Interviews

“The Place That Makes Us” Director Karla Murthy on Highlighting Community Leaders in Youngstown, Ohio

Karla Murthy is an Emmy Award-nominated producer. She began her career working for the veteran journalist Bill Moyers, and has been a producer, cameraperson, and correspondent for various PBS news magazines over the last 15 years. She is of Filipino and South Asian descent. “The Place That Makes Us” marks her directorial debut.

“The Place That Makes Us” will premiere March 30 on WORLD Channel, WORLDChannel.org, and the PBS App.

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

KM: “The Place That Makes Us” is my first documentary feature film. It is a portrait of Youngstown, Ohio, a quintessential post-industrial city seen through the lives of young community leaders who are fighting to save their hometown with dedication, determination, and love.

As I was making it, the film evolved into a meditation on home and the American Dream, resilience, and what it takes to revitalize a community from the inside out.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

KM: I first came to Youngstown as a reporter in 2016 to do a news story on the revitalization efforts there. After the steel industry collapsed in the 1970s, Youngstown’s population plummeted and the infrastructure fell into ruin. The city became defined by unemployment, poverty, and violence. But among all that decay was a vibrant revitalization effort being led by young people who were born and raised in Youngstown. Many of them had a chance to move elsewhere, but had chosen to stay and do this work. And that was a different story from the “brain drain” trend that I was expecting to see there.

I was also intrigued by the work they were doing: rehabbing vacant blighted houses throughout the city. On that initial reporting trip, I filmed a few houses in different stages of being renovated. When you first walk into these vacant homes, it’s really heartbreaking. They are often full of a family’s belongings that were left behind. There’s so much pain and loss.

Those homes are so emblematic of what’s happened in towns across the post-industrial Midwest. I was drawn to the idea that following one vacant, blighted house as it transformed into a family home full of life again could be a great backbone for a film.

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

KM: I really wanted to make a film that was inspiring and hopeful, despite all the challenges facing communities like Youngstown. It is so easy to feel overwhelmed and jaded by all that’s going in in the country and the world, and I wanted to show people that there is still work to be done, and there is progress that can be made, even if it’s rehabbing just one house, or helping one neighbor, or mentoring one child.

All of that is progress and incredibly valuable, and I wanted to shed light on those efforts and to lift them up.

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

KM: The biggest challenge was definitely funding. There are so many amazing documentary filmmakers out there, and we’re all competing for the same funds. Everyone tells you not to take it personally every time you get rejected, but it’s hard to keep going.

Juggling the lack of funds with the challenges of actually shooting, editing, and crafting the story was overwhelming and disheartening at times. I had a lot of sleepless nights worrying that all the energy and heart I was pouring into this project would end up being for nothing. But I learned to dig deep, have faith, and keep going. And once one door finally opened others began to open as well.

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

KM: We made this film on a shoe-string budget. I did not pay myself and will consider myself lucky to break even. I’m not recommending my financial model or lack thereof to any filmmakers out there.

The crew was made up myself and Alexandra Nikolchev, my amazing producing partner and director of photography. The two of us would rent a car and drive six-and-a-half hours from NYC to Youngstown. We did that over a dozen times over the course three years. We estimated that each shoot cost us around $6,000 in expenses and for Alexandra’s time as DP.

And then we asked friends and family to donate and “sponsor” a shoot. We eventually received two grants which were hugely beneficial and helped us bring on our incredible editor, Kristen Nutile, and to pay for licensing archival footage.

But most of the money we raised for the film was private donations from people we met who have a connection to Youngstown and to our story, and from friends and family.

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

KM: It has been a gradual and winding road. Growing up, I wanted to be a classical pianist, but at some point I realized I wasn’t good enough to do that professionally. I started college as a math major, but became disillusioned by spending eight hours solving a single problem, so I switched majors and studied religion. I loved learning how a religion develops and evolves in one place, and how that shapes or is shaped by the forces of politics, art, power, etc. And religion is storytelling at its core — the stories we tell about ourselves.

At the same time, my best friend in college and I started making short videos together with the outdated equipment they had at our school, mostly for fun. I was drawn to the visual form and the rhythm of editing, but I don’t think I ever seriously considered documentary filmmaking as a career until I wrote my senior thesis on South Asian communities in Seattle. My professor encouraged me to publish it, but it occurred to me that it would make a better documentary.

When I graduated from college, I fell into doing graphic and web design to pay the bills. I couldn’t afford to go to film school or to journalism school, so I would take film classes whenever I could. And I kept making little videos. When I finally was offered a job to work as a PA for Bill Moyers’ production company, I jumped at the chance and never looked back.

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

KM: This is a hard question to answer because I’ve gotten so much great advice! But here’s one example. For a long time our film was called “Youngstown USA.” A former colleague watched my film and said the title doesn’t really fit the heart of what I had made. It sets you up to see a different film. He suggested that I take a step back, watch the film again, and really think about the film on an emotional and universal level and see what comes to mind. I’m so glad we did because he was totally right!

I actually believe there’s no such thing as truly bad advice. It might be an unhelpful solution, but is pointing to or revealing a problem. Once you figure out what that problem is, the challenge then becomes finding the right solution.

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

KM: This is my first film. There was a huge learning curve, and I felt very alone. I wish I had reached out to other women making films sooner. Once I did, it demystified this process and made me feel like I was part of a community.

I also think everyone needs to accept that women sometimes move around the world differently than men do. I once asked a male filmmaker friend for advice, and he told me to walk into room and “wave my dick around.” I was like, “Number one, I don’t have a dick, and number two, it’s just not who I am.” I get what he was trying to say, but I don’t think I have to exude that kind of bravado to get what I want.

I would encourage women to be who they are, true to themselves, true to their vision, trust their instincts as women, and to know that there are many paths to make the film that you want to make.

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

KM: “Bombay Beach” by Alma Har’el is one of my favorite documentary films of all time. It is so beautiful in so many ways. It is unexpected and surprising, and has so much compassion and love for the people in the film.

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

KM: It has been very difficult — as it has been for everyone. For the last year my focus has been just keeping everyone in my family safe, sane, fed, logged on for remote school, and the house relatively clean. It’s hard to be in creative mode when you’re in survival mode.

Our work also requires a certain amount of uninterrupted time for ideas and work to flow. And I just didn’t have that time. It’s only in the last few months that I’ve been able to think more creatively again, and it’s been such an amazing feeling. Perhaps it’s seeing crocuses peeping out and the tease of an unusually warm and sunny spring day, but I’m excited for the future and to start something new again.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen 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?

KM: I think the filmmaking world has to diversify the gatekeepers, the people who support, fund, and acquire films. As far as onscreen, something I try to do, but not often enough, is to take more time in casting to be mindful and not just go for the usual suspects.

For instance, I produced a television news story about funding in the sciences, and every single scientist I interviewed for the piece was a woman except for the head of the NIH [National Institutes of Health]. I also produced a segment about long-term health care and the burden on caregivers. The family at the center of the story was a gay couple. I think it can take a little more effort but does a lot in terms of shifting public perceptions.



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