Welcome back to my blog's newest feature, the INCspotlight Interviews! Today's guest is Mariah Wilson, a documentary director, producer, and writer whose works cover a wide array of topics, particularly hate groups in the United States and various aspects of wildlife and environmental defense. Her documentary Revealing Hate was awarded a Special Jury Commendation at the 2010 Durango Film Festival as well as the Silver Lei Award at the 2010 Honolulu International Festival (where she also won a Special Jury Prize in 2012 for her documentary Volunteer). More recently, her film Kaziranga won the Animal Award at the 2016 Cinema Verde Film Festival.
MW: I've been working in film and television since graduating from film school in 2003. I work as a producer and director on a variety of non-fiction projects for TV channels like National Geographic, Discovery, History, PBS, and others. I also do documentary films, usually passion projects that I want to dive into further, and then release those independently.
INC: What inspired you to get into film, documentaries in particular?
MW: I knew I wanted to be in film, in some capacity, since high school. I was really into films, and always tried to watch as big a variety as possible - foreign, indie, horror, mainstream, you name it. So film school seemed like the natural progression. It wasn't until my last semester in film school that I decided that I wanted to go into documentaries. I was starting to feel sad about graduating, because I was just enjoying learning so much. I wanted to keep absorbing knowledge in all kinds of disciplines for as long as I could. But I didn't necessarily want to go to grad school, and knew I still wanted to work in film, so I asked myself: "how can I combine working in film and constantly learning new things?" As soon as I framed the question that way, the answer seemed obvious: documentaries!
MW: So I had heard about this man Stetson Kennedy from my mom, actually. Stetson was a fascinating figure - he was a huge civil rights activist, and had actually done some significant infiltration and busting up of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s, when they were a really powerful entity with influence in government, courts, police, etc. So I decided that I wanted to do a doc about him. I flew down to Jacksonville and had a long sit down interview with him - poor guy, he was in his 90s; it was like a marathon interview! But he was less interested in talking about what he had done in the past, and more focused on talking about what these groups like the Klan were up to today.
This was in 2004, in a post 9-11 environment, when everyone was focused on international terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, etc. No one was talking about domestic terrorism any more, even though it hadn't even been a decade since Oklahoma City. So he got ME thinking about it too, and I decided to branch the documentary out wider, to include a variety of stories on where the white supremacist and right wing extremist movement was in America at that time. I interviewed a former neo-Nazi, a man documenting the modern KKK, the watchdog group SPLC, and a major white supremacist too. My goal was to create a tapestry of perspectives on where the movement was, and where it was going. Little did I know that the film (released in 2010) would become increasingly relevant over the years.
MW: Well, the topic has certainly become increasingly relevant and a bigger part of the national discourse. I worked on a show called Hate In America for Investigation Discovery in 2015-2016, and to be honest, it was sad to see how much the white supremacist movement has gained strength in recent years. In my interview with Tom Metzger, the white nationalist who I spoke to [for Revealing Hate], he said that his big strategy (at that time in 2006) was telling his followers to take off the white robes and the brown shirts, dress normally, get a job, take care of your family, and quietly get into positions of power - in politics, government, business, etc - and then bring about the change they want to see. From his perspective, the past year has probably been a big success and a source of validation for the movement.
INC: How have you gotten other members of hate groups to talk to you on camera?
MW: For Revealing Hate, I went to a neo-Nazi rally in Michigan and filmed a press conference that they held there - they weren't speaking directly to me, but were addressing the press pool at large. So I used their words in my film. More recently, for Hate in America, I secured a phone interview for our host with Frazier Glenn Miller, who had been convicted of murdering three people outside of a Kansas City synagogue in 2014. It was a phone interview since Miller was in jail. [Miller] and I spoke on the phone many times prior to that interview. The two words that come to mind for those conversations are surreal and nauseating.
MW: With Revealing Hate, I remember being surprised when I learned about the Greensboro Massacre. That is an incident where the Ku Klux Klan gunned down a group of protestors in broad daylight in Greensboro, North Carolina. Several people were killed, and others were gravely injured. I spoke with two survivors. That incident took place in 1979, a year before I was born, and it shocks me to this day that no one ever went to jail for those crimes - even though they were caught on camera. It's really a wild and horrendous story.
One thing that really stuck with me from working on Hate in America was getting to know the mother of one of Frazier Glenn Miller's victims. Well, actually, she was the mother and daughter of two victims - her father and son were killed by this white supremacist. Mindy Corporon is the surviving mother/daughter, and she has channeled her grief and anger and sadness from her terrible loss into some of the most positive outreach work you could imagine. She has spearheaded interfaith initiatives to foster understanding across different religions, and her whole philosophy is that love and faith can help heal communities and families that have been torn apart by hate crimes like the one that took her son and father. She is without a doubt one of the most beautiful and remarkable human beings I have ever met. I'm proud to call her my friend - we've stayed in touch since the shoot, and to this day.
