The Power Of One Woman
An interview with Sue Vicory
On her decision to change her life at middle age, to follow her dream, and to change life for the better, for herself and for others.
Sue Vicory is a documentary film maker who has produced four films, and through her work brings to light some serious social issues faced by people all around us every day. She has won various awards, including the Spirit Award in 2007 from Kansas City Women in Film & TV.
She creates work through her company Heartland Films, a not-for-profit corporation that gives money back to the causes she brings to light on screen. But she has not been a film maker for her entire career.
Sue’s father purchased a company in the town of Nevada, Missouri that has been continually in operation since 1897. They manufacture embossed metal tiles for architectural finish work, the style of which was so popular from the late 19th to mid-20th Centuries, and is en vogue again today. Because of effective management, the company has remained in business for well over a hundred years.
Sue earned a Master’s Degree in computer resources management and went to work for her father’s company in 1987. She had not planned to work for her family, but when her father died suddenly at the age of 58, she joined her brother there to help fill the gap created by the loss of their father.
“Though it started because of tragic circumstances, it became a great training ground for me to learn the ins and outs of running a small business,” Sue says of this time in her life.
In 2003, after many years of managing her company, Sue started spending her free time making films.
“Working at the same job, going to the same office every day for years,” she says, “I felt the need to reinvent myself.” One opportunity to do so presented itself as it does for so many women, when her children grew up and moved out.
She goes on tho say about this life stage, “I asked myself ‘who do I want to be for the second half of my life?’, and within the hour I was signed up for film school.” At the time, she was 48 years old. “At any stage in our lives,” she says, “we can turn a corner, or choose again. We can get to know ourselves better and base decisions on where we want to go from there.”
She studied at bootcamp-style seminars at the New York Film Academy, and then she attended film editing seminars in Washington, DC. She set up an editing station in her home, bought a camera, and before long she was filming the subject of homelessness for what would become her first film, Homelessness And The Power Of One.
“I have found as a woman to let my instincts guide me,” she says. “Just as I had asked myself ‘who do I want to be for the second half of my life?’, when it came time to make a film, I asked myself, ‘what do I want my first film to be about?’ And again, the answer came to be very quickly. I had done ten years of urban volunteer work, and I knew people who were running shelters. I thought it was an easy ‘in’ to get started. My initial focus was on women who were homeless, but soon the larger picture became more clear.”
Three years and fifteen cities later, she had the footage that would become a study on who is homeless and why, and it debuted in 2005, shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
“As the universe conspires to lift you up to your destiny,” Sue says, “I had scheduled the premiere of the film for September 10th of 2005 six months beforehand, and I was still in post-production when Katrina hit in Late August. The timing of it all felt to me like an acknowledgement from the universe that I was on the right course. We had such a relevant reason to screen the film and we had such a large need to immediately help. We had a standing room only audience, we had people from New Orleans in attendance, and we raised $30,000 from that first screening. It was such a magical moment for me that there was just no turning back.”
The film went on to raise $200,000 for various homeless organizations, and earned Sue an Emerging Filmmaker Grant sponsored by General Motors and Women In Film.
The facts that the film brings to light are eye-opening, and for some may seem extreme. To this, Sue says, “I do not consider homelessness to be extreme. I wanted to bridge the gap between who people think homeless people are and who they are in reality. I wanted to build a bridge.” A quote from the narrator in the film speaks best of its ultimate purpose: “Until someone looks into the heart of every human soul, we miss an opportunity to see ourselves in others. With our perceptions in the way, we lose the ability to hear a voice long silenced, allowing the invisible to become visible.”
“I don’t consider myself a writer,” Sue says of writing the film, “but I’m proud of that script. It came from my experience of meeting people who lived in parks and under bushes. I had no idea how to put a film together, I had no idea if I could. I had all the human doubt in the world, but somehow it kept pushing me forward. The anticipation of those who touched the project, wanting to know when it was going to be ready. The community of everyone involved in the project kept me going until it was done.
