Filmmaker Files

Filmmaker Files - Episode 9 : Featuring Kishori Rajan by Casey Kohlberg

Kishori Rajan is an Executive Producer of the critically acclaimed HBO series Random Acts of Flyness, which received a 2019 Peabody Award for "breaking the mold of what TV can be". Kishori also produces feature films including The Short History of the Long Road (Tribeca Film Festival 2019), The Price(Samuel Goldwyn Films), and American Fable(IFC Films). She is the recipient of the 2019 Producer’s Award from Cinereach for a "remarkable commitment to complex and authentic films" and is a 2017 Cannes Producers Fellow, a guest lecturer at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, and a contributing writer to Filmmaker Magazine. Kishori graduated from Columbia University with a B.A. in Film Studies. 

Kishori, in her kitchen, at her home in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

Kishori, in her kitchen, at her home in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

Describe a moment in your career you felt most brave.

Probably right when I was starting out, which was when the 2008 recession hit. People close to me were worried that I was pursuing a career in the arts, especially since there were so few jobs at the time. Since I had no money in my bank account, I had to do a million side jobs to keep going. I was definitely the most scared then, but stubbornness helped. 

In one’s artistic life, there are some very long seconds or moments, that make us stop. There may be an epiphany or a shift. Can you tell us about a recent one?

There's a Shelia Heti quote that really resonates with me whenever I think about it. It goes, "I don't know why I don't do the obvious thing - instead of fantasizing about other lives, why not try to image what it'd be like to be me, and live the life I'm living now - fantasize into the life that's actually mine?" I think that applies to how you curate your work; I try to be brutally honest about picking movies/episodic work that I would genuinely want to see as an audience member, work that I genuinely feel fills a void within what my own taste would like to see more of. Fantasize into existence what you don't yet see. 

Kishori in her home office - with a power blazer and power chair.

Kishori in her home office - with a power blazer and power chair.

Now, on reflection. What was THE film that made you want to be a filmmaker?

Pedro Almodóvar movies, especially Talk to Her. I discovered his movies in high school, and there was this 2004 New York Times cover story about him, where he takes Lynn Hirschberg around his office and basically explains what his day-to-day life is like. I remember reading that and thinking “That sounds like a good way to spend a lifetime.”

Was there something you watched recently that you had a particularly strong response to?

The first thing that comes to mind is Ari Aster’s Midsommar. I ended up seeing it twice in theaters. 

Kishori, in Brooklyn.

Kishori, in Brooklyn.

What are some aspects of films or shows that you connect with?

I think geography and locality have been constants for me. I really gravitate to movies and shows that have a strong sense of place. My work has definitely focused more on communities of color, but for me it’s not just about, [insert black] or [brown person] here. I talk publicly a lot about a rule that existed within the Random Acts of Flyness writer's room which was to not centralize the oppressor, whether that be whiteness, heteronormativity, or the patriarchy - it could be anything. The question becomes “Can you insert your existence in the art form without having to be constantly explain this to the main gaze?” or “Can I assert my femininity without explaining it to men, or even worrying about that gaze?” or “Can I have an immigrant character where we’re not just talking about how they’re assimilating into the west?”. Essentially - Can we look at these people and talk about them in a way that’s not just explaining their existence? That’s become a good rule for me to think about. I think it’s trendy now to talk about these things, but I think there’s still a gap in why we’re talking about these things. A lot of the powers that be in the industry in general are saying, oh yeah, we need to put more melanin in a scene, that’s aesthetically what we’re going for. And sure, that’s a step in the right direction, but the control hasn’t shifted in a meaningful way, the financing hasn’t shifted in a meaningful way. The acknowledgement that a big hit doesn’t have to include white audiences still hasn’t shifted, even though non-white audiences are significant on their own, volume-wise. So I’m still interested in pushing the edges of that question.


On the future. What is next for you?

I'm reviewing work right now for my personal producing banner, Reverse Osmosis Films. A fun fact about my family: my grandfather invented reverse osmosis (the membrane process by which we filter water.) His immigrant story defies a lot of Western tropes and is a reminder for me to push those unheard, complex stories out a little more. Season 2 of Random Acts is also in the future and I'm doing a dance digital series for TOPIC studios as well. This is a travel-heavy fall for me, and I'm excited for that too. 

