Essential SF Q&A: Carrie Lozano

By Pam Grady

Photo by Tommy Lau

Photo by Tommy Lau

In the late 1990s, Carrie Lozano was the copy editor for the San Francisco International Film Festival, and for other Bay Area film festivals. Those were baby steps on the road to a storied career in documentary filmmaking. She was a producer on Sam Green’s Oscar-nominated The Weather Underground, worked at Al-Jazeera, and earned a Student Academy Award for her directing debut Reporter Zero, a 2006 short about late reporter Randy Shilts. Most recently, The Ballad of Fred Hersch, a feature documentary about the jazz pianist, that she made in partnership with Charlotte Lagarde, debuted and screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Lozano’s work as a filmmaker, journalist, and advocate for documentary films has been essential with a reach far beyond SF.

Q: You studied journalism in graduate school. Why did you gravitate toward documentary rather than print journalism?

Carrie Lozano: I was actually working in documentary before I went to graduate school. I studied Film Studies at UC Berkeley. At the time, Kathy Geritz taught the documentary class. Craig Baldwin was an instructor. Ernie Gehr. A lot of our San Francisco film luminaries went through the undergrad program. Then I produced The Weather Underground. I’m trying to remember when it screened—it must have been 2003—at the Film Society. It was while The Weather Underground was out in the world that I applied to graduate school. So, I’d already made the leap, but I wanted to get a more firm foundation for documentary filmmaking.

Q: What do you think you gained from that program?

CL: It gave me a lot. At the time, the program was run by Jon Else. From a technical perspective—producing before, I didn’t really have technical skills. There were a lot of other skills I brought to the table, but I didn’t have technical skills. Learning how to edit, understanding cameras, sound, all of just the craft part of it came from graduate school.

Also, at the time Debbie Hoffman—I can’t remember what her title was—but she was kind of like our advising editor. There was nothing like working with Debbie Hoffman. That was an enormous education in storytelling. And then just doing some long-form work, as well, was a huge, huge education in how to tell a story. There were many other things: ethics, a real discussion of ethics and the law, so a kind of nice 360° view of documentary or nonfiction storytelling.

Photo by Tommy Lau

Photo by Tommy Lau

Q: You’re an editorial consultant to other filmmakers, you work with the Bay Area Video Coalition’s fellowship program, and you’re also involved with the International Documentary Association. Talk about your work as it applies to helping other people achieve their artistic goals.

CL: It mostly happened after leaving Al-Jazeera. I think doing broadcast journalism you get another set of skills, just because of the sheer quantity of the work that you do. Coming out of that, a lot of what I do is consult the intersection of nonfiction filmmaking and journalism. That can come in a variety of forms, but when I’m working with filmmakers, generally I’m working with filmmakers who are doing what I would call high-stakes stories. They could be investigative and they might need some investigative reporting support or they might be international and have so political or security issues involved, things where the stakes are just a tiny bit higher and they need some advising.

And then with the BAVC and IDA, it’s a little bit different, but it’s really working in the area where journalism and documentary film meet. Some people think, ‘Isn’t all documentary film journalism?’ Not exactly. And it’s not intended to be and I certainly wouldn’t want it to be. But where those things intersect, it seems that’s where I’ve been getting involved in projects and initiatives.

Q: You’ve working broadcast journalism, made your own films, and produced other people’s films. Do you have a preference?

CL: I’ve done a lot of different things and I think I’ve learned that my preference is to always be doing something I’ve never done before. I keep trying different things. This is what I’ve realized, I like the challenge of trying on something new and doing something different. I don’t necessarily know that there is anything that stands out as like, ‘This is what I do.’ I think I do all those things, some less and less. I don’t really produce for other people anymore, mostly because I’m not generally attached to one project anymore. I just get really excited to take on new challenges. So, I find myself in these new territories periodically.

Photo by Tommy Lau

Photo by Tommy Lau

Q: What keeps you excited?

CL: There are a couple of things. The producing and then the consulting or advising with filmmakers, I really do love helping other people achieve their visions. That was true in broadcast journalism, too. I was a manager, essentially, an editor, versus being out in the field myself. It’s kind of always in the service of helping the producers make their work. I do really enjoy that. And that’s true at BAVC where I facilitate the fellowship. It’s just really fun for me. I think this is a collaborative art form and it takes a team. I’m very happy to provide whatever I can to make things happen. So, that does excite me. At whatever level, I like working with other people.

Q: These past few years have been a great time for documentary and nonfiction storytelling, but going forward, what do you see as the biggest challenges facing journalism and documentary filmmaking?

CL: I think the broken record is funding and sustainability. It’s not like that was ever easy, but I think it is more challenging these days. You have to get farther along in your projects to fund them than you did once upon a time. I think the sustainability issues are huge. We’ve been talking about them in different contexts in the last year or two. And that conversation is not going away. It’s really hard to properly fund a project, to make a living yourself doing this type of work, which is partly why I have so many different things that I do, it is to be sustainable and to make sure that somewhere along the line, I get paid for the work that I do. It’s no small thing.

I think funding is a big challenge. I just finished a film about a jazz pianist and kind of realized that funding for films about art, it is not available. It really exists in very small pockets. We should have known that, but we didn’t really know that until we started doing it and realizing, ‘Oh, we’re going to have to do this in an entirely different way, because the current model, which focuses so much on social-issue films, was not going to fund this film, basically. I think those issues are going to stand out for us, and for journalism, too. Part of the reason why facts are in short supply is because people have found a way to get clicks and to make money and that’s through sensationalistic and often untrue journalism. I think the struggle is to find a financial model that works.

Q: You’ve been named Essential SF, but what do you find essential about SF and the Bay Area?

CL: I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Of course, it’s shocking and an honor to be named anything for anything. I just have to say it’s very meaningful and also very surprising.

I think right now I’m really valuing our community and its openness, its inclusivity, its kind of revolutionary spirit and spirit of dissent and spirit of human rights and civil rights. I really value the culture that for many decades—not forever, but for many decades—San Francisco has represented, which is a culture of protest and fighting for one’s rights and fighting for the marginalized. I think that’s true within the larger culture and I think that’s true within our film community, too, of being outspoken media makers who are shining a light on some difficult issues and stories. I really value the generosity of our community and the cohesiveness. I think the voice that we have together to make change in the world, even in small ways and maybe mostly in small ways, but I’m thinking about that a lot right now and thinking we’re going to ramp things up a little bit again. 

Essential SF is the San Francisco Film Society's ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions. This year's inductees—filmmaker Peter Bratt, film organization Center for Asian American Media, festival photographer Pamela Gentile, documentary filmmaker Carrie Lozano, entertainment attorney George Rush, and film programmer Joel Shepard—were honored at the annual celebration. A key event in the Film Society's year-round appreciation of local talent, this tribute shines a light on the region's most unique and creative personalities and their invaluable contributions to the film world.