By Susan M. Sipprelle
Englewood, NJ, USA
When I decided to go back to graduate school to study journalism after I had spent 20 years at home raising my children, many people asked me, "What are you going to do with that degree?" At the time, I did not have a ready answer or, really, any answer at all.
Seven years later, I have produced the award-winning documentary Set for Life, which was shown on 60 percent of the public television stations across the country, including six out of the top 10 markets. During Set for Life's production, I also founded a company, Tree of Life Productions. My company is currently shooting its second full-length film, chronicling the readjustment of three women who have served in America's post-9/11 military. Tree of Life Productions also now produces short commercial videos, primarily for nonprofits.
I never hoped to start a company, but once I did, I discovered that I like running a business. Even though there are over nine million women-owned businesses in the United States (and their number and importance to the economy is growing every year), the fact that I have my own company feels cutting-edge to me, and also, good.
"Women start businesses to be personally challenged and to integrate work and family, and they want to stay at a size where they personally can oversee all aspects of a business," wrote Sharon Hadary, former and founding executive director of the Center for Women's Business Research at the University of Maryland University College, where she is now an adjunct professor. All true, but I continue to discover additional reasons that make running a company satisfying to me.
I like the nature of Tree of Life Production's business, of course. I like telling true stories using film. I like helping people, who do not often get the chance to tell their stories, express themselves powerfully. I like considering the arc of stories and devising the components that make them persuasive and visually compelling.
I also like creating a product out of the ideas, intelligence and creativity contributed by a group of people. And I like paying them for their work. After Set for Life exposed the pain that many Americans experienced as a direct consequence of job loss due to the Great Recession, it seems particularly fitting to compensate people fairly and treat them well. It also feels good to be able to give the economy a boost, no matter how small, through our productions.
I enjoy the dialogue with clients on commercial video projects, although it can be painful at times. Translating a company's written mission into film takes thought and usually requires more upfront planning and discussion than clients expect. People often find it jarring or disconcerting to see themselves on camera for the first time when they try to articulate their firm's purpose or vision. They are unaccustomed to the snappy brevity that works well on film, but feels unnatural in both conversation and even in most speechmaking. Ensuring that the production of these videos go smoothly requires patience and creativity, both qualities generally advantageous to cultivate.
The heart of Tree of Life's business, though, lies in documentary filmmaking – the remarkable process of becoming engaged with humans through their telling their stories.
"I have an obligation to the people who have given me permission not to simplify the material in the service of some personal ideology, which they may not share," Frederick Wiseman, legendary documentary filmmaker, said. I also feel bound to tell people's stories fairly, striving to maintain the complexity of their experiences and their outlook on life in general. Representing people sincerely in film means respecting not only their beliefs, but also capturing as much of their individual personalities and their emotional range as possible.
In 2013, I spoke with a soldier stationed in Afghanistan and asked her if she would be willing to be part of Tree of Life's new documentary. She expressed concern that the film would bash the military, but I responded that it would reflect her Army experiences as she described them, not how anyone else felt about them. Given that assurance, she agreed to be one of the film's main characters, and she has been filmed many times both with and without her partner since she returned home last summer.
At a shoot this past June, she reflected:
The military brings so many different people – I mean, on the outside, we all look very similar in our uniforms, but – and we all have the mask of when we're in our uniforms of putting on who we have to be – but we're really so individual and, I think, if you went around asking all the soldiers, you'd hear so many different stories of what brought them to this journey.
To be able to tell those stories and so many others is why I founded Tree of Life Productions. To be free to tell them according to my conscience is why I founded my own business.