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Doc NYC 2017 Women Directors: Meet Ky Dickens — “Zero Weeks”

Zero Weeks

Ky Dickens directed the acclaimed documentary “Sole Survivor,” which profiles four survivors of otherwise fatal plane crashes. “Sole Survivor” was acquired by CNN Films for broadcast and theatrical release. Her 2009 award-winning feature doc “Fish Out of Water” secured international distribution by Netflix and First Run Features and was inducted into the United States Library of Congress in 2011 for its instrumental role in changing the national perspective on Lgbtq human rights.

Zero Weeks” will premiere at the 2017 Doc NYC film festival on November 11.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

Kd: “Zero Weeks” is about America’s paid family leave crisis and the cost of doing nothing. It’s a raw wake-up call for all Americans who have become complacent with our system. We are the only industrialized country in the world without paid family leave. This matters to everyone who might become sick, have an aging parent, have a baby, or has a spouse or loved one who might get injured or sick — it matters to all of us.

We talk a lot about family values in America but what does that mean if in one of the richest nations in the world having a baby, a medical emergency, or an aging parent can be a trigger into poverty? This is the ultimate collision of responsibilities — the need to earn a living alongside the need to take care of your family.

Paid family leave is a crucial societal safety net. Research validates its power to diminish gender and racial inequity, make low-income workers more secure in the workforce, foster early childhood development, expedite recovery from major illness, improve the health and dignity of seniors, and bolster retention and profit margins for small businesses.

We tell this story by weaving together the stories of six families, along with tongue-and-cheek animations and illustrations to break down why this crisis matters, and how we can easily solve the problem by being great to business and families.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

Kd: When I was on the festival circuit with my last film, “Sole Survivor,” I was pregnant. I told my wife that I would take a break from making another feature documentary and focus on our family for a few years.

At the time, I was also on staff at a production company. I had been there for 11 years and I was the first woman to become pregnant. I received two weeks of paid maternity leave from the company. That became a catalyst that broke my loyalty and productivity for them. It was terrible.

As I entered the world of parents, I learned quickly that I was one of the lucky ones. One in four women go back to work within 10 days of having a baby. Only 14 percent of Americans have any paid leave at all. Millions go to work while battling cancer or while their spouse or child is in the hospital.

In short, my paid leave experience opened my eyes to the crisis. I ended up starting work on the film a few months after my daughter was born. I broke my promise to my wife — to not work on another film for a few years — but it was necessary. I felt like this story had to be exposed so some of the suffering, gender inequality, and income inequality could finally be addressed.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

Kd: I want people to be outraged. Paid leave is easy. It’s low-hanging fruit. It’s something we can do that will impact every American’s life.

Millions of dollars of research have been poured into studying paid leave — on both the left and the right side of the isle. Paid leave is proven to reduce the amount of women on food stamps. It’s proven to improve gender and racial inequality. It’s proven to increase happiness and overall health. Paid leave decreases depression and anxiety. Paid leave keeps aging seniors out of retirement homes longer and fights off many chronic diseases that come with aging.

Paid leave is the number one thing we can do as a society to dramatically improve the health and income equality for millions. It’s great for businesses. In the states where paid leave has passed, 90 percent of businesses say the bill either had a positive impact or no impact on their business at all. It’s a no-brainer.

I want people to leave the theater, feel outraged, and then channel that outrage by calling their elected officials and chamber of commerce. I want them to make difference.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

Kd: The biggest challenge was being a new mom and fighting my own guilt and sadness about being away shooting the movie.

I remember being on the road for a week at a time when my daughter was so small. I’d be filming new moms, weeks after they gave birth, who were going back to work. They’d talk about how unnatural and horrible that felt for them, and I would feel a visceral sadness that I wasn’t at home with my own baby.

There were mornings I lay in a hotel bed crying because I wanted to be home with my daughter but couldn’t stop making the film. My favorite poet Rilke says, “Let art spring from necessity.” This film encapsulates that idea for me. It was almost like I needed to harness my own outrage when it was so raw because it was the oil that kept the engine running.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

Kd: The primary funders were The Ford Foundation, The Bertha Foundation, The Chicago Digital Media Production Fund, and Frame Store, who donated a lot of post work.

But I really owe the film to The Ford Foundation. They have been a leader in helping to create inclusive economies for years. They’ve understood that paid leave is critical in giving all Americans a fair shake and that the absence of paid leave disproportionately impacts people of color and women. The Ford Foundation understood why this film needed to be made before I did and they trusted and empowered me every step of the way.

W&H: What does it mean for you to have your film play at Doc NYC?

Kd: I love Doc NYC. It’s become the New York festival where I want to host my New York premiere. I think the programming is smart and bold and the staff is extremely communicative with filmmakers. I think Basil Tsiokos, Doc NYC’s Director of Programming, is brilliant, and I trust the team.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

Kd: I honestly don’t remember bad advice. I think I filter it out and let it go. But I remember the good advice. There are little pieces of it that I’ve collected along the way.

One piece of advice is that there’s no magic door. There is no programmer, producer, or manager who will make your career. You are the magic door. Only you can make things happen. If you have a good product, it will find its way to the top.

This goes in tandem with other great advice: the harder you work, the luckier you get. Anyone being recognized for their work — of any kind — is not being acknowledged due to luck. It’s hard work, sleepless nights, terrifying risks, selfless choices, and probably a lot of debt that got them to where they stand.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

Kd: Always have something on the burner. If you have one project or one film that you’re hanging your hat on, you won’t think of directing as a career and you’ll also be more disappointed if that project isn’t acknowledged, programmed, or distributed how you imagined.

If you’re pitching only one idea, and it gets turned down, you’ll be depressed, so keep your mind turning. Have a few ideas for a film or project so if one isn’t sticking, you have something else in the works. That’s how you make a career of this.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

Kd: “Pariah” by Dee Rees. It’s a terrific film and it was Dee’s first feature. Beyond that, Dee is a queer woman of color who has risen to the top of Hollywood, directing incredible big-budget feature work in less than seven short years [since launching her career]. She proves that hard work gets you to the top.

I love her vision and her approach to working with actors — she does character games with them, making them discover and create their own backstories. It’s brilliant and thoughtful.

W&H: There have been significant conversations over the last couple of years about increasing the amount of opportunities for women directors yet the numbers have not increased. Are you optimistic about the possibilities for change? Share any thoughts you might have on this topic.

Kd: I’m optimistic about change but I think it will be slow. What it takes to break the system is radical inclusion. White men need to decide that it’s cool to have women as their equals and right now, I think men feel most comfortable with other men on set and spitballing ideas. They might not be purposefully trying to discriminate — they might just want to work with their friends and not realizing that in doing so, they are perpetuating a gigantic wall of exclusion.

More women are out there making projects, showing that their talent and vision is brilliant and on par with the best creatives in Hollywood, but it is a boys’ club and it will take a lot of the boys in the club to not just acknowledge and want change, but to actually radically create the change themselves.

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Doc NYC 2017 Women Directors: Meet Ky Dickens — “Zero Weeks” was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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