INC: Have you connected with or stayed in touch with any other people you've interviewed through your work?
MW: Oh gosh, yeah! That's one of the most fun parts of my job - meeting people from all walks of life, all around the globe - people I wouldn't normally run into - and really getting to know them. I stay in touch with many of them on email, and via Facebook too.
MW: Well, in recent years, most of my independent films and passion projects have been about wildlife conservation, and anti-poaching initiatives. I really got into that subject after I took a series of eco-volunteering trips about 10 years ago, and started to learn about the uptick in poaching and endangered species trafficking. Since then, I've tried to seek out stories about species or geographic regions that are suffering from poaching but receiving less media coverage. That's how I worked on my short film Kaziranga, about rhino poaching in northeastern India, and my current film Silent Forests, about forest elephant poaching in Africa's Congo Basin. In general, I'm very drawn to stories about the intersection of human beings and animals/wildlife...both the positive and negative outcomes of that intersection.
MW: Yeah, that's what I'm hoping to have my career more focused on - wildlife and conservation stories, as well as animal rescue stories. Profiling the people who are trying to do work as conservationists, wildlife stewards, and animal rescuers. The hope is to help get support for their work through a wider audience.
INC: How have social media, streaming services, and sites like Youtube changed the game on that front, for better or worse (if at all)?
MW: Social media has allowed a way for filmmakers to promote their films, as well as their crowdfunding campaigns, to a targeted audience. Streaming services like Netflix have really changed the way the industry works and has provided a major platform for documentaries to be seen. I think it's been a great help for independent filmmakers. YouTube is starting to get in on the game more, and is working on commissioning content and creating series like Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon - but they still have a ways to go till they are on that level, I think. For now YouTube is a good way to get your trailer up and visible to the world. There's more outlets than ever for good documentaries.. but there's also more competition than ever! There are so many good docs that get released every year that hardly see the light of day.
INC: Shifting gears a little bit, do you work with a regular production posse?
MW: I don't have the same people on every since film or TV show I work on, but I certainly have a short list of camerapeople and editors that I've worked with on more than one occasion and who I prefer to work with and heartily recommend to others for jobs. My main partner on my current doc, Silent Forests, is someone who I really love working with; his name is Zebediah Smith. He and I have been through some crazy stuff together in the far flung jungles of Africa, and through it all, we manage to keep each other (somewhat?) sane and laugh at some of the situations we find ourselves in. He has a wonderful calm demeanor, which is great for when sh*t inevitably hits the proverbial fan on a shoot, which it very often does!
MW: Oh man. Where do I even begin...we've been on sting operations together where undercover investigators are busting ivory traffickers, and it's just complete chaos - we don't even know what's going on half the time, we just keep the camera rolling! We've bribed our way through many an airport in central Africa... we've bathed in croc infested rivers. But maybe the funniest (and possibly grossest) story is...so we had a tent in Cameroon that we were staying in, while shooting deep in the forest there. For some reason, our tent was a fly MAGNET. Hundreds of freakin' flies buzzing all over that thing, day and night. It was maddening. Things got worse when the flies started having sex all over the tent, and on our equipment bags. And then, a few days later, we notice this layer of white stuff all over our belongings and bags. We take a closer look: MAGGOTS. FREAKIN'. MAGGOTS.
INC: Is there anything about the documentary production process that was different from how you expected it to be?
MW: I mean, I certainly learn something new on every single show, film, or project I do. Cliche, I know, but true. Docs take a lot of time and patience - it takes time and luck to capture a really great moment.. it takes time to develop a relationship with your subject...it takes time to set up a really great interview shot. There's this great quote I read from doc filmmaker Lucy Walker, which really sums it up well: "When you're making a fiction film, you have so much control, but you have to work really hard for the authenticity, whereas when you're making a documentary you have all the authenticity you want but you have to work really hard to have any control over it." I think that really sums it up well, and is something I couldn't have predicted but makes perfect sense to me now that I've worked in docs for years.
MW: So I've written a couple of screenplays - I like writing a lot. I've had some forward motion with them over the years - an option here, a contest win there - but none of them have been made yet. I don't think I'll ever do fiction film full time, but it would be nice to have a script come to fruition as a film at some point. Though I'd not want to direct my own fiction film - I'd want to hire an experienced director, since I have very little experience working with actors. It's a very different craft
INC: Understood. And last, but probably most importantly, where can we go to see your work?
MW: Well, my main website has links to a lot of my film websites and trailers. Some of my past docs are in the educational market now, so they aren't available online anywhere, but people can reach out to me or my educational distributor for more info on how to see the film. As for Silent Forests, my upcoming film, it will be going to festivals later this year and then hopefully be broadcast and/or streaming in the next year or two. People can keep in the loop via the film's Facebook page, and I will be creating a more comprehensive website soon for the film.