world and try to be an artist. I would credit this to (visiting Playwright-at-Large in Theatre Arts and Performance Studies) Paula Vogel. She gave me the courage to move to New York City and begin working in the arts. I worked in the theater before transitioning to film. I learned how to learn — that’s the most important lesson I took from Brown. I learned how to be curious and how to research. I learned how to listen to other people — people I may not always agree with. My curiosity became refined in college. I met my wife at Brown, and now my daughter is at Brown, so it’s a big part of my life.
— This interview has been edited for length and clarity.