Conversation with a Creative
Media Arts assistant professor Allie Sultan is also a filmmaker who works in both narrative and documentary modes. She is drawn to topics that involve youth identity, LGBT issues and family dynamics. Her works have been screened in over 60 domestic and international film festivals.
She is among our faculty who are proud graduates of MTSU! She earned her bachelor's degree from the Recording Industry program before enrolling in the MFA program at San Francisco State University to receive her master's degree. She gained professional experience while living in the San Francisco Bay Area and working as a sound and picture editor for industry leaders such as ESPN, Tippett Studio (character animation and visual effects), Berkeley Sound Artists, Zoetrope-Aubry Productions, Tollin-Robbins Productions (creators of Smallville), Disney/Touchstone Pictures and Lakeshore Entertainment. She has worked on film and TV shows such as Casanova (directed by Lasse Hallstrom), Marie Antoinette (directed by Sofia Coppola) and Feast of Love (directed by Robert Benton), as well as Enchanted, Spiderwick Chronicles, Bonds on Bonds (a reality TV series), and the Sundance award-winning documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston.
First of all, how are you doing? You are the mother of a 6-year-old girl. What has it been like to be home with her? How are you maintaining your sanity?
Thanks for asking! We are hanging in there. My daughter, Amalie, is aware of the coronavirus and misses her friends, but she is excited to learn with all of the new online resources that have been made available - her favorites are Khan Academy Kids and Vooks. We are doing our best to stick to a schedule/routine and make each day meaningful, educational, and fun. We have a brick wall on the back of the house and Amalie has been learning how to play tennis…and our neighbors have been cheerfully (?) returning tennis balls that fly into their yards. Amalie’s already cut her bangs unsupervised, too. She actually did a nice job. On keeping sane…I’m big into organic vegetable gardening, and this will be my 13th year growing food in my backyard. I’ve started seeds in my greenhouse and have lettuce, spinach, snow peas, kale, radishes, beets and Swiss chard, and berries (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries) growing in beds now. Working the soil is such a great way to de-stress from all that’s going on in the world. I learn so much about hope, determination, humility and perseverance through gardening.
Tell us about your feature-length documentary that is in the works, Prodigal Mary? Where are you in the process and how is it going? How did you decide to pursue this topic?
Prodigal Mary is a feature-length documentary about the challenges that LGBT Christians face as they try to reconcile their faith, their family, and their identity. The film chronicles the story of my friend Mary Alice, the daughter of a Southern Baptist preacher who comes out as a lesbian to her family at age 35. Wanting to marry her partner and start a family of her own, she begins the process to have children. At her first OB/GYN appointment she is presented with a life-threatening diagnosis, which propels her on a time-limited journey to peace, love and acceptance within herself. I’ve been filming and editing Prodigal Mary since 2015, and am now in the final post-production phase. I was recently awarded a $10,000 grant from the Southern Documentary Fund, and that money will go a long way towards getting the film released to the wider public. This has been an incredibly difficult film to edit, emotionally, as the narrative has shifted from hope/optimism to life/death survival. It’s definitely weighing on me - the responsibility of telling someone’s story authentically - especially when they are not here to speak for themselves anymore. What keeps me going is knowing that the overall message of the film will hopefully be immensely helpful to other LGBT Christians and their families, who in no small number are also struggling with the issue of LGBT inclusion in the Christian faith. At any rate, I’m hopeful that I can finish the film by the end of the year, and will be sending it out to film festivals and streaming services.
Tell us about the four-part musical web series called web series Incognita’s Infamous Adventures that you are creating. Why did you decide to do this as a web series? How is the creative process different for this than other documentaries?
Incognita’s Infamous Adventures is a musical web series written by and starring Sarah Michele Bailey (one of our amazing MRAT graduate students). The show follows Anne Jane Pazeski, a 30-year old-superhero who has hit a slump, settling for a day job as a copy editor to pay the bills. One day a new guy shows up at the office, her best friend and sidekick disappears, and her boss is on her case to work the weekend. The show features 15 original songs and an amazing cast of five principal characters who do all of their own singing and dancing…the music is AMAZING. Sarah always imagined Incognita as an episodic series, and at some point she heard I was teaching a Web Series Production class and asked to take it as an elective for her MRAT degree. What began as the production of a single 10-minute episode for her MFA thesis evolved into the production of a full 70-minute series that has really been a wonderful experience for everyone who has been creatively involved. In 2016, Sarah asked me to direct and co-produce the show, and it has been an amazing gift to have worked with such an extensive network of local artists and performers over the past four years. This project has brought together students and faculty members from all over the Middle Tennessee area: from MTSU we have involved over thirty students and faculty from the Animation, Video/Film, Visual Communication and Audio Production programs. We have also collaborated with students and faculty in the Department of Theater and Dance at Austin Peay State University, as well as students from Belmont and Lipscomb Universities. Watch this short video for a sneak peak at what we’ve been up to on the set of Incognita: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mr07yNYARgk We have completed editing of the entire show, and are currently finishing up the 430 visual effects shots in the film (no small undertaking). We’re hopeful that we will have the final episodes complete and ready for distribution on the 2021 film festival circuit. I’m so proud that this project has involved so many students and faculty within the College of Media and Entertainment. It’s a real testament to what can be accomplished if we foster cross-departmental collaboration. Making a narrative film is a hugely collaborative effort, involving creative performers and craftspersons of all walks of life. It also brings a large number of people together for a limited number of production days. For Incognita, we had 18 days of filming over the course of three years. On Prodigal Mary, my documentary project, I have worked mostly alone in both filming and editing. I was grateful to have Incognita as a fun and light-hearted creative outlet while I was toiling away on the Prodigal Mary doc. But yes, it’s insane to try to make two feature-length projects at the same time. I am looking forward to letting them both out into the world.
