Hot Docs Interview: Nancy Prebilich and Morgan Schmidt-Feng talks about ON HER OWN


ON HER OWN was one of the documentary films that really moved me. It is a great example of how strong people can survive in the big jungle of life; where only determined person will go as far as possible to keep their dreams alive. But what if that person has a few people beside her to help and support her, but still feels that it is not enough to defeat the troubles that life brings?  The documentary film ON HER OWN, directed by Morgan Schmidt-Feng, tells the story of Nancy Prebilich, which begins in 2009 highlighting one of the more important moments of her life; moments that she felt were important enough to share with everyone. During the Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, I had a chance to sit down and talk with both Nancy Prebilich and Morgan Schmidt-Feng, who patiently followed her during a very intimate time in her life and captured it the way all filmmakers must do – with respect. Before I started my interview, I had expressed my gratitude to both of them for agreeing to give me a few minutes so that I may tell my readers about their journey, and I believe will fascinate and amaze everyone.

MovieMovesMe: What was it that drove you to keep your fathers dream alive by developing the farm all by yourself? Wasn`t it hard to do everything by yourself?

Nancy Prebilich: Well, yes. I think that so many farmers and ranchos, whether male or female, feel under supported just by the nature of our work, life and culture. And I have to say I was not totally alone. Even though I felt alone, I was not totally on my own; there was my sister, her children and the other people that were trying to help and support me. But that was not enough. But I don`t think of it as difficult. I just think of it as what it was, and there was no time to think about the difficulty.

MovieMovesMe: Not everyone would agree to become the subject in a documentary and tell the story of their life.

Nancy Prebilich: At first, when Morgan asked to film it, there were no intentions of making a documentary – necessarily. I had no intention of being a subject and sharing my life story. When he asked, things were going really pretty good. Everybody was still alive. And, we were struggling, it was hard, but were doing OK. And there was definitely an upward progression in the business and to life in general. And really when I said ‘yes’ I had hoped to maybe have five or ten minutes of real to put on my website in order to promote our ranch business. It was not until a couple of years, maybe three, that things really started happening in my life. Then I think we both realised that there was something more happening here and that I had an opportunity to share my life story. And Morgan had stumbled upon an opportunity to tell that story.

My next question was for Morgan. I asked about his delicate approach during filming, when there was quite an emotional moment for Nancy. I asked about the process of filming specifically that sensitive moment.

Morgan Schmidt-Feng: I knew that if the family was willing to allow me to be there, to film what they were going through that would be a special privilege. I knew it was a rare situation to be allowed to be present at such an intimate and sad time. To be allowed that opportunity to be there and be present was huge. And I wanted to approach it in a very respectful way. But if they were willing, my instinct as a filmmaker and as a storyteller, I really felt that I had to follow that instinct. And you know, as long as they were OK with that, I was gonna do that job. And there were times when I chose not to film the situations that happened. We had 7 hours of assembly edit and there were many things that were not in the film. So, you know for me, when we premiered it at Sundance in January, it was the first time I had ever seen the film with an audience. I just could not help it; I had such an emotional reaction.  

When Morgan talked about his emotional reaction, Nancy had something more to say, which I found very touching:

Nancy Prebilich: I actually saved him on the stage. I had to take the microphone and give him his moment, because suddenly the audience is bawling, and he is bawling. Everybody is bawling. And I am the only one who is OK. (Laughs together).

Then Morgan continued: Because I had held in all these emotions and all of the feelings that I had for her family and her loss, it was a relief to be able to share this with the world. It just caught me by surprise. I had such an emotional reaction to it. Because I`ve been squishing that down during the process, to keep some objectivity (added by Nancy), and then, when the film was finally shared, I finally had an opportunity to see it and reflect on it. And honestly, I`ve seen it now at almost seven festivals, and I`ve sat at all those screenings, and still when I see the funeral of her Mom and her Dad, it still emotionally affects me. It was definitely a journey I`ve never experienced as a filmmaker before, and I don`t know that I`ll ever experience the same thing in the future. It was a very special thing that I had privilege to be there.

MovieMovesMe: You had so many challenges at certain times of your life that were told in this film. What made you keep going? What motivated you not to give up?

Nancy Prebilich: Definitely, the inspiration of my family, but also my parents themselves. My father has an incredible personal history of determination and commitment. I definitely learned from both of them, and I had their blessings to follow my guts. But in those moments of loss, and fighting to keep whatever you can, you really realise what we are on this Earth for. What we are here to do is not to fight. When are faced with the cycles of life on a daily basis, it definitely impacts you in a personal way, like those moments you see in the film. It just reinforces why we are on this earth and that we need to make it count.

I`ve been thinking a lot about what else the readers would love to hear from Nancy Prebilich, and I found my last question quite relevant, and I believe that everyone would love to learn what Nancy has to offer. And this was my last question for her: Are there any words of wisdom you would like to share with the readers to pass on your positive energy and your desire to keep fighting no matter what?

After hearing my question, Nancy was caught by surprise and this left her stunned. She had to take a moment to think about the answer to ensure that whoever reads it will receive it exactly the way she conveyed.

Nancy Prebilich: Oh dear, I don`t know. Let me think about it. The teachers in my life have been people that, if you`re able to gather any insights into enlightened wisdom from anything that I may say or do it is not my intention, or within my power. I definitely think that we can slow down our lives. We can take more time. We can look more to our past and our present and care more about our future. To take care of our land and our culture as a people, whatever that may be, whatever land or culture you come from. Those things are important. Their spirit fills us a much as Earth and water; the spirit of people. And I just feel incredibly privileged to be part of this dialogue and share my spirit with others, and to receive theirs, the people who are watching my stories. You know, there is really an incredible human experience that takes place in the storytelling process. And I just learned to become more appreciative about all those things, and to put it out there for people to take note of their life.

As I was about to finalize interview, I asked Morgan Schmidt-Feng about his reasons for making this documentary film and the process.

Morgan Schmidt-Feng: For me, for someone who shoots and produces video for a living, so much of what I do is collaborating with other people and there is often a very tight schedule, as well as a script, and the story that I am following in a very strict way. I came up to Nancy`s place driving two hours to her rancho, to her land alone. I often was by myself. Because I was shooting by myself. So I had that time to unwind, and let the city and stress go. And, not to worry about the schedule. Nancy and I were very casual about that. When I got there, I often took my time bringing the camera out, and we would just talk and catch up. For me it was this way of kind of re-energizing and recharging my creative batteries as a filmmaker, And not to have an agenda or treatment in the story.   That was not a part of it at all. It was just really exploring, and being open and letting things happen as they were intended to happen. Because in life so many things, if you try too hard sometimes squish and crush it. I did not want to try too hard to make it into something. I wanted it to teach me what it wanted to be, and that was really my approach to it.

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