Olivia Motley ’09 has always had a great love of art. By the age of 14, she began working on films and made several films early on which screened and won awards in the National Film Festival for Talented Youth and Red Rocks Film Festival. She attended the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where she majored in production design while developing an interest in documentary work. She received the Campus Arts Scholarship in 2012 and, after graduating in 2013, moved to New Orleans. There she became fascinated with the people and traditions of this unique city, and from this came her recent documentary, Flotsam, which she directed and co-produced and which premiered in October 2015 at the New Orleans Film Festival.
Tell us a little about the film. What was your inspiration for doing this?
Flotsam is a documentary that directly highlights a side of the Mardi Gras story that is often overlooked: sanitation. I was inspired to make the film after moving to New Orleans and witnessing my first Mardi Gras. The amount of trash is really overwhelming and it is incredible how quickly it's cleaned up afterwards.
I found myself wondering how the sweepers felt about it, whether they resented it because everyone else was having a good time while they cleaned, or if they were still able to find some celebration in it themselves.
What research was involved and how did you go about gathering your information?
I tried working with the city’s department of sanitation because I wanted to document the entire process, from the extra training workers might receive all the way through the end, but after a month-and-a-half-long process, the city ended up saying they didn't want me to film because they didn't want me around heavy machinery. This is silly, of course, because there are drunk people all over the place around the same machinery. I think they were worried I might end up representing them inappropriately. Waste is often a touchy subject with the environmental movement, so as far as research is concerned, I mostly had to conduct it in real time.
I ended up finding my main character once Carnival season had already started. I just talked to people until I found the one that jumped out at me as an interesting subject that represented what I love most about New Orleans. Flotsam is an experimental documentary, so it's much less about giving information and more about painting a portrait of a person most people have never considered existing before. I'm basing my approach off a new technique that has been formed at Harvard called sensory ethnography, which is essentially telling a story from the point of view of the subject of the story.
What other struggles did you face and how did you overcome them?
I really wanted it to be quiet, and show more than tell. It was certainly a struggle to have the city not wanting us around, but since everything we filmed was on public property, they really couldn't force us not to shoot. There are struggles with every film with funding, manpower and other resources. We had a tiny crew on this one, but I never feel comfortable asking people to work for free anymore, so we did a Kickstarter to raise funds after shooting. There was plenty of research involved in that too, actually, looking at campaigns that worked historically and those that didn't.
With Kickstarter, it's all or nothing, so I felt a lot of pressure to do it right. I've never produced a film before, so there was a learning curve there, but ultimately we raised our entire goal in half the time! We based our Kickstarter primarily on the campaign of Amanda Palmer from the Dresden Dolls. I saw her TED talk years ago and always found it incredibly inspirational and moving (plus, she raised $1.2 million on her campaign, where she set out to raise $100,000. AMAZING.)
Another thing about doing a quiet documentary like this is how important the music is. It really sets the tone of the film and lets people know how they're supposed to be feeling. We struggled a lot initially trying to find a composer who had the right sound and feeling, but was still within our price range. We were toying with the idea of hiring someone from our school back in North Carolina, but I felt it was sacrilegious not to have a New Orleans musician. We heard a song one day on the local radio that was perfect, and sent it to a couple of people as inspiration music, then at one point I decided it might be worth it to just reach out to the artist directly. He is really quite famous, but also local, so I thought we might have a chance. This is Mike Dillon.
Mike not only responded enthusiastically to our using that one song, but also offered to let me use any of his music, and wanted to compose original music for the film. This was probably the biggest surprise and it ended up being completely perfect.
How do you feel that schools such as Randolph should best prepare students to pursue their passions?
I think schools like Randolph can encourage students to follow their dreams by allowing them time to do their own personal discovery. Randolph didn't have a huge film presence, but let me have independent studies in film for the last three years of my time there. This gave me the space to figure things out on my own and the freedom to follow my curiosity past the bounds of what was already offered. Also I think it is incredibly important to encourage kids to fail in something. A lot of times I feel the approach is to make something that is perfect from the beginning; success is the only option. But I think experimentation and learning what works and doesn't work is so important in actually developing as a person and an artist. Everyone makes mistakes and those become the greatest learning opportunities.
If you are interested in viewing Flotsam, you can contact Olivia through her website.