with Jennifer & Tim
by Aileen Kyoko Haugh
The way documentary filmmakers Jennifer Redfearn and Tim Metzger tell it, the job of storytellers is simple but powerful - to move people. They move people to laugh, to cry, to make a change or think differently. And when Jennifer and Tim are not doing that, they engage in the same daily rituals as the rest of us Regulars. A typical day begins with Bikram yoga followed by a visit to Cafe Regular. Their coffee order is always reliable- two rounds of thick soy cortados and espressos. Jennifer and Tim’s first project together, the Oscar-nominated documentary Sun Come Up, tells the story of a community living in Papua New Guinea that is being displaced by climate change. Now, they’re getting ready to release their latest film, Touch the Light, a feature documentary about three blind women and their fight for independence in Havana, Cuba. The film follows the personal stories in depth over the course of three years. On a numbing winter evening, Jennifer and Tim stepped out from behind the camera and allowed us to shine the spotlight on their story.
I asked them how they came to be creative and romantic partners. Tim chuckled: “I usually start the story with- she hired me!” Jennifer explained: “We were both working in the film industry. In 2008 I became very interested in a story about the Carteret Islanders, a community living off the coast of Papua New Guinea who are losing their land to rising sea levels. I was shocked to learn in 2008 that people were being displaced by climate change. There wasn’t a lot of news about this at that time, and it felt like a very important story to tell.”
Jennifer was instantly on a mission to get to Papua New Guinea. She applied for grants and sought out a cameraperson who would accompany her on this journey. She pitched emails here and there until she received a note from a friend in China who recommended Tim: “Tim and I had only met twice in person to discuss the project when we jumped on a plane. We were pretty much strangers when we left on this journey together. Just the two of us. My friends were teasing me saying ‘we know what will happen’. It took five flights and a boat trip to arrive on the islands. We were very lucky to find one another, but that first trip wasn’t easy: “When we got there we had to do a lot of problem solving together. We ran out of food and water. We had to work through several dilemmas such as, how to be with the community and bear witness to the changes during a difficult time of transition for them. We were honored to be welcomed into the group and to live and travel with the Carteret islanders as they searched for a new homeland.”
Jennifer explains: “The film is a cultural story, an environmental story and a human interest story. The narrative is driven by the personal stories of people in the community, and what it means for them to lose their homeland. When you live in a region of the world where land is such a vital part of your identity, what does it mean when you lose your land? What does it mean for your family, your community and your ancestry? That was a very important part of the story for us as we’ve both been interested in stories about cultural identity for a long time.”
Travel is something they have both been doing all their lives. When Jennifer graduated from high school, she set out on a 2-month backpacking trip around Europe that turned into four years of working her way around the world. She found herself sleeping on trains and working jobs such as shed hand on a sheep station in the Australian outback, managing hostels in Europe and the Middle East, and crewing sailboats in the South Pacific. Tim spent time in Japan as an exchange student before going to London for film school, and has since traveled the world as a cinematographer. I asked Tim about his focus as a filmmaker. Tim explained: “There is something extraordinary about documentaries, particularly the observational kind, that is exciting and engaging. You see all kinds of incredible stories in real life that are often times more amazing and beautiful than those you find in fiction.”
I was eager to ask them about their Oscar nomination and attendance at the ceremony. They lit up thinking about their proud moment and insisted that, at the time, they were very surprised about the nomination. Tim noted: “It felt great to be nominated and a little overwhelming to step out onto the red carpet.” Jennifer admitted: “But it was also complicated for us to be representing a film about climate change, and then to be in the midst of so much glamour and abundance. But, of course, it was an honor to be recognized. And it was excellent exposure for the film!
Lately, Jennifer and Tim have been spending the bulk of their time in the edit room as they finish up their next documentary, Touch the Light, which will premiere in 2015. This film tells the story of three incredible women in the heart of Havana who are fighting for independence and to live their lives with courage after losing their vision.
Jennifer had a twinkle in her eye as she told me about the characters, Lis, Mily, and Margarita: “After spending time with the women, we realized we could make a moving and complex film focused on the rich personal stories of the women and their families. With each return trip, they invited us deeper into their lives and we came to see a common theme of the struggle for personal independence. And that struggle is very much a part of Cuban culture and history. You can see it in the way Cubans greet one another, the Revolutionary slogans painted on city walls, and in their music and art. It’s also a universal story. The women are struggling for their independence while their families are concerned about their health and safety. It’s story of caretaking that many families can relate to.
So why this story? And why now? Jennifer answers: “Tim and I had been interested in Cuba for a long time because of its rich culture and complex political history. We wanted to find a story that brought us into the lives of Cuban families – something more intimate and character driven that would give the audience a deeper understanding of what life is like for families living in Havana. It’s often a perspective we don’t see in the media.”
We can only imagine how much Jennifer and Tim are shaped and inspired by the people they work with. Tim agreed: “It’s thrilling to get to know people from different cultures, and I feel incredibly fortunate that the people in our films have trusted us and have had the courage to share such personal moments with us on camera.”