05 Oct Meet the Director: Madeleine Hunt Ehrlich, Mckayla

The following interview is the third in a series from writer and former Olympic alpine skier, Carrie Sheinberg who is profiling the filmmakers behind our 2017 festival films.  

Editor’s Note: Since the completion of Madeleine Hunt Ehrlich’s film, the subject – Mckayla – succumbed to a sudden recurrence of cancer. Mckayla died on September 14, 2017.  We extended our deepest condolences to Mckayla’s family and to Ms. Hunt Ehrlich.

Years ago Madeleine Hunt Ehrlich was an upstart photographer working for independent artists and magazines around New York City. On a walkabout, in search of compelling imagery in the outer boroughs, Ehrlich happened upon a highly competitive cricket league. For the first time, she felt she needed more than just a single frame to capture the story she was seeing. “There was so much more that could be conveyed with a moving image,” Ehrlich remembered. She managed to find some funding and went to work on her first documentary short.

Soon after, “A Gentleman’s War” was made and Ehrlich was off to film school. Fast forward several years and Ehrlich has an MFA in Film and Media Arts from Temple University, teaches film and media production, and has been awarded a 2015 TFI ESPN Future Filmmaker award and 2014 Princess Grace award. Both were fundamental in helping her make her latest documentary short, “McKayla.”

WSFF: What was it about Mckayla? How did you know hers was the story for you to tell?

MHE: I met Mckayla in 2014. Filmed with her twice that year just making really short pieces, collecting research footage, even just taking pictures. Mostly I was just getting into the process. Documentary filmmaking is not just technical it’s also a lot about relationships and building that relationship.

Mckayla was magical right from the start. She had an outlook on life that…it’s hard to do it justice. She had been through an unspeakable amount and yet she always found the good in every day that she lived. She was so determined and she wasn’t afraid of her own desires despite those challenges, or her own physical limitations, she embraced those desires, and they motivated her.

WSFF: Did you immediately see a beginning, middle and end? Do you need to see those three things to know you have a good story?

MHE: One of the reasons I felt McKayla was a good subject is she had a clear objective. She knew she was alive for a reason. She had figured out how to take the hardships of life and find joy. She had competed in about 60 triathlons across the country that summer and aspired to be a Paralympic athlete. And she knew through her competing she could bring hope to a lot of people. She was interested in being in a film and interested in having her story told. That also shaped a lot of what the film was.

WSFF: Does the responsibility of telling someone’s story ever overwhelm you?

MHE: It does sometimes. After the film was completed McKayla became very sick, and recently, she passed away. It has been a great shock. Now this film has become something I never intended consciously – a record of her inner life and of the way she was at her strongest.

Mckayla and I built a lot of trust between us. I wanted to capture the spirit of her in whatever piece we made. That was what was most important. She experienced a lot at a young age: she grew up in foster care, she had cancer and she lost a leg. And yet, she grew into an incredibly strong woman, who was quite fearless in how she opened herself up to the potential disappointments of life. She didn’t let her past keep her from living well and loving others. I knew that had to be at the core of this piece but there was more to it. This story is also about [Mckayla’s] Mom and her Sister. They saved her life when she was young, then Mckayla had to learn to save her own life as she became an adult.

WSFF: What did you learn about filmmaking from making this piece?

MHE: I realized through this process that there’s a layer of filmmaking and which is inescapably about bearing witness to a moment of someone’s life. This is true of narrative as well. A film shows the presence and voice and likeness of whoever is on screen and captures that moment of their life for posterity. In documentary that likeness is closer to who the person performs as in their real life. This can be valuable to an audience but I’m also seeing how it exists in relationship to the subject.

WSFF: Is it important that you are a woman telling this story? How do you think that affected your choices in directing this film?

MHE: I can see how the attention I paid to her inner world and the way I zeroed in on her relationships with the women in her life, may be a part of female storytelling.

WSFF: I’m going to push harder here, what does it mean to have more women telling women’s stories?

MHE: Having more women both behind the camera and on the screen means more women defining for themselves physical achievement. More women defining for themselves beauty.

A body is political. Women’s bodies are a battlefield in pop culture. I think now we’re at a point where women in film are waging war through film language on a visual medium that has objectified them since it’s inception. It’s about arresting and taking back that conversation from men and carving out a space for true female subjectivity. It’s crazy the way women’s bodies are portrayed in media. It is so insidious. And what I want to be part of is reinterpreting what the camera’s gaze can do for women’s bodies.

WSFF: Then you definitely found your perfect match in Mckayla

MHE: Mckayla is really unique. Rather than being told ‘this is the limitation of your body,’ or ‘you should be behaving this way,’ she said ‘No. I’m going to define that for myself and I’m going to be free in my body.’ She lived a bold, fearless life. I am so proud of how she lived. This film is only a small sliver of her life, but I think it pays tribute to her power, and I’m glad I was there to witness it.

Images provided by Madeleine Hunt Ehrlich, Director, Mckayla