Startup Spotlight: Stockton filmmaker feeds creative ‘obsession’


sara washingtonSTOCKTON — Making a career out of documentary filmmaking isn’t the easiest of things, but that hasn’t stopped Sara Washington.

From her office at Huddle workspace in downtown Stockton, Washington produces documentaries on everything from pointe ballet shoes to food industries, health care and an all-women’s boxing tournament based out of Pacifica. Filmmaking has its trying moments, but she likes the freedom it provides.

“I tend to have an obsessive personality,” said Washington. “So working in documentary film allows me to pick a subject that I get to obsess over for a month, or a year or two years. And then I pick another subject I can obsess over.”

Her current project is called “Pointe,” which is a documentary on pointe ballet shoes. Pointe shoes are the hard-tipped ballet shoes that allow performers to dance on their toes. The project has taken her to London once already, and she plans to return before the film’s completion.

“’Pointe’ was a project I started working on because I wondered how pointe shoes were made,” said Washington. “I’m a little obsessed with clothing, or wearable objects, and how it works in people’s lives, the way they retain memory and reflect identity. The pointe shoe was an interesting example because everybody recognizes a pointe shoe.”

Washington grew up in Stockton. She attended UC Santa Cruz and majored in community studies with an emphasis on documentary film and pop culture. She then went on to The New School in New York City, where she studied documentary film.

Including her time in college, Washington has been making documentary films for seven years. She’s learned a lot of valuable lessons in that time, but she said the most important one is perseverance.

“I think the most important thing I’ve learned is to fight for stories, not taking roadblocks as, ‘Oh, this is the end of the line. I’ve gone as far as I can go with this,’” said Washington. “On the other side of that, when people sit down with me, they’re trusting me with a part of themselves, so I’ve learned to be protective of that just in terms of fighting for the story or pushing it forward when it gets stuck.”

Jaynelle St. Jean, owner of the artisanal bakery Pietisserie in Oakland, has worked with Washington on a number of projects. Their first was a piece they did for Design Sponge called “In the Kitchen.” In the film St. Jean walks the audience through the process of making a chestnut cream pie.

Prior to starting, she was nervous about how it would turn out but said Washington made her feel right at home.

“She’s really insightful,” said St. Jean. “I think she understands storytelling. It’s not just somebody who’s going to do a Q and A and take some pictures. She understands, and that really helps with the storytelling.”

Since then, St. Jean has done films with other videographers, but the work she did with Washington stood out.

“I thought it was stunning what a good job she did and how awesome she made the pie-making process look,” said St. Jean. “She captured everything, and the lighting was amazing.”

Washington’s biggest obstacle is getting enough financing to fund the projects. When she started, she didn’t have a portfolio, so he had to do projects for free. To finance her projects, she has to do grant writing sometimes. While she’s waiting for the grants to come through, she has to fund the process through her savings. For example, when she went to London for “Pointe,” she paid her own way.

The cost it takes to produce a film varies, depending on its length or how many man-hours are involved. She gets paid upfront on projects she produces for organizations, such as the films she did for California Health Report.

“It’s a lot of estimating ahead of time on cost,” said Washington. “But you have to be willing to go with the story. Sometimes what you plan doesn’t fit the story, so you have to change.”

Washington said one nice part about being based in Stockton is that the lower cost of living cuts down on her expenses, which has allowed her to put more of her money into her business. But because a lot of her work is in the Bay Area, being in the Central Valley can pose other problems.

“There’s a commuter bus at the RTD station that goes directly from Stockton to the BART Dublin station,” said Washington. “So I’ve learned how to use public transportation. Otherwise I’m in traffic for four hours, and I lose time I could spend researching. The more I’ve learned to rely on Amtrak and BART, the less of an obstacle it’s been.”

Washington hopes she’ll be able to build her brand and hire more people to help with production. As her financial flexibility increases, she’ll also have more time to focus on the projects that intrigue her.

“That’s the goal: to, as much as possible, figure out a way to tell the stories I love more,” said Washington. “Then if I do take on smaller projects here, and there it’s because I really want to, and not because I need the money.”


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