Kishori, in Prospect Park, Brooklyn

Kishori, in Prospect Park, Brooklyn

What keeps you going?

Honestly, it’s other people’s art, even beyond TV and film. It keeps me optimistic and inspired. I’m also very slowly working on a novel. Put the emphasis on slowly, but that’s been increasingly something that I’m pretty committed to finishing. 

What does the world need now?

I think the world’s on fire ,and in the not so distant future we're all going to have to start loosening our grip on national identity. This goes for the US, India, Brazil, the UK - extreme nativism is everywhere right now, to a point where it's usurping survival priorities. Between climate change and the refugee criss this idea of borders and a national identity is going to become more obtuse. Assuming we collectively care about not letting a lot of people die, something’s got to give. We have to expand our idea of what "community" means, change our idea of what being a neighbor means. 

Kishori, amongst the trees in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.

Kishori, amongst the trees in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.

8 film scenes or filmmaker quotes that have stuck with you.

 The scene from Habla Con Ella where Dario Grandinetti's character flashes back to watching Caetano Veloso perform Cucurrucucu Palmona. Pedro Almodovar movies made me want to make movies, and this scene makes me emotional every time. I also love that Almodovar places famous actresses from his former movies in the crowd during this scene, as party guests enjoying the music. 

In Quiz Show, when Ralph Fiennes's character is trying to confess his wrongdoings to his father over a piece of chocolate cake, but can't summon the courage to do so. One of my most favorite screenplays with remarkable acting throughout. This scene is the most intimate of the whole movie, and Paul Scofield's kindness and Ralph Fiennes shame makes for a gutting combo. 

Judas's opening song, "Heaven on their Mind" from the 1973 version of Jesus Christ Superstar. I love this movie. It's wild and messy and emotional and very imperfect, and I genuinely take inspiration from all of it. I adore Carl Anderson's performance of Judas in particular. I watched this movie first as a kid with my sisters, and so it also reminds me of my childhood. 

The "Dola Re Dola" dance scene in 2002’s Devdas -There are a lot of Indian movies to choose from but I think this ranks as one of the best choreographed and executed dance sequences on film. No dance scene in the American /European film canon comes close. The camera movement and costumes alone are insane. This scene is always an inspiring reminder for me that sometimes, you just need to go extra af. 

Kishori in her power blazer.

Kishori in her power blazer.

The scene from Wings of Desire where Peter Falk talks to an invisible-to-him Bruno Ganz near the curry wurst cart, trying to convince the angel that he could be his friend. Fun fact I always like: Claire Denis, then Wim Wenders assistant, is the one who thought of Peter Falk for the role. 

In Salaam, Bombay! - the scene where a beaten down young boy, the main character, delivers chai to a prostitute and her daughter. The three of them temporarily ignore their enormous problems and dance their troubles out to a Bollywood song, a perfectly placed reprieve to an otherwise grim narrative. Salaam, in my opinion, is Mira Nair's best movie and probably my favorite example of how a very tiny budget movie can feel big if you focus on where you place your camera. 

The Man Who Knew Too Much. The Albert Hall symphony scene is just a masterclass in suspense, a perfectly edited scene. I love how the music served as both the score and the literal music cue for the characters within the scene. It's so cool how the orchestra's percussion section becomes as creepy as the grim reaper himself. 

In Children of Men  I love the famous car attack scene because I'm a sucker for any really long takes in movies. Anyone who's spent time on a set knows how many miracles need to happen for something like this to get pulled off, on top of a relentless amount of work and rehearsal. When a whole scene doesn't have a single editorial cut, it  satisfyingly showcases the hard skills of everyone on set; if even one department or person isn't firing on all cylinders the take can be completely ruined. The technical execution and emotional punch of this iconic Children of Men scene stills blows my mind over a decade later. 

 Photos by Rachel Kessler
Interview by Casey Kohlberg
Edited by Shruti Ganguly

This Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.





