The Feedback: Lisa Riordan Seville and Zara Katz's 'A Woman on the Outside'
By Tom White
Directors/producers Lisa Riordan Seville and Zara Katz came to their first documentary project, A Woman on the Outside, through separate, but converging, career paths. Seville, an award-winning investigative journalist in both broadcast and print platforms, and Katz, a photo editor, producer and curator for NBCnews.com, The New York Times, The Guardian and other outlets, collaborated in 2014 on the Instagram project Everyday Incarceration, which examined 40 years of mass incarceration in the US prison industrial complex. The project garnered attention online, as well as from such museums as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which showcased the project as a full-fledged exhibit.
Seville and Katz wanted to explore beyond Everyday Incarceration, to address the wrenching statistic that more than a quarter of women in the US have had a loved one who has been, or still is, incarcerated. Enter Kristal, a Philadephia-based woman who, having seen her brother and father caught up in the prison system, has parlayed that statistic into a career, operating a van service to transport families to and from correctional facilities to connect with loved ones behind bars. Kristal was well aware of Everyday Incarceration when she met Seville and Katz, and began making introductions to women who would eventually appear in A Woman on the Outside. And Kristal herself emerged as protagonist and collaborator.
A Woman on the Outside screened as a work in progress last November at DCTV in New York City, as part of IDA’s DocuClub series. Following their world premiere at SXSW in March, Documentary caught up with Seville and Katz, as well as producer/writer Kiara C. Jones, to share the challenges of making their first documentary, what they learned at the DocuClub screening, and what they had to do get A Woman on the Outside ready for SXSW.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DOCUMENTARY: So, I took note that on your website you categorize your film as a collaboration. As you all know, over the past few years, the conversations in the community have prioritized duty of care with respect to protagonists and the documentary process, and instigating a collaborative relationship between filmmaker and protagonist. Can each of you talk about how this has been a collaboration with Kristal, from the very beginning through now, as you’re getting the film out there? What were the parameters of the collaboration?
LISA RIORDAN SEVILLE: This project didn’t start out as a documentary film. In 2014 Zara and I started an Instagram feed called Everyday Incarceration, Zara has a background as a photo editor and producer, and I have a background as an investigative reporter. I had done a lot of reporting on criminal justice issues, but Zara felt like she didn’t see that much because there was such a dearth of photography about criminal justice, particularly at that time.
So she started reaching out to her contacts, and we started amassing an archive of 40 years of photography about mass incarceration, in a very large-scale definition of that. And as we did that, one story that we felt was missing was the story of a lot of my sources, who are often women who had loved ones inside. They were the conduit for so much of the information—what I was reporting about in prison or on immigration or probation issues.
I talked to them often and heard a lot about their experiences, but because that wasn’t the center of my story, that often got left on the cutting-room floor. And so, we had the opportunity to apply to a workshop with the Magnum Foundation called Photography Expanded, which at the time was really thinking along the edges of what traditional photography was.
That’s really where the project started, where we started interviewing and having focus groups with women with incarcerated loved ones, trying to understand what their stories were and what stories they felt should be told.
One of the photographers in the program had done some photographing on buses that took people from New York City to prisons way upstate. She had seen Kristal’s Instagram feed for her van service and suggested we go to Philadelphia to one of her customer appreciation cookouts. And so, we showed up in the summer of 2015.
We followed each other on Instagram and Kristal said, You’re Everyday Incarceration? Come, talk to this person. Talk to that woman. Talk to this woman. And that was the beginning. The following summer we did a photo project with Kristal and her riders where we rode the van, and we made a small exhibition video. And then we did portraits and some infographics and that became a multimedia exhibition at Photoville that Kristal and her riders came to. Subsequently, we traveled with Kristal to Germany with that exhibition. And it was really around that time that we thought, OK, what if we made that exhibition video that was a dawn-to-dusk van ride into the beginning of a film? What would that look like?
So by then we had already been collaborating with Kristal and talking about that and forming a relationship. From that point forward, we learned together about what this film was gonna be. It was always a dialogue back and forth, and ultimately her social media plays a really significant role in the film.