The film ends with the quote: “Getting involved will make a difference, not only in another’s life, but also in your own. To take a stand and take action without a doubt will change the world. You’re here because it’s your turn to take action.”
And over still shots of people helping in various ways, she shows on screen a long list of real and tangible actions anyone can take to get involved. Donate food, tutor a child, repair a shelter, and the list goes on. Sue does not stop until every person who sees the film has seen at least one tangible action he or she can take to help someone who is in need.
Sue says this first film made her a documentary film maker and she never looked back, but it may be more accurate to say that it was her passion as a crusader for the homeless that spurred her into action, and that film was her chosen medium. “Giving back is part of who I am. I see myself as so fortunate and receiving of so much that there came a point where my focus became how much I could put back into the world. My films are visual depictions of that.”
Sue has also produced films that do not cover the extremes of human suffering. She made Kansas City Jazz And Blues, Past, Present, and Future, and Marilyn May, a film about that famed jazz singer, which stemmed from the first jazz film.
Her film, 1898 – The W.F. Norman Story, focusses on the company her family owns, which has been in operation for six generations. The film illustrates the traditional manufacturing processes and the historic architecture around the world where the tile resides. But more importantly for Sue, it serves as a tribute to her father’s legacy of hard work and success.
A more recent film, entitled Absent, is a return to a more severe subject. It’s a dramatization of the true story of the murder of a girl and the effect this tragedy has on her parents. Seen through the eyes of the girl’s anguishing mother, the film’s heartbreaking subject still contains within it a glimmer of hope for those who have suffered loss and need to find a way to go on, As a dramatization, Sue had to again teach herself how to create this new narrative style on screen. She plans to continue producing narrative films along with her increasing portfolio of documentaries as she grows in her craft.
Her latest film, entitled One, is a documentary about global humanity with regards to our individual significance and impact within it. It is a much more broad and philosophical view of the subjects brought to light in her first film, Homelessness. Here, Sue demonstrates her natural progression from a specific subject matter to a wider view of the world.
“I feel that this is a full-circle film,” she says. “What I learned making Homelessness And The Power Of One is that one person is significant enough, whether through their actions or words to change the entire trajectory of another person’s life. So many times when I spoke to people who were formerly homeless, they said there was one person in particular who they have to thank for changing their lives for the better. This got me thinking about who we are, each of us, and what the significance of each individual is in the midst of 7 billion people. Are we impactful? Are we significant? Do we matter?”
Sue interviewed 25 people, ranging in age from 9 to 90. She then sifted through her 25 hours of footage to weave a story around this larger philosophical question, which stemmed from her initial interviews with homeless people years before.
“Something I learned when filming Homelessness is that what I do has a ripple effect that touches way more people than I would ever expect,” Sue explains. “This has taught me to become more intentional in how I live. I’m very intentional in what I do, what I put out there in the world. So, I wanted the film One to be a voice for that. If we saw ourselves as impactful, as significant, at least in one other person’s life, then would we live our lives more intentionally than if we did not realize this?”
“Most people, when they see a homeless person, they do not see a complete, whole person.” Sue continues. “But after talking to and getting to know so many homeless people, now, when I look into the eyes of a homeless person, I see myself. If I gain nothing else in my lifetime, this will be enough.”
The film won a Telly Award, it has been admitted into several prestigious film festivals, “but these films I make are legacies that will live well beyond my life,” she says. “And if they impact one person, I think that’s good. I call that good.”
And of starting a new career at mid-life, Sue says, “this is a marvelous journey, and I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing. I’ve stepped into my destiny, and it has not failed me.”
And, Sue has begun work on a new narrative film, entitled The Latin Rose, which will begin preproduction in early 2015.
Sue has been married for 36 years, raised 2 daughters, and now lives in Del Mar, California, near San Diego, where she continued to produce films. You can find out more about Sue’s work and watch several of her films on her website suevicory.com and mypowerofone.com. If you are a female filmmaker interested in promoting your work also visit Sue’s website womendocumentaryfilmmakers.com to submit your film(s)!