Filmmaker Files Episode 8 - Featuring Natalia Iyudin by Casey Kohlberg

Natalia Iyudin began making VHS films in black and white at the age of 15. After moving to New York City from Poland, she delved into television, working as a lead editor on shows for VH1, BET, MTV, and PBS. In 2018, her short sci-fi film, "The Garden" starring Sophia Lillis ("It", "Sharp Objects") was acquired by the Gunpowder & Sky's sci-fi platform DUST. Natalia's acclaimed short narratives have collectively screened over 30 festivals worldwide. From 2014 to 2018, Natalia lead development at a production company helmed by an Academy Award winner, Ross Kauffman, where she shepherded such projects as "Girly" with Rashida Jones, and Refinery 29. She wrote and directed branded content series for Toyota and, in 2017, wrote/directed an award-winning digital series "We Got You" featuring Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter of the Roots. In 2019, Natalia debuted on primetime television (the CW), with two episodes of "Two Sentence Horror Stories" from the creator Vera Miao, and Warner Bros' Stage 13: “Gentleman” starring Nicole Kang and Jim Parrack and “Scion” with Kate Jennings and Uly Schlesinger.

Natalia, photographed in the East Village, NYC.

Natalia, photographed in the East Village, NYC.

Describe a moment in your career you felt most brave. 

Natalia Iyudin: I think it’s every moment really. For every project I try to challenge myself with something new so I can grow as an artist. At times, fear-inducing anxiety is what drives me. Moving into television made me feel brave, because it was a big leap from what I was doing before, having worked in short narratives and branded content. I had to navigate the  relationships with our fantastic showrunner, the crew and the studio. Because of the fast pace, there were times I didn’t know until the last moment whether I was going to be able to meet a certain challenge. But I pushed myself to do my best. 

 In one’s artistic life, there are some really long seconds or moments that make us stop and listen. There may be an epiphany or a shift. Can you tell us about a recent one in your life?

 NI: There’s been a lot of changes in my life recently. Looking back at the whole year I can say that I had to rethink everything I thought I knew about my craft. As a result, I became more present, which was an incredibly useful skill on set. I think I understood that it really is about capturing a moment. Both within your frame, and in life.

Natalia in her Natural Habitat (Pun very much intended).

Natalia in her Natural Habitat (Pun very much intended).

What was the film that made you realize you wanted to be a filmmaker?

 NI: I think there are three titles that came at me around the same time when I was in high school. The first one was Jane Campion’s The Piano. I was struck by the vision, the acting, the mythical world she was able to achieve within the juxtaposition of nature and culture. There’s Blue, by Krzysztof Kieslowski, where he created this unforgettable psychological portrayal of the main character played by Juliette Binoche, supported by almost sensual imagery and an omni-present score. I remember thinking: Here’s this quintessential Polish filmmaker who’s also able to speak the universal language of cinema, and reach audiences across the globe. Finally, Dead Man by Jim Jarmusch -- both a hypnotic and whimsical cinematic experience. I love humor and I try to instill quirkiness and absurdity into what I write and direct as much as I can. Even though I can call myself a film junkie for the number of films I watch, I think the above films shaped me into the filmmaker I am today. 

What was a recent film, video, or series that you had a visceral response to?

 NI: I loved Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, which was one of the best films of 2018, in my opinion. David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake was a movie that I think was a little misunderstood by the critics, but I thought it was profound and fresh. I love Euphoria on HBO––it’s visually-stunning, and the characters carry this existential gravitas; the writing is really great. I love the show called Escape at Dannemora, directed by Ben Stiller for Showtime. Patricia Arquette, Benicio Del Toro and Paul Dano are mesmerizing. It also stars Jim Parrack whom I had the privilege of directing recently. His instincts are incredible.  

Natalia in on of her favorite places - Manhattan’s East River Park.

Natalia in on of her favorite places - Manhattan’s East River Park.

On the future. What is next for you?

 NI: I’m waiting to hear back about several different directing opportunities. Mainly in the genre in which I made my TV debut, which is horror and thriller. I’m developing two feature films.  I’m also working on a new project, and all I can say is that it’s a horror film that’s based in Slavic mythology. I often work with my husband, Dmitry whom I consider a strong storyteller, who challenges me in ways that I find surprising and inspiring. I really believe in the power of collaborations. I think, when well-matched, they can elevate a project ten-fold. And lastly, I also have a show optioned, which is based on a short of mine. I have been out there pitching a lot, and realized, I kind of really love it. That comes as a total surprise because outside of set, I’m rather shy.