She is her own storyteller, so we had very explicit conversations throughout about, “This is the narrative arc we’re going with; what do you think?” She didn’t see a cut of the film until we were deeper in the assembly stage, and we felt like it held together enough to really get feedback from her, but it was really a flow of information back and forth throughout the entire process and several years of working together in a slightly different capacity before we really started making a film.
D: Zara, given that you have primarily been working in photography, in transitioning from that medium to the multimedia project to the documentary film, what were the most transferable skills that worked the best in making the documentary, and what were the real challenges in making this transition?
ZARA KATZ: Actually, I am not a photographer. I have been working in photography for many years, but I focused on being a curator and then an editor and then really pursuing editorial and photojournalism and journalism.
What I loved about filming this is that fluidity. Lisa and I shot this together, and the way we shot it was as an observational documentary. We were there all day for many days in a row. There was just this sense of being able to be in the moment. It was just me and Lisa, starting out with a Canon 5D Mark 3 and then transitioning to a Canon C300 and any other camera that friends might rent to us.
This also circles back to your original question. Of course, we are two white women, not from Philadelphia, and there is no fly on the wall in that situation. But we were able to only take up two seats in the van and have very direct, transparent conversations with each woman in the van about what we were doing and what they thought we should do.
So at first this project wasn’t necessarily a film. We were really interested in hearing stories of women who support an incarcerated loved one. What is that story? What should be included? What shouldn’t be included? Those were the conversations that we were having with Kristal and her family as well. And that started turning into Kristal calling us, even during some of the hardest, most tragic moments of her life, and saying, “I think you guys should come down ’cause I think this should be part of the film.”
So I loved learning how to make a film, as hard as it was. It was such a process where you see it come together in the edit room; that is so satisfying and is not reliant on one single image or one single still frame, but a collection of thousands of shots.
D: Lisa, a similar question for you. You have been an investigative reporter. What were the challenges of transitioning from investigative reports to a much longer-form documentary project? What did you find most transferable? What were the real challenges in venturing into a longer-term process?
LRS: I guess one helpful thing is, it wasn’t unusual for me to spend a year on a project, but I hadn’t spent six years before. But at least it wasn’t the shift from breaking news to this. But one of the skills that was transferable that I wouldn’t have necessarily understood otherwise was the importance of structure. And thinking structurally about how you move across a story and how you weave together important pieces of information with the parts and details that make a story come alive, whether that’s on the page or in a sequence of images.
Having spent a lot of time with language really helped me when we were thinking about voiceover and the interviews because Kristal’s voice became more and more primary over time. Her voice really needed to be at the forefront of the film. It was always going to be about her, with her actual voice and her as a guide.
Otherwise, I’ve always thought a lot about images. I have a background in art, but that was not what I had done professionally, so it was a constant challenge. I had to start watching films differently to understand the craft in order to understand what we could and couldn’t do with the material that we had. And particularly how to weave things together—how to make up for the things that we just didn’t get and how we often talked about, Is there gonna be information missing? You have to make it so the audience doesn’t get stuck on that and keeps moving with you. Or maybe they went back and tried to answer every question they couldn’t.
We often talked about how we went to film school by just trying to make this. Making a vérité doc is challenging.
ZK: The one thing I’d like to add about what is transferable and what is not: with a visual photo story, there’s captions; there’s a very direct way to put it in context. There’s a very direct way to talk about the past that you can’t see but you can describe. And that was so important that this film a) be in the present and b) not include statistics.
We really had to figure out how to make all of this understandable. That is really the beauty of what we were able to come to; you don’t need to know all the statistics around foster children and incarcerated parents to really feel Kristal’s experience and feel the struggles that she’s up against.
We said that [the PBS Independent Lens series] Philly DA can be our CliffsNotes. If you want to learn about the system, watch this incredible series. If you want to learn about what happened to Kristal’s dad, watch this. That was really important in that it was just a human experience, but you felt that shadow system that she was constantly dealing with and still deals with.
D: Kiara, I wanted to bring you into the conversation. You’re credited as writer and producer. At what point did you come in as a writer? What was your process in shaping the narrative and working with Lisa and Zara and then working with the editor?