Congratulations on having the recent short silent film noir project, Pearl Diver, chosen as a finalist in a competition of the Nashville Opera Noir Film Festival, in conjunction with the Nashville Film Festival. What can you tell us about this project, which involved several students?
Pearl Diver is a three-minute film that was created for the 2020 Nashville Opera Noir Film Festival. The Nashville Opera is planning a production of Rigoletto in contemporary film-noir styling, and the director wanted to include a short film during the prelude to the show. The Nashville Opera reached out to the Nashville Film Festival, and together they launched a competition for local filmmakers where everyone had two weeks to make a film-noir adaptation of Rigoletto, and the winning film would be projected on stage during the show. A filmmaker friend reached out to me once she heard about the contest, as she had been wanting to make a film on celluloid and she knew I had been teaching my students how to work with motion picture film stock for the past year. We decided to collaborate. I brought in four MTSU Video/Film students and we all filmed everything in one afternoon. We decided to film Pearl Diver on Kodak Tri-X B&W Super 8 film stock, and I hand-processed it in McFarland (special thanks to Jonathan Trundle and Jackie Heigle for always helping me get a handle on the film processing world!). The final film is very short and sweet…we consider it our feminist response to what is undoubtedly a very misogynistic opera, as many of them are. You can view it online here: https://vimeo.com/395778380
How did your interest in film and filmmaking get started? What are some films that made an indelible impression on you?
My mom used to take me to the movies a lot when I was a kid…it was our mom/daughter time and that was very special to me. As a gay kid, however, I never saw myself reflected in the characters onscreen. In 1997, Ellen came out as gay on her TV show and that was hugely inspiring to me, although she was shunned in the film/TVA industry for the next six years. I remember being a student at MTSU, watching the Ellen show, a couple episodes after her infamous “coming out”. The opening of the show was a parental guidance warning on explicit content, and the only thing I could see in the entire episode was Ellen holding Laura Dern’s hand in an elevator. I was incensed, and determined myself then and there to do whatever I could to help build positive media representation for my community. In film school, I learned how issues of (mis)representation are pervasive across communities of color, LGBT, across genders and the disabled community. I have been inspired, enraged, and motivated by the work of Dr. Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative (https://annenberg.usc.edu/research/aii), who have spent the past several years charting and reporting on diversity statistics across film and television industry, both in front of and behind the camera. The reports they have generated have truly illustrated a need for supporting and training a much more diverse and inclusive creator base - writers, directors, producers, cinematographers, editors, composers. The depth and quality of the stories we tell benefits greatly when we encourage a diverse set of creative voices in production, because the films/shows that are created more accurately reflect the audiences that are viewing and supporting them.
What filmmakers do you admire? Are there any who serve as role models for your own career?
I fell in love with the work of Chantal Akerman while I was a film student at San Francisco State. I also love the work of Maya Deren, Sadie Benning, Lukas Moodysson, Dee Rees, Mitsuyo Miyazaki, Jamie Travis, and am a recovering David Lynch and Woody Allen fan (I find their work increasingly disturbing in this post me-too era). I went to the same high school as John Hughes, so of course his films were formative for me as I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago’s North Shore and many were filmed in my surrounding area. As I get older, however, I am finding myself increasingly drawn to documentary storytelling. I met Alexandria Bombach at a film festival a few years back, and her film Frame by Frame floored me. It’s about four Afghan photojournalists working to build a free press after the fall (and resurgence) of the Taliban. Her bravery in traveling to Afghanistan as a woman in her early thirties, in finding subjects and earning their trust, and the way she films life as it unfolds is truly inspiring. Her latest film, On Her Shoulders, follows Yazidi genocide survivor and activist Nadia Murad, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for her efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict. I am also inspired by the work of my mentor Jim LeBrecht, whose documentary Crip Camp was the opening night selection at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, and was just released on Netflix in partnership with Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company Higher Ground. Jim was the first person to give me a paid job in the film industry. I worked for him as an intern/assistant sound editor at his company Berkeley Sound Artists, and his film Crip Camp is bringing the issue of disability rights to the forefront of conversations about diversity and inclusion. It’s really wonderful to see him find so much success at this stage in his career.