What keeps you going?

 NI: I think I am someone who doesn’t believe in, so called, games, and I don’t really have an interest in playing them. Sometimes it’s a good thing and sometimes it’s a disadvantage. 

I would say that I’m in this for the love of craft. I am a fan of cinema and I hope I can keep doing it for as long as I’m around. I want people to really feel something when they see my work. And it’s okay if that something is purely instinctive, nonverbal. Ultimately, authenticity and connectedness are the two things that keep me going, both on a personal, and artistic level. I think, I look for them in every story that comes my way. And definitely when writing or directing a scene. I also believe that I am a work in progress, and growth is something I’m after. I’m not really in it for the starpower or fame. Of course I want to succeed so I can be involved in more projects I care about and not be denied opportunities, but I think I’m really in it to figure out what more I can be and what more I can do. I want the next project to be bigger and scarier than the previous one because I want to know what I’m capable of.

Natalia in the East Village, NYC

Natalia in the East Village, NYC

What is something the world needs now?

 NI: The world needs more realness. To me, it means being fearless and saying, this is who I am, take it or leave it. As always, the world needs more friendship, more brotherhood, sisterhood and more equality. It needs kindness. So many nationalistic voices have taken hold of societies around the world. Certain things are being said and manifested that would never have happened five years ago. I never imagined I was going to live through a period of time when hatred was going to be allowed to be freely declared in public space. Right now, especially, we need more love, more authenticity, more human to human connection, and we also really need to take care of our planet immediately. The political noise sort of steers us away from something we need to focus on with the utmost urgency: listening to the scientists and working to fix the climate.

Natalia meditating on her next project in the East River Park, Lower Manhattan.

Natalia meditating on her next project in the East River Park, Lower Manhattan.

What are 8 movie moments or quotes that you simply adore?

The ending in Kusama's "Destroyer". Her storytelling in this movie is something to truly aspire to.

When we first see Gypsy Rose in her interview chair in "Mommy Dead and Dearest" by Erin Lee Carr.

The introduction of the main character in Alice Rohrwacher's "Happy as Lazzaro". The acting in this film is classic and unexpected at the same time. 

Sex scenes in Catherine Breillat's "Fat Girl". This movie to me is a lesson in how effective storytelling can be when you radically filter it through your protagonist.

The dance scene in Liliana Cavani's "The Night Porter" .

In Agnieszka Holland's "Washington Square" the father-daughter confrontation, with jaw-dropping performances from Jennifer Jason Leigh and Albert Finney.

Lynne Ramsay's "You Were Never Really There" and the sequence brilliantly edited with the use of various angles from security cameras. She builds visceral suspense.

The last scene in my friend Agnieszka Smoczynska's movie "The Lure"  in one, brave, continuous shot, we witness the main character's decision to give up her life for love, as the sun slowly rises and she is turned into sea foam (as a mermaid would.)

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Interview by Casey Kohlberg
Photography by Rachel Kessler
Edited by Shruti Ganguly

Filmmaker Files Episode 7 - Featuring Lily Baldwin by Casey Kohlberg

Lily Baldwin is a director and performer. She sees story as a visceral trajectory of impressionistic moments. She uses these ‘stylized dreamscapes’ to investigate worlds that are shadowy and cutting, searching for signals of luminosity and commonality.

Her films are featured on Netflix, The Criterion Collection, Filmmaker Magazine, NOWNESS, Vimeo Staff Pick, Short of the Week, and Fandor. Her VR project, THROUGH YOU, co-directed with Saschka Unseld, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was a recipient of the Sundance Institute New Frontier / Jaunt VR Residency. Prior to filmmaking, Lily performed with The Metropolitan Opera Ballet, Trisha Brown Dance Company, and David Byrne on his EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS WILL HAPPEN World Tour. Recently she has been a juror for The Tribeca Festival and the World VR forum.

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Describe a moment in your career you felt most brave.