KCJ: Well, when I first met Lisa and Zara, I recognized immediately that they had done a tremendous amount of work in connecting with these women and getting an understanding of not only the individuals, but the community and the complex problem of this idea of being externally incarcerated.
So, they had really taken the time to gather a huge knowledge base and connect intimately with the subjects of this documentary, which was hugely important to me. We talked a lot about—and you tapped into this in the beginning—this parachute filmmaking, where people are just dropping into people’s communities and becoming the voice of that story. Lisa and Zara were really, really committed to not doing that, to being as authentic as they could and being a conduit for the realities of these women’s experiences. And when I saw that, it was the cornerstone that allowed me to step into this project. So I come in as the more experienced filmmaker.
And it’s a real balancing act to give them the space to create as well as direct and influence the potential of the film. When I came in, there was a tremendous amount of footage. They had a definite idea of what they wanted the story to be, but there was the gut check of, What is the story that you actually captured? And what can you tell? And especially in staying vérité, not being didactic, not using captions and not using statistics to support the story really shaped the ways in which the narrative could go.
But they had so much great access, specifically to our primary subject, Kristal, that we were able to go in and fill in the gaps where necessary. So, the initial idea of the film was to use all the women on the bus to create a harmonized chorus that would tell the story of what it’s like to have an incarcerated loved one and deal with all of the pressures that come along with that.
For the process of going through 400-plus hours of footage, we started carving out each individual story and then began to realize, If we try to tell everyone’s story, we would end up telling no one’s story. It was getting very messy. There was lots of dialogue and dialect that people don’t understand, and we were doing too much explaining and not enough storytelling. So we honed in on the idea that we would use Kristal as the primary and allow her to be the voice of the others, as opposed to having a chorus of voices telling one story. And that was hard because these women were so open in allowing us into their stories and having Lisa and Zara point a camera on the darkest places of their life. Letting some of those narratives go was very, very difficult. But once we realized that we were most likely telling the story of a woman saving a child from going into this system, it really opened the floodgates of where we were going because it’s Kristal, as a child of incarceration watching her nephew as a child of incarceration, stopping the cycle of incarceration. That’s where we landed.
So, what was your next question? Oh, working with the editor. So, it’s interesting, editors, right? Because Carol Dysinger, Academy Award-winning editor, was the one who introduced me to Lisa and Zara; she’s one of my mentors, one of my professors from NYU. And then we got Suzannah Herbert, who came onboard as the editor. And the first thing that Lisa and Zara did, which was very, very brave, was grant her the time and the finances to watch all 400 hours of footage. And really live in all of the stories, even the ones we knew we weren’t going to be able to keep to help her get an understanding of all the things that we were trying to say with this film.
That was a tough choice because as a documentary filmmaker, money and time are super limited resources, but they felt it was really, really important to give her that space. And she took it, and I think that is tantamount to the film that we resolve with today. Whenever something came up and there was a question and there was a dialogue, there was context for it because we’d all spent so much time on the materials.
D: I wanted to turn to the DocuClub screening last November. Was that your first public screening? Or de facto public screening before an audience outside of you and your immediate families?
KCJ: We had invited audiences before. But this was the first time actual strangers had the opportunity to say things. Without filters.
D: What were your expectations going into that screening?
LRS: We didn’t have a sense of who the audience was, so that was gonna be really interesting. And we had been editing for a year and a half. And so, we had heard so many of the problems over time and a lot of this was problem-solving in that process.
So I think at least for me the question was, Will it hold together? What questions will arise? At various points people didn’t connect to Kristal. We knew that was on our end because Kristal is someone who people really connect with, and we always really connected with.
So there were questions like that. How does it look coming in to someone really fresh? Because most of the people that we had invited at one point or another had some context, knew that we were working on this, were aware of some piece of the story at least.
D: So what were some of the central challenges in your film that you felt could benefit from this Docu Club screening?
KCJ: We had spent a lot of time sharing it with women, women of color, Black men, trying to make sure that we weren’t monolithing—we weren’t falling into any of the traps that lay around when you try to tell this type of story.
I think that fear when you start to show it to outsiders, is, Do they just pile this into, “Oh, here’s another Black trauma film about the tragedies of incarceration”? That was a concern.
