Hot Docs 2021 Women Directors: Meet Chloe Fairweather – “Dying to Divorce”

Chloe Fairweather is an award-winning director who specializes in observational documentary and the telling of complex true stories. The Welsh-born filmmaker started out in TV production over 10 years ago when she was selected for the BBC’s Production Training Scheme. From here she learned her craft assisting documentary directors such as award-winning filmmaker Olly Lambert. Her first film was shortlisted for The Grierson Best Newcomer Award in 2015 and was nominated for a BAFTA. Since then, she has made films for all the major British broadcasters.

“Dying to Divorce” is screening at the 2021 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, which takes place April 29-May 9. The fest is digital this year due to COVID-19. Streaming is geo-blocked to Canada.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

CF: This film follows the work of Ipek Bozkurt, a courageous lawyer who fights to protect Turkish women against abuse and to bring violent perpetrators to justice. Filmed over five years, it is a visceral account shot from the point of view of Ipek and the women she represents. Through their eyes, we witness their unbelievable struggle for independence, overcoming horrific injuries inflicted by their husbands and an increasingly repressive government set on curtailing the rights and freedoms of women.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

CF: I was making a short film with the journalist Christina Asquith on a completely different subject. She had heard about the work of the We Will Stop Femicide Platform, and we decided to work up a story completely on spec. I filmed the activist Aysen meeting Arzu, a woman whose legs and arms had been shot at close-range when she tried to leave her husband.

I remember we were both so shocked by the level of the violence that we felt a real urgency to get the story out there. I started talking to the producer Sinead Kirwan about how we could make a longer film about their work. Not long after, I started working with the brilliant team in Turkey, producers Seda Gokce and Ozge Sebzeci, and it developed from there.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

CF: Of course I want to raise awareness about the situation in Turkey, but I also want people to be inspired by the unbelievable strength and courage of the women in the film. As things get both personally and politically worse, they only get stronger and fight harder.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

CF: Filming a long form documentary over many years is difficult. Funding came in small amounts until most of the filming was complete. We were often working with very limited resources.

The other great challenge was the unpredictability of the security situation in Turkey. This of course was part of the story and part of what made it compelling, but it did make planning shoots and access more difficult.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

CF: The funding of this film is a complete jigsaw! We first pitched the film at the Sheffield Meet Market and we were able to secure letters of commitment from NRK. While this funding would only come through when the film was completed, it was still something we could use to attract other funders. One of the great things about having these international broadcasters on board was we were able to start a meaningful collaboration with our Norwegian producer Elisabeth Kleppe. She was able to secure support from The Fritt Ord Foundation and the Western Norway Film Centre.

We ran a successful crowdfunding campaign and were able to secure support from lawyers, feminist film funds, and NGO’s drawn to the issues raised by the film. We also partnered with The Fuller Project who secured us some funding too. These small amounts of funding kept us going, but it wasn’t until Creative Scotland and Arte/WDR came onboard that we knew we would have enough to complete the film.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

CF: I made a short documentary at university called “Board Meetings” where I met and filmed with people advertising on a notice board. The film came runner-up in the BBC Film Lab competition and I got the bug from there. I loved having an excuse to meet people and spend time seeing the world through their eyes as well as the craft of visual storytelling.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

CF: The best advice I received is that “perfection is the enemy of the good.” I was complaining to a fellow filmmaker about the challenges of making a film with so few resources.

The worst advice I have received is to “keep your cards close to your chest.” I actually find being open, clear, and honest about who you are and what you are trying to do works best.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

CF: Go for it and don’t look back or question your legitimacy to do this. Let people know you want to direct as they won’t necessarily assume it.

You have to fight hard, but there is support and openness there when you do.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

CF: “The Crash Reel” by Lucy Walker has such intimate family scenes and finds a strong, transformation narrative arc in the subtlety of these moments.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

CF: The pandemic period has been busy with completing “Dying to Divorce,” and I have been grateful to have that focus despite the extra challenges it brought to completing the film.

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?

CF: I think there needs to be more self-reflection among commissioners and production companies about who they are hiring or greenlighting and why. I think too that “difference” can be perceived as risky and this needs to change.

I also believe that to close the opportunity gap we must build teams that really support underrepresented people and fill in experience gaps, which would help level out the playing field. This isn’t a situation that will sort itself out — action needs to be taken at all levels.

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