Sara Nesson '97
Documentary filmmaker, Academy Award nominee
- By Megan Morley Thomas
While working on her documentary "Poster Girl," Sara Nesson '97 spent long stretches of time with no one but herself, her subject (Iraq War veteran Robynn Murray), and her camera. "I was off the map while working on the film," Nesson says. "That's sort of the nature of being a documentary filmmaker. You disappear. You go into your little documentary hole as you're filming your subject. In my case, it was three years from beginning to end."
Nesson found herself on the map at an entirely new level when "Poster Girl" was nominated for an Academy Award in the short subject documentary category. Though "Poster Girl" did not receive the Oscar, the nomination itself has had a strong impact. "I find myself happily trading the little gold man for what seems to be a promising future for 'Poster Girl' and my career," Nesson wrote as a guest blogger for indieWire.
The path to "Poster Girl" began during Nesson's time in Burlington, quite literally, in her backyard. Her apartment was on Hayward Street, just a block up from the warren of funky old Pine Street warehouses that are home to many artists' studios. In 2006, on one of the city's Friday Art Walks, Nesson visited Green Door Studio, where Drew Cameron, an Iraq War veteran, created the Combat Paper Project, in which veterans use scraps of fabric from their military uniforms to make paper. Their work would eventually become the subject of "Iraq Paper Scisssors," another Nesson documentary.
Shifting her attention to "Poster Girl"
Through that project, Nesson met Robynn Murray, a young vet who had a compelling personal story and the courage to lay her life bare to the camera. When producer Mitchell Block saw the early footage of Murray, he convinced Nesson that the young woman was a story unto herself; with Block on-board as co-producer.
"Focusing on one female veteran whose voice is so powerful is sort of my MO," says Nesson. "Because through her voice so many thousands of voices can be heard. Robynn was so selfless in that way. She understood from the beginning why we were making this film."
Make a film, discover a path
Nesson created her first documentary about an ex-patriot during the McCarthy era while she was an Art/English double major at UVM. "I found that I loved the process of being out there with a camera and learning about the subject through direct experience. Making that film completely opened my eyes to a part of our country's history that I knew nothing about," she says. "It was all through the lens of this camera that I learned it. That’s what really turned me on."
Though Nesson says she didn’t come to UVM with the thought of becoming a filmmaker, she had a strong genetic predisposition in that direction thanks to her father, Robert Nesson, an independent producer and director whose work has mostly focused on creating social change. Nesson realized her opportunity to do the same by telling the story of U.S. veterans.
While the Academy Award attention has drawn the interest of HBO and producers interested in possibly creating a Hollywood version of "Poster Girl," Nesson is also pleased with the visibility the Oscar attention has brought to the original documentary. The post-awards screenings on the West Coast drew large crowds, standing ovations, and inspired many to ask how they could better support veterans.