Why did you feel led to start the Women in Film MTSU student organization in 2015? What are some things that group has done?
Ah. This is a difficult conversation. When I arrived at MTSU as an assistant professor in 2014, I taught the first production course in our curriculum - Single Camera I. There were a good number of women students in my class, a little under 50 percent, close to gender parity. In looking at the Single Camera II course, that semester there were two women students out of twenty. I looked at other classes in our department, and a pattern started emerging. Women were either leaving the major or moving into multicam, but they were not sticking around in the filmmaking track to pursue careers as writers, directors, cinematographers, editors, etc. I also noticed that my women students in the early production courses were suffering from what I would call a lack of confidence. They were too quick to shrink back into less noticeable crew positions during group work, letting more vocal male students take the lead as directors, writers, and cinematographers/camera operators. I felt that there was a significant portion of our student population that was being neglected, and I wanted to create a space where I could help foster their confidence to step into leadership roles behind the camera. Initially the group started out bringing women filmmakers and filmworkers to campus as guest speakers. We began screening narrative films and documentaries by women filmmakers, hoping to increase visibility of their work. In 2016 we made a short documentary film together, Graham and Zeke, about a transgender couple in Smyrna, TN. That film went on to screen at film festivals across the United States, Canada, India, and won the award for Best Documentary Short at the Perth International Queer Film Festival in Australia. This past year the students have really done amazing things with the group, such as filming a narrative short and changing the meetings from once a month to once a week. They are doing equipment demos and film workshops in addition to hosting guest filmmakers and screenings. I’m so proud of the hard work they are putting into the organization.
You are a 1997 graduate of the Recording Industry program (shout out Production and Technology!). What does it mean for you to be on the faculty of the university where you learned. What are some important things you learned as a student here. How has that shaped you as you have become a professor?
It’s truly an honor to be a professor at my alma mater. I look back at my years as an undergraduate in the Recording Industry department and am grateful for the depth and quality of educational experiences I gained at MTSU. Sometimes I walk into the Bragg building and I feel like I’m a student again… it’s a bit surreal. But then I walk into a classroom where I used to sit and take notes, and I have a room full of students looking at me. It’s humbling to have come full circle and serve as a role model/mentor for the next generation of filmmakers. I never would have had the professional opportunities and experiences I’ve been blessed with had I not been so well educated by my audio professors at MTSU, and it’s really wonderful to see them still working and loving their jobs. Knowing how much their instruction and guidance has impacted me is a wonderful reminder that I have a similar responsibility to inspire and motivate my students to dream big, as my professors have motivated me.
You went to graduate school in California and worked out there for awhile. What made you decide to return to Middle Tennessee?
After film school, I was fortunate to work with some of the San Francisco Bay area’s best companies and organizations, including working with Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope as an assistant sound and picture editor on a variety of film and documentary projects. I worked in television for ESPN, and in the visual effects world with Tippett Studio. I worked on feature films and joined IATSE Local 700, the Motion Picture Editors Guild. In 2007, the Writers Guild of America went on strike, and I saw that my career in post-production was going to be impacted. I always loved Nashville and was in my early thirties at that point, ready to buy a house and settle in. I had an opportunity to move back to Nashville to build a small digital filmmaking program at the Art Institute of Tennessee-Nashville, so I took a leap and moved back for the job. I do miss the excitement of working on big movies and TV shows, but honestly I was ready to focus on making my own films again and moving back to Tennessee has given me the time and space to make my own work without having to scramble from one job to the next. So while I’m grateful for the professional opportunities and experiences I’ve had, I am even more excited to be working on my own films.
Tell us your advice on finding time to be creative. Can you offer us any tips?
As a mom of a truly delightful and energetic 6-year-old daughter, I have learned that there is precious little time for doing my own thing. Somehow since having a child I have become much more productive as a filmmaker. There simply is such little free time that I’ve learned how to work quickly on set and not overthink things. The films that I’ve finished in the past several years were all created in a couple days of filming and editing, and have ended up winning multiple awards and screening at film festivals across the world. I used to beat myself up a lot for not always making work. I went through about a 10-year period where I was only making promotional videos for artists and short documentaries for non-profits, not focusing on the stories I wanted to tell. Once I turned 40, everything just sort of clicked. I realized I had a lot to say and I had the means to say it. I think becoming a mom was probably the biggest motivator, because I saw the world my daughter was growing up in and I wanted to do my part to make it a better place. So…there’s never enough time, but if you are truly passionate about your work and you have something to say, then you’ll find a way to make it happen. I also have to say that collaboration has been a real gift in that regard. It makes the creative process so much richer as well.
What are your guilty pleasures in film and TV viewing?
I really don’t watch much TV these days, although since I’ve been wracked with anxiety over COVID-19 I’ve been trying to soothe myself with some Antiques Roadshow (hasn’t helped). In terms of films…I was blown away by Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I love anything in the film noir genre. I also loved Frozen II, I won’t lie…it made me cry. I’m all over the place. I finally am a Belcourt member, and I hope to see more films there once this awful pandemic is over.