LRS: And then on more craft level, but act one was a real beast for us. There was a lot we needed to establish. It was some of our weakest shooting because it happened at the beginning and because Nyvae, Kristal’s nephew, grows up over the course of the film. We were always somewhat limited in how we could restructure in terms of time, if we wanted to keep it roughly chronological.
And so act one, for a long time, felt like a different film from the rest, and a lot of stuff happens on the back end of our film. So, I think going into the screening, it’s like, Will people get through the first 25 minutes and stick around, and how will they feel about that versus the rest of the film?
D: And so, from the audience observations, you said that they didn’t connect to Kristal. Did you find that surprising and unexpected? Were there other observations that you found surprising and unexpected?
LRS: Just to be clear, that didn’t happen at the Docu Club screening. That happened earlier on, and so I think going into the Docu Club screening, one question was, Have we fixed that? And I think that was even one of our questions on the feedback.
KCJ: You know, she’s a new character. She’s not someone you’ve seen on television. She’s an actual human being and she exists, and this is her form, and people are just gonna have to deal with that. But at the same time, giving the audience enough information to lock that seatbelt in and just ride with us—that was the balance.
D: And from the feedback they gave you both in person and in the written evaluations, what would you say were the most valuable takeaways?
LRS: Some of it—from this screening, actually, and it happened a few months before we ended up having to finish—was that we had fixed some of our problems. We weren’t getting the questions. There were a number of Black women who really spoke a lot in the feedback session and were very positive, although they said something that has always been a concern for us: “Make sure you still have joy in the film. Make sure you capture that part of her.”
One thing that stuck with me was there was an older white guy who said, “I wondered at various times what the men had done to go to prison, but then I decided I didn’t want to know because that might shape how I felt about them. I appreciated that I could just watch and be in the film with her.”
That was actually an intentional choice we made. That was his, and he took us through that thought process, which was really interesting and helpful to me. I’ve heard that from one or two people since, and I think that made us confident in our choice, whereas other people had said, You have to have this, or you will lose trust with the audience.
And we just felt like this film is always about the women and about Kristal. The men are really important but they’re not the center of the film, nor do we always have to talk about what someone did to go to prison in order to tell a story about incarceration in America.
D: So, when you went back to the editing room, based on that Docu Club screening, what were some of the key changes you made?
LRS: One thing, this came from [filmmaker] Ursula Liang, who was our moderator. We had a scene with some news footage in it; it was a pretty crucial part of Kristal’s dad coming home. And she said, “There’s way too much news footage; I don’t like this. It breaks the form of your film.” And then we couldn’t be sure that we could license it, so that required a total restructuring of a really crucial scene in the film. A lot of credit goes to our editor, Suzannah Herbert, who took our ideas and made it one of the dreamiest, most artful moments in the film.
Another thing is, people explicitly laid out to us the idea of putting the high next to the low; Kristal’s life is a series of highs and lows, but I think that helped us structurally.
KCJ: I just want to add that after the DocuClub screening there was a huge sigh of relief. And I felt like we could leave the building-block stage of filmmaking and actually ride into the creative. How can we make this prettier? How can we make this more interesting? How can we make this land?
After the DocuClub screening, we trusted that the structure of the film was good, and we could really start decorating, get into the nuances of every moment and feeling space and time, and all of those things that really take time.
And it was because the audience was really receptive, and their comments were deep and illuminating. It wasn’t just that they watched the film and stayed for the Q&A. When they spoke back to us about what they saw, it was confirming, and even if it was critical, we knew where to go with that note. It just felt like a weight was lifted and we could really move into the creative of the film, rather than the structure of the film.
D: So, after you incorporated those changes, what were some of the key factors that said, “I think we’re ready for our world premiere at SXSW”?
KCJ: When we finally got to our sound designer, colorist and composers—which was at the last minute because we didn’t have any money—they were willing to dive into our film and help us improve it; that just spoke volumes to where we were. Even if we were still teeter-tottering about it, those post professionals just lifted the whole thing to another level.
LRS: But I think for the DocuClub screening, we actually had a lot of positive feedback about how this was about women sharing their own experiences, either of incarceration or family in response to watching the film, which was always what made us make the film in the beginning.