Lily Baldwin: For me, being brave is synonymous with being scared. Bravery comes after a moment of complete risk, abandon and vulnerability and then it’s the choices made that move me through that moment that I’d call ‘bravery.’ A time that tested my mettle like this was when I was dancing with David Byrne for his Everything That Happens Will Happen Today world tour with Brian Eno. Night after night I stepped onto stages in front of thousands of people. I felt naked and riddled with doubt. But the discipline of moving towards it — literally making myself go through the choreography when I was convinced I didn’t remember it — this synced me with ‘a deeper body.’ For the first time, I felt incredibly powerful — I felt my own impact —  and I realized that in many ways until then I hadn’t taken myself seriously as an artist.  

 In one’s artistic life, there are some very long seconds or moments, that make us stop. There may be an epiphany or a shift. Can you tell us about a recent one?

LB: I haven’t gone public with a lot of my story, but I recently had a serious health crisis. On January 6th, 2017, my body went 80% numb from my waist down and I lost most of my motor control. For the past two years I have been living in and out of a wheelchair, and towards the end, with elbow crutches once I regained mobility. Terrible pain coursed down my legs and doctors diagnosed my symptoms as neurological. Then, after discovering severe arthritis in my hip, I had it replaced 8 months ago. It’s been a ‘dark night of the soul' — I’m a mover, and I simply couldn’t move. I’ve had to relearn myself in so many ways. This process has left me with an epiphany I’m still understanding: that living in pain and outside ‘normalcy’ is an insanely creative act. The body is mysterious and fiercely intelligent beyond comprehension, it’s fragile and stunningly robust. Life is fleeting and as of late my priorities have clarified: to wake people up to their strength AND vulnerability — the yin and yang of powerful individuality.

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Now, continuing to reflect. What was THE film that made you want to be a filmmaker? 

LB: ‘Body’ is my medium, my lens, my call to action. One film didn’t get me started, but instead an experience — when I was dancing on tour. I was telling stories with my dance, communicating with thousands — the feeling of bodies in motion, myself in motion, and that exchange with the audience. realized the prowess bodies have to communicate. So I turned to a camera while on tour, determined to capture the electricity of the stage inside the permanence of an object. These first films were stop motion. I took photos on the bus, in restaurants, hotel rooms, while biking, capturing life on tour, letting the creative process continue off stage — and then I sewed these photos into raw short films. It developed into what I call ‘visceral film.’ I fuse virtuosic dancing and pedestrian gesture with the shifting perspectives of the lens and used editing as a choreographic tool. I use the universal alphabet of bodies-in-motion to tell common stories in unexpected ways. So many films inspire me, but today these come to mind: Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy, or Magnolia by Paul Thomas Anderson. While watching Magnolia I would write down the story beats and act development in order to teach myself how to screen-write. I really dig his approach to ensemble and story climax.

How would you say being a dancer has impacted your film work? 

LB: I’ve always paid attention to detail. Martha Graham said, “I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each, it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one's being, a satisfaction of spirit.” That rigor, focus, and discipline informs my filmmaking. I encourage nuanced focus and follow through with all production elements down to the smallest detail. However, because I want to harness something honest within the camera’s frame, I can’t always force what’s in my head to manifest so I rely on certain kinds of improvisation. This way of working with performers helps to capture authentic performances, which in my experience can only emerge from a trusting environment. In post-production, I approach editing with this same kind of experimentation — building and then breaking things down and finding story through trial and error.

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What was a recent film, video or series that you had a visceral response to?

LB: I just saw Fat Girl by Catherine Breillat, it sheds light on the layered complexities of the female condition within our corrupt cultural paradigm. Basically, I can’t stop thinking about it because I feel so much for this young woman who is living in shame and becomes a scapegoat for her family’s discomfort. It made me feel unexpected empathy for how much we marginalize ourselves as women and how even loved ones can encourage this. Breillat brilliantly constructs an efficient, complex and unapologetic story.

On the future. What is next for you?

