Meet the IDA Documentary Award Nominees: Sara Nesson--'Poster Girl'

Editor's Note: Sara Nesson's Poster Girl airs this month on HBO. Below is an interview we conducted with Nesson last February in conjunction with her film having been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject.

In the days leading up to DocuDay LA and DocuDays NY, we at IDA will be introducing--and in some cases, re-introducing--our community to the filmmakers whose work has been nominated for an Academy Award for either Best Documentary Feature or Best Documentary Short Subject. As we did in conjunction with last summer's DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, we have asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far, and the impact of an Academy Award nomination.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Sara Nesson, director/producer of Poster Girl (Prod.: Mitchell Block), which is nominated in the Documentary Short Subject category.

Synopsis: Poster Girl is the story of Robynn Murray, an all-American high-school cheerleader turned "poster girl" for women in combat, distinguished by Army Magazine's cover shot. Now home from Iraq, her tough-as-nails exterior begins to crack, leaving Robynn struggling with the debilitating effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Shot and directed by first-time filmmaker Sara Nesson, Poster Girl is an emotionally raw documentary that follows Robynn over the course of two years as she embarks on a journey of self-discovery and redemption, using art and poetry to redefine her life.



IDA:  How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Sara Nesson: I went to University of Vermont (Class of '97), and although they didn't have a film program when I was there, I did my senior thesis making my first film while studying abroad in Italy. My dad, Bob Nesson, is also a doc filmmaker, so it's in my blood. His advice to me was to avoid being a filmmaker at all costs and that selling insurance is a more stable profession. Of course, he waited to tell me that while we were stranded in Siberia on the Koni Peninsula for 12 days. That's a longer story.


IDA: What inspired you to make Poster Girl?

SN: Before PTSD was of national interest, I met a group of very young veterans who had just returned home from the war in Iraq. They were emotionally very damaged and trying to make sense of their lives as mostly hidden members of society. Yet, in their raw state of mind, they were open to sharing their stories with me, defying the stereotype I had held that veterans did not "talk about it."

Before Poster Girl, I was making Iraq Paper Scissors, which focused on the Combat Paper Project. The film followed a group of veterans transforming their military uniforms into hand-made paper, books and unique works of art. The vets were literally cutting, beating and shredding the fibers of their old "rags" into fiber. This was the beginning of a very long
and slow journey to process their emotional trauma and reconcile their experiences at war.

My goal for making Poster Girl was to break through the cultural disconnect between veterans and civilians. I wanted to bridge that gap by showing the struggle and healing journey of one person. In this case, I was lucky to find Robynn Murray, whose voice was so powerful; I knew she could be a voice for the thousands that were struggling alone.


IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

SN: The veterans I was working with were very weary of the media and had very little
trust of civilians in general. Working with anyone who has trauma is difficult because you take on a lot of their suffering. I had to learn to be patient and I never tried to control them for the sake of the film; they always came first. I also made a video for them to use to promote the Combat Paper Project. They saw the value in what I was doing for them, helping to spread their message.

I devoted several years of my life to this film, and I got very close to the vets--maybe too close. We had a lot of ups and downs, but I have a very good relationship with all of them, especially Robynn.


IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

SN: After two years of following vets around the country for Iraq Paper Scissors, I knew I needed a deeper focus for the film. I had been a one-woman crew, filming and doing sound while directing and producing. I needed a fresh perspective.

In 2009, I took Mitchell Block's IDA Producing Workshop in Los Angeles, and he suggested that one of the veterans in the film, Robynn, a powerful, articulate woman, and former machine gunner, should be the subject of a separate film. Mitchell and I worked together to develop Poster Girl, and a long-distance, LA/NY producing/directing team was forged.  


IDA:  As you've screened Poster Girl--whether on the festival circuit, in screening rooms or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

SN: It's all been very positive. I have men coming up to me and telling me that they never cry, but they cried throughout this film. I think the film is opening people up emotionally. Robynn has a way of affecting people that way. She is just so honest and raw and her voice shivers with pain. It's hard to not feel for what she is going through.

I just showed the film at the Athena Film Festival, and a woman approached me after the screening and asked if I could share my film with her friend's son who is at West Point and wants to join the Marines. I just received an e-mail from a mother, asking me to help her bring understanding to her son's decision to enlist.

I feel so rewarded by this. I feel that if I can help to shed light on the consequences of war, it may not change peoples' minds about enlisting, but maybe it will help veterans cope with trauma once they have seen how someone else like Robynn learned to deal with it.


IDA: Where were you when you first heard about your Academy Award nomination? 

SN: I was standing in my kitchen in Brooklyn. My editor at HBO, Geof Bartz,called and
said, "Congratulations." I couldn't react until I saw the film posted on the Academy website. When I saw it, I just started shouting, "I'm going to the Oscars!"


IDA: Although it's only been a month since the announcement, how do you anticipate this nomination will impact your career as a filmmaker? 

SN: It's an amazing feeling to know that I have finally earned credibility as a filmmaker.
With a nomination now attached to my name, I feel it will bring more opportunity to continue to do what I love, but hopefully this time with financial backing!


IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

SN: My dad, Bob Nesson. I grew up watching his films and being inspired by his thirst for
learning and adventure. Born into Brothels was the first documentary I saw that got me excited about making film a work of art and a vérité journey. I love the films of Ondi Timoner, Ellen Kuras, Kate Davis, Dana Shapiro, Ross Kauffman, Jeremiah Zagar and the latest, Banksy.


Poster Girl will be screening Saturday, February 26, at 11:40 a.m., as part of DocuDay LA at the Writers Guild of America Theater in Beverly Hills, and Sunday, February 27, at 12:05 p.m., at DocuDays NY at The Paley Center for Media in Manhattan.