Class of ‘08 alum Michaela O’Brien came to Boston College studying sociology and international studies, and has since found herself on the brink of showing a documentary short in the upcoming Boston International Film Festival next weekend! Her film, Far From C3, tells the story of a Burmese refugee and her transition from her native country to the United States. Find out more about Michaela, her work and what led to her successful documentary filmmaking career:
So I’ve read a little bit about your documentary Far From C3 and it sounds amazing! Can you tell me more about it?
Sure. It’s a documentary short, and it’s a portrait piece about a Burmese refugee. Her name is Paw Wah (who currently lives in Worcester), and it’s the story of her transition from a refugee camp in Thailand, after the abuse she went through in her home country of Burma, to her American life. It’s a blend of archival footage from her native country, from the refugee camp, her daily life in Worcester currently and how her life is different and what the experience of adjusting from one culture to another is like.
So where did the inspiration come from for this project and how did you start working on it?
It started when I was teaching a photography class in Lynn, Mass. at the New American Center, which is the center for youths who are recently immigrated to the U.S. So, it’s to help them transition and help them with school and whatnot. Through that photography class, I met a young Burmese refugee girl named Nu Nu, and we formed a friendship and still speak to this day. She’s in high school now, but at the time she was living in Lynn with a foster family, and later transitioned into another foster household in Worcester. And one of the women she was living with was Paw Wah, so I visited her one weekend and got to meet Paw Wah. Upon first meeting her, I was really inspired by her positivity and her cheerfulness after everything she had been through in the refugee camps and all the violence in the civil war she experienced. So I continued to visit her, and we would always pick up where we left off. And I think it was for a year and a half where I would shoot footage of her, on and off.
That’s awesome! So I read that your film is being shown at the Boston International Film Festival this year.
Yeah, it will be shown on the Sunday (April 13th) Session 6 screening at noon.
How does it feel to get this kind of recognition of your work?
It feels great! I’m excited to have this film in a film festival. Sometimes it’s nice to know that you make a piece, and you wonder who is going to see this and your ultimate goal is to get more people to see the piece so it feels worthy of all the time and effort. Because all the subjects and yourself need recognition, so I’m glad her story will reach a larger audience. Especially in a place like Massachusetts, so people will see this as a local story and think twice about who and what we consider American. I think her [Paw Wah] story is one of great courage that needs to be shared, and it’s great that she will be there to see herself on the big screen along with her family. I’m so proud of her life and the piece itself.
Would you say that reconsidering who or what is “American” is the greater message of your film?
Yeah, I think it’s one of the greater messages.
Is there a sentence or two that describe the overarching message you want audiences to take away with them?
Sure, well what we just said. This isn’t really a message, but I think it’s [the film] a great personal outlet for people who have had refugee status to talk about their past lives and express the hope that they have for their future, so I think that this has been a helpful experience, both for me and for Paw Wah, to understand what she’s been through and what her future will be.
Great! So what led you to a career in documentary filmmaking?
I graduated from BC in 2008, and I studied Sociology and International Studies. And after I graduated, I was sort of frustrated with the fact that I felt I had what I had been studying and focusing on was limited to the academia network, and how what I was studying would affect the real world. Like, how could I make action? And I realized that one of the best ways to do that is through media, especially these days. So I quickly took up photography and spent a lot of my free time crafting my own photography style and doing my own documentary work. And from there I felt it was time to move into moving images, so I started practicing that as well, and I took courses at the New England School of Photography and the New England Institute of Art. And I really started to use media as an outlet to promote messages of people that are frequently underrepresented. From there I started to work for Northern Light Productions in 2010 and have been working here since. I’m an associate producer, archival researcher, production manager, second camera operator, so I’ve delved deeply into the inner workings of documentary and film-making, and have enjoyed my career in this field. Both of my documentaries are outside of my job, they’re independent works.
So do you have any advice for a BC student looking to break into the filmmaking industry?
I would recommend just not being afraid to go out and make mistakes. That’s how you learn from them. And if you find yourself interested in a field go out and start shooting and producing yourself, find out what you like and you don’t like. You have to be your own initiative, and from there you’ll find your niche. I think that would be my advice.
Cool, that’s good advice. So this is just a “for fun” question but do you have a favorite memory or time from when you attended BC?
I really liked my experience living in Walsh. I lived with three of my friends in Walsh in a four-person, what do you call it? A quad, yeah. And that was fun, we had a lot of good times there. And I studied abroad in Ecuador which I thought was a really good experience.
Great! Is there anything else that you wanted to say that I didn’t get to?
Yeah, so while I was producing Far From C3, I was also working on a feature-length documentary called In Crystal Skin, and it’s about four people living with a rare disease called Epidermolysis bullosa, or EB. And it’s the state of these four people and their experiences and daily lives living with this disease. And it takes place in Bogota, Columbia, and we are through production and moving into post-production. And we’re really focused on editing, and thinking about having a kick starter campaign in the beginning of summer for the final finishing of the film.
That sounds amazing as well! Thanks again for taking the time to talk with me about your work!
Yeah sure, thank you too!
Check out the two websites below if you want to learn more about Michaela and her documentary work!
Here is the In Crystal Skin website: www.incrystalskin.com, where you can find more information about the film.
Michaela’s personal photography page: www.themobphoto.com