LB: I have several projects in development. The most immediate is a podcast called Stories of the Stalked. It’s based on a piece I wrote in Glamour Magazine four years ago. To this day I’m still contacted by people who have experienced similar kinds of violation, which I refer to as #invisibleviolence. Stalking is a really ripe topic because we currently live in a social media culture that has us offering our private parts for public authorship, so where are the boundaries? How do we measure violence when there’s no obvious blood? These questions are the foundation for a non-profit I’m launching soon: Stop Stalking Us. 

There’s also a TV series in development with Ventureland called Underaged, which is an unapologetic, uncensored, immersive look inside NYC youth culture. I spent months with teenagers from LaGuardia High School to Tompkins Square Park. I’m exploring this idea of ‘performative journalism.’ I’ve given them cameras and I’m trying to find a way to incorporate social media into a narrative form.

Saschka Unseld, my VR collaborator (Through You, Sundance Premiere, produced by Shruti Ganguly — xxo— and Elliot  Whitton) and I have a new project called TERRAIN, which we’re calling a “docu-dream”. It’s an oblique approach to documentary that uses ‘physical poetry’ to tell story instead of words. We want to push beyond the cumbersome, exclusive nature of the VR headset and are working with design architect Kumar Atre to design a public facing installation that lives in companion to the virtual experience. Where does the real and the virtual meet? Can it create something new?

 

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What keeps you going?

LB: It’s really important to talk about breaking points because I think too often we idolize people only once they’ve become a beacon of achievement. I think that on the other side of confidence and strength is vulnerability. When I see other people’s pain, struggle or confusion, I feel called to action. So, there’s this internal drive in me that feels like I have work to do. Also, spending time with people I love helps! I have some wildly good friends and collaborators who believe in me when I stop believing in myself. My mother has been an amazing backbone.

What does the world need now?

LB: How about this fat word — Intimacy: an interconnectedness between people you love and people you don’t love. I also generally think people need to be woken the f*** up to their bodies in motion through space therefore their sense of self.

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8 film scenes or filmmaker quotes that have stuck with you.

“I know why I make films - cinema is a mode of expression that allows you to express all the nuances of a thing while including its opposites. These are things that can't be quantified mentally; yet they can exist and be juxtaposed. That may seem very contradictory. Cinema allows you to film these contradictions.” 

“Only conformists are ever adored.” 

- Catherine Breillat

 
The fast cutting apex of scenes in Magnoliawhen time slows and all of these seemingly disconnected lives rhythmically share a moment in time 

A study in choreography for camera when Maya Deren uses Talley Beaty’s movement to seamlessly cut-on-action between locations. It so clearly says: a body can transport us through time and place. It’s been really formative for me.

The dance sequence in Pina by Wim Wenders, when the dancer is boldly sweating in the foreground. He uses technology to highlight the human form without glorification.

In The Act of Killingwhen the lead character vomits as retells his personal experience. To me this scene illustrates how fiercely this film uses the process of creating a documentary to literally transform a person. In capturing story you can employing the tools of self reflection and inspire change. I aspire to this.

That scene in Princess Bride when the lovers tumble down the hill. It gave my early pubescent self romantic chills that I still crave. It’s film as a transportive fantasy

In Dancer in the Dark,when Bjork listens to the wall. These simple, idiosyncratic human actions that put us so authentically inside a characters experience. I’m always searching for these.

In Under The Skin when Scarlet Johansson walks into a house filled with black liquid that she dissolves into. I love the unabashed stylized approach to metaphor that happens so confidently without explanation. Reality and dream really aren’t that far apart.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Interview by Casey Kohlberg
Photography by Rachel Kessler
Edited by Shruti Ganguly

 






Filmmaker Files Episode 6 - Featuring Lina Pliopyte by Casey Kohlberg

Lina Plioplyte is a storyteller - a director and a camera person with an Emmy, a Silver Lion and a Clio in tow. She started her journey studying journalism in my native Lithuania then in Colorado. She then began  working as a fashion video journalist for NYLON magazine in New York. For the last decade she has been shooting and directing commercials, short films, investigative journalism pieces and digital series content for The New Yorker, Viceland, A+E as well as brands and non profits, like Garnier and the ACLU. Her first feature length documentary, Advanced Style, played in theaters worldwide and was reviewed in the  New York Times and The Guardian. She loves telling stories that inspire others to live better lives, and uplift women.

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