By day, Jonathan Shepard, 27, works for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the sector responsible for the majority of foreign aid used for humanitarian relief and development. By night, weekend and during any other spare time, Shepard creates documentary films with a social justice bent. His most recent effort is called The Sharecroppers, which demonstrates the financial damage inflicted on poultry farmers in Texas who raise chickens for Pilgrim’s Pride. He has also made a short about the Lost Boys of Sudan called, We Died On Our Mothers’ Laps.
“I grew up in a relatively affluent community,” said the West Palm Beach, Florida native, “and somehow it imbued me with a certain desire to explore the world and try to understand those who suffer from genuine hardship.”
He started making short films in high school with his friends (“silly movies” by his own admission), which is how he learned how to edit. Though Shepard didn’t major in filmmaking while a student at Rice University, he did take a class in documentary production and fell in love with the genre. After working on some projects with others, “I felt confident enough in my abilities to start working on my own documentary subjects,” he said.
Shepard was kind enough to answer a few questions from Repair about his filmmaking and goals.
What films have you made/worked on? And in what capacity?
For each of my films, I’ve been the one-man show: writer, director, cameraman, sound guy, lighting guy, editor, producer — the whole nine yards. It’s great to be involved in the entire filmmaking process, but for me the editing is really where the film gets made. In addition to The Sharecroppers and We Died On Our Mothers’ Laps, I’ve also worked on Richard McNally: A Life Forgotten, which is about a man who died from Alzheimer’s.
I also did a 30 second public service announcement called “Cash Will,” which encouraged people to give cash instead of canned goods and supplies when international disasters strike. With that, I placed 3rd in a PSA competition.
Why did you choose topics like the Lost Boys and the plight of poultry farmers in this country to film?
Many of my films (especially my more recent films) have social justice as a major recurring theme. It’s not really explicitly mentioned because it’s somewhat crass to beat people over the head with an “agenda” in a film. But I do tell stories about social injustice, and I try to do it in an emotionally powerful way. As heartbreaking as the subject matter is, it’s wonderful that so many people find the stories moving. I choose these difficult topics in part because they are hard to deal with, and in part because I feel that, in some small way, my shining a light on these stories gives people a voice where they might not have had one before. I feel a sense of responsibility, as both an American and a Jew, to do my part to make the world a little better. Professionally, that means I work in international development. When it comes to my film work, it’s all about sharing stories and raising awareness. It’s just so gratifying to know that my art — the thing I love to do — provides a measure of dignity and comfort to folks who have experienced great injustice.
How do you get funding for your projects?
Because I don’t have a degree in filmmaking, or a crew, or any contacts in the film industry to speak of, I’ve had little luck in applying for grants. Maybe that will change now that The Sharecroppers has traveled the film festival circuit a little, but it’s hard to say. I’ve paid for everything out of pocket. The Sharecroppers cost me about $10,000 to make, no small price for a broke graduate student. Basically, I saved up a bunch of money and worked my tail off to do it. Ideally, I’d like to get funding for my projects from an external source or do some paid projects to help me pay for my own films.
How long did it take to shoot The Sharecroppers? How did you find and reach out to the subjects?
It’s tough to answer how long it took to shoot. Like many documentary projects, it actually started off being about something different — namely, the impact of US crop subsidies on developing countries. After a few interviews in the summer of 2008 (with nonprofits, lobbyists, and corn farmers), I started realizing that I just didn’t have a vision of a story or how it would be told. I started getting discouraged and looked into other agriculture-related stories about injustice within our food system. Somehow I stumbled on an old article about some exploitative practices by Pilgrim’s Pride in the small town of Nacogdoches, Texas. So I went to Nacogdoches and started calling around. I knew I had a story when only one person (out of the maybe 20 I called) would agree to talk on camera about what was going on. By luck, I made contact with a lawyer who was handling a class action suit for the chicken growers, and he gave me the names of some folks I could talk to. That was in the summer of 2008. After about a week of shooting (and waiting), I had to go back and finish grad school. I got another two rounds of interviews in during the fall of 2009, which took another 5 days. That was great because I came to this Arkansas town the same day the lawyer did, and he vouched for me, telling the farmers that I was just an honest filmmaker, not a front man for the company. Then they were willing to interview with me. So the actual shooting probably didn’t take more than a week or ten days, but the legwork and conceptual development behind it was much more intensive.
Have your films on Sudan and the poultry farmers had any appreciable impacts on the subjects?
I’m happy to say so! The film about the Lost Boys was actually made for an organization that works with a community of Sudanese Lost Boys in Hampton Roads, Virginia. I was asked to make it because the Lost Boys were being constantly asked to give speeches and testify to the horrors that they’d experienced. It was draining for them to do it. So my video helped the organization and the Lost Boys to get the word out and without having them constantly relive the nightmare of genocide. The film also helped the organization raise tens of thousands of dollars, which I’m quite pleased about.
The Sharecroppers also had a great impact, and no one has been better at getting the word out than than the chicken growers themselves. They’ve used it in public communications to help defend a new, more stringent set of USDA rules that protects contract farmers. I was lucky enough to be able to screen a copy to the head of the USDA’s Packers and Stockyards Administration. The heads of several contract poultry growers’ associations have called me to thank me for doing this work and shining a light on the darkness of the industry. Thousands of people have now seen the film. It’s really been very gratifying.
What advice would you give to young aspiring documentary filmmaker looking to tells stories about marginalized groups?
Don’t worry about not having the fanciest camera on the block. These days, a $500 camera will get you much farther than it did ten years ago. Tell the story in the best way you know how through the editing process. Let the people and the story drive everything else. Show audiences something they have never seen before. Personally (and there are many outstanding filmmakers who disagree with me) I prefer to avoid narration and focusing on the filmmaker as part of the story. Sometimes it works, and sometimes you have no choice [but to add it]. Some documentaries simply need narration.
What surprised you the most about the whole process of making the films, from idea conception to the final edits?
I guess what surprised me most was how much power there is in the editing process. Two filmmakers can take the same footage, play with it for months, and produce two totally different films based on their abilities, styles, and choice of tone. It’s really a wonderful process. The other thing that has really surprised me is just the mere possibility of helping people’s lives through film, which is what I love doing. Most people enjoy art as an avocation or a hobby. I consider it an honor and a privilege to make art that makes a contribution to the world.
We Died On Our Mothers’ Laps