Women came up to me and Zara and whispered, “I have someone inside too.” Even though we were not done with the film yet, we had made something that people connected with. That made us more confident that, maybe we won’t have the time or the money to fix every little thing and make every shot perfect, but there’s something, as Kiara said, like the building blocks but also in the heart of the film, that we had finally gotten close to right, after a lot of wrongs.
ZK: For better or worse, the fact that we had a very limited budget and we had to stop and start with Suzannah, that time did allow us the space to think about things, to get the feedback. When we hit the DocuClub screening, where it was people who did not know us, we were able to really lock it in and feel confident about that. We did get feedback from Sabrina Schmidt Gordon and Ursula Liang, who gave us this one nugget that was the icing on the cake: “Let’s hear one more thing from Big Kristal [Kristal’s mother].”
That was one of those final scenes that we were able to add in. It changed so much to get a little bit more into Big Kristal and the way she talked both about herself and her struggles with depression, which was something that was so important that she told us, that she wanted to make sure people knew: the sob-hard parts but also how connected she and Kristal were and how much they had taken care of each other throughout their lives because of this absence of the men in their lives. So that connection with Ursula and with Sabrina for those nuggets of feedback really changed the film.
D: SXSW was in-person, right? Was there a hybrid element?
LRS: There was a virtual screening, but I don’t know how many people watched it. We didn’t have a lot of interaction with the virtual side, but everyone went to SXSW: Big Kristal, Little Kristal, Nyvae (who turned 17 in Austin), Suzannah Herbert, our editor; me and Kiara and Zara; some of our family. We were able to get everyone there, which was really meaningful for all of us.
D: Talk about the audience's reaction and engagement at the screenings.
LRS: I’ll share two. One, none of us had been able to watch it in a real theater before; that was just a real experience—Zara and I had never made a film before. To watch it in a movie theater for the first time after editing from our laptops for a really long time was really a moving experience.
For the first screening, I sat in the row with Kristal, Big Kristal, and Nyvae. It was really emotional for all of us. We showed the film to everyone right before it was done just to make sure we were all feeling good, and if there were any issues. Nyvae turned to me after and said, “I feel like I never watched that movie before.” Which honestly is one of the greatest endorsements of the film. But the thing that keeps getting me even now, having watched it in the theater a number of times, is, We got to hear people laugh. It was always part of our desire to capture laughter, to capture joy, even in small moments.
And there’s no way to know if that stuff lands in any other way except to sit there with an audience in the dark. I heard laughs and I heard sniffles and in some ways, no matter what someone says to you after, there is the experience of actually feeling the energy of a theater. That was really memorable for me.
D: And you’ve gone to subsequent festivals. What’s your timeline as far as the festival circuit is concerned and have potential distributors courted you?
KCJ: We’re on the trail. We have a couple of great festivals like the American Black Film Festival in Miami [where they earned the Best Documentary Feature award]. I think we’re gonna do great in the festival circuit. The film seems very well received by the festival folks. And of course, we are reaching out to distributors and looking for a home for the film. We’ve had a few sniffs, but no bites and I think that’s what time it is.
LRS: We got a grant from Chicken & Egg, and we’re starting to plan for distribution impact. One thing we’ve been trying to do at every festival is get women who are directly impacted in the room as well who are not always necessarily in the film festival audience, although in our second screening at SXSW, we asked if anyone who had a loved one in prison to raise their hand and more than half the audience did. They say that one in four women have known someone who’s been incarcerated, and this is actually a very widely experienced phenomenon.
One of our goals as we move into distribution and impact is to get the film to people who have been directly affected to share or at least reflect on that experience. And we hope that between the two of those, this is something that is often stigmatized, but really also very common and could be talked about more.
KCJ: And the idea that if we can break down the stigma and make people recognize that this is truly a caregiver’s story and in the same way you would have a certain amount of compassion for someone who’s dealing with an elderly parent or sick child or someone who’s in rehab, if someone is dealing with incarceration, it is a humongous stress and strain and permeates every aspect of their lives.
And if we can break that stigma down—there’s no call to action in this film, but we want to have a new awareness, a new awakening, a new respect and compassion for people who are supporting incarcerated loved ones.
Tom White is Editor of Documentary magazine.