Sally Williams is a New Zealand-born documentary filmmaker. Her most recent film is Stevenson - Lost and Found, about James Stevenson, one of The New Yorker magazine's best-loved cartoonists.
My sister and I were adopted and our parents did everything to give us an idyllic childhood. Although I have an indelible memory, from when I was about 6, of Dad's dialysis machine. It had all these colourful buttons and made a whirring sound as the blood passed through the tubes. Even though I don't think kids truly understand mortality, I did have an understanding of the preciousness of our time with him. Dad died of complications of chronic renal failure when I was 14. Obviously it was traumatic and it changed our lives, but Mum, my sister and me, we just had to buckle down and get through.
Because I wanted to be a veterinarian, mum and dad quickly got me into that environment, working after school in a vet clinic, to see if it was a good fit. After Dad died, the vet clinic became a stable place for me, working a couple of afternoons a week and on weekends. It was a defining job and I was fascinated by all the stories that walked into my life.
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I did end up doing a science degree, but I threw the vet thing out the window, five years of anything just felt too long. When I was at university I worked part-time for The New Zealand Dairy Board, now Fonterra, where I had to file all the paperwork for the HR team. I learnt all these things about people's careers, all the naughty stuff, and I learnt that if you give me access to riveting stories, I'm happy. And that story element has been a part of all my jobs throughout my career.
I also worked in a butcher shop and I spent five years at an urgent-care pharmacy in Porirua. So many stories and interesting characters came through that door. The Mongrel Mob would come in for multivitamins. What was up with those guys and multivitamins? No one else was buying as many as them. I eventually discovered, the ones that came in capsule form, they'd empty the capsules and fill them with cannabis oil. I think I learnt more from all the jobs I did during my degree, although, later on, my degree did come in handy.
After graduating, I travelled. I taught English in South Korea, I managed a stable of horses in the US - I was in New York on September 11 - I cleaned the toilets at a surf school in Portugal. I also cared for the elderly, including a wonderful 103-year-old woman in England and I helped sail a yacht across the Indian Ocean. All that travel made me realise, I needed to leverage my science degree into a story-telling career.
When I was 25 I did the Natural History filmmaking course in Dunedin and went on to work for Natural History New Zealand, and it was there I found my people. My first network television gig with NHNZ was Orangutan Island for Animal Planet. I went to Borneo and spent time with the younger orangutans, then went to an island where the teenagers were learning to live alone in the wild. Baby orangutans stay extremely close to their mothers for the first six to eight years of their lives, so for them to be without their mothers is utterly tragic. It's beautiful that these humans are stepping in - but heartbreaking to see the dark side of capitalism and the deep poverty that causes the destruction of their forests – but it was also riveting, a real gift, and was exactly why I got into filmmaking.
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I don't know if this is true for every documentary filmmaker, but I work on being a bit invisible. You get better stories when you don't stand out in a room. Because I embed myself for years in people's lives, it's important I'm also very gentle. You don't want to alienate people. I love observing. I'm also pretty flexible. I don't mind if I don't have a hot shower, I don't mind being out of my familiar world. I don't fight it and I give myself over to each project.
One thing I learnt making the Ken Dewey film [This Is A Test] was that really famous people who are good at what they do, they make filmmaking super easy because they know the game, whereas the dilettantes make it really difficult. Like Don McLean. I had no idea how to get hold of him. The researcher and I learnt that he lived next to a small town in America, so we wrote a letter and posted it to his small town and hoped he'd get it. Two weeks later I'm walking down the street in New York with a horrible hangover when I get a call. This velvety voice comes through the phone. "Is this Sally Williams? This is Don McLean." My heart just stopped, I felt all my Christmases had come at once. How did Don McLean just call my phone? It blew my mind, and he was amazing. He said, "I'll give you one hour and tell you this story."
Ninety per cent of the time in documentary you work your butt off and nothing happens - then the magic happens. The same thing happened with Yoko Ono. I spent years trying to get connected, to ask for permission to use a clip of a particular performance. I got hold of a colleague who worked with her, one thing led to another, then one day, in my email inbox a message came. It said, "This is an agreement between Sally Williams and Yoko Ono." That was the coolest thing when I put my signature next to Yoko Ono's.
I don't work Monday to Friday, nine to five. I pick up the phone every time it rings. If someone wants me to go film something that doesn't seem important at the time, and I've got something better to do, I still go and film it. There is a lot of sacrifice. Long form is a long game, most independent films will consume three to five years of your life and it makes little financial sense, but life is too complicated for stories to be short.
Rootlessness is definitely something I've sought out. When you throw yourself into the deep end of anything, you will encounter things you wouldn't if you were safe at home. But after 15 years, I got to a point where I had a real aspiration to get my life out of storage and in 2020 it finally happened. Although settling down remains a bit daunting, so my lemon tree is still on wheels.
I don't know if I'll do this for the rest of my life, but it works for now and the pay-off is creating something intimate and reflective of how life is. For now, I'm looking to expand complicated conversations, and really flex some storytelling muscle.
• The Doc Edge Online Film Festival runs till July 5. Stevenson - Lost and Found is available this Friday, June 19 at 7pm