Making An Independent Documentary About Queer Women Is Like Jumping Without A Net

When I met my partner Beth in February 2020, she was working on a documentary. I had never known someone who was working on a documentary before — they seem like so much more work than a narrative story. The documentary, called Feeling Seen, focuses on the representation of queer women on television. It was a topic I found really interesting; when I was younger, TV had been a big part of my life, and some of the earliest confirmation of my queerness came from there. We started dating right before the pandemic, which shut down any progress she had made with filming. The more we talked about the project, the more intrigued I was by it. Eventually, I became part of the team.

Beth started conducting interviews for Feeling Seen in 2017, but there were still things she was trying to work out. Since I’m a writer and write narratives, we decided my best use would be to come on as a co-writer, helping her flesh out the story of the documentary by creating a narrative structure. The thing I loved the most was that TV fans are a huge part of the story of the doc. She had interviewed actors, showrunners, and writers from several television shows, but she had also connected with people who watch television about how the depictions of queer women on television had informed their own queerness or perceptions of what queer life could look like. There have been several documentaries on LGBTQ+ representation on TV, but none of them talk to the regular people who watch TV. It really does change the depth of the story. I decided the best way to tell the story was to follow a linear timeline of representation but focus on key shows that changed the conversation, using the fan interviews to bolster the things the creators of the show had to say.

In 2021, Beth asked me to sign on as Associate Producer of the project. It made sense since we lived together and often had conversations about the doc after hours, mostly in bed. I can untangle her thoughts and execute them in ways someone who doesn’t know her as intimately can’t. In 2022, I took over as the main producer and social media manager. I continue to also help Beth with the narrative plot of the film, using my understanding of not only more recent television, but the larger conversations around representation that are happening in a variety of spaces to craft a well rounded story. Because I’m a total research nerd, I also do a lot of the historical research that will inform the early parts of the film. I had never envisioned myself as the producer of a documentary, but I believe in this film so much that it felt like a no-brainer when I was asked. However! I will admit that this project is an absolute labor of love. Emphasis on the labor part.

We are doing this project completely independently, which is a lot harder than people think, especially when you don’t have a lot of money. The bulk of the interviews conducted in 2018 and 2019 were done after a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise $50,000. We were able to raise about $7,000 last year after mounting another crowdfunding campaign, but we were so unprepared for it. Crowdfunding is like jumping without a net; you really have to trust that people see enough of your value to give you money. There is a vulnerability to asking people for money in that way. What if people don’t donate? What does that say about us and about the project? We have heard from so many people that this is such an important and necessary film, and that doesn’t seem to translate into money when we need it. There have been many nights where Beth and I have sat up and wondered what it is about the project that keeps people from donating. Of course we know that some people simply aren’t in a position to, but that’s not what we’re talking about.

Finding funding for independent projects is really fucking hard. If you’ve never done it before, you cannot fathom how exhausting and demeaning the process can be. Crowdfunding is just one (very important) part of making an independent project happen. It’s stress-inducing: The lulls in donations sit like a pit in my stomach as my thoughts swirl with what happens if we can’t make it happen. It’s hard not to take it personally, even if half the audience is strangers.

And people who try to offer advice often mean well but only make it worse. We recently had someone suggest we simply release what footage we have now and start a new project to fill in the gaps we’re missing. As if it’s that easy! “Well, why don’t you just ask the celebrities you interviewed for money?” Okay, first of all: These people are doing these interviews for free. We cannot then turn around and ask them for thousands of dollars. It doesn’t seem right. A few have offered help in various ways, and we do try to take them up on it, but they’re also impossible to get in touch with, especially when you have to go through a manager or an assistant. People ask why we don’t apply for grants and we do! But after the pandemic, there are less of them to go around, and many of the ones you’d think would be available for us just aren’t. Plus there are a lot of equally deserving people who are also applying for the same grants. There’s only so much money going around, and even though we believe in the strength and necessity of our documentary, we’re small fish in a big pond full of fish. I can write an amazing application, but again, I have no control over their decisions. We’ve applied to several large grants in the last couple of months, and now we’re sitting on pins and needles waiting to see what happens.

Feeling Seen is as relevant as ever; we’ve all seen the shows we love either end or be canceled in the last couple of years. Each loss has been devastating to our community, and to each of us personally. Since Beth started this project in 2017, almost all of the shows she discussed are off the air. By our hopeful release year of 2025, there’s a chance that all of the shows we plan to discuss in depth will be off the air. And the way things are going, there aren’t going to be a whole new crop of shows popping up in their place. It’s fucking depressing.

When we interviewed the inimitable Lea DeLaria in the summer of 2022, she said queer women are being written out of their own narrative, and I couldn’t agree with her more. As part of my research, I watched a lot of documentaries that focused on LGBTQ+ representation, especially on television and it was an eye-opening experience. I watched Visible: Out of Television, which explores similar subject matter to take notes. In five hour-long episodes, the mentions of queer women were only enough to fill one sheet of notebook paper. And despite being produced by high profile LGBTQ+ actors, there were so many queer women who were left out of the conversations completely. It was so disappointing to see.

For so long, we have had to feast on scraps, and when we finally did have good representation, it was systematically taken away from us. When we create things for ourselves, that gets destroyed too. We can’t win, but we can keep trying to fight. That’s why it’s so important to us to not only finish making Feeling Seen, but to get it out into the world for others to see.

We’re currently fundraising to finish filming the last 10-15 interviews we need to be able to tell the full scope of the story. Shooting an interview (or several) isn’t cheap; each shoot costs us anywhere between $1,500 and $2,100 between crew fees and rentals. This means that if we want to finish, Feeling Seen needs to raise $30,000 in the next month. We want to have filming finished before the go into the Christmas season so that we can start 2024 in post-production. We’re determined to get as far into this project as we can independently so we can maintain our artistic vision and integrity without compromise. But we can’t do it alone.

I intentionally chose Pride month for our fundraiser for two reasons: making so called “allies” put their money where their mouths are by asking them to donate and to show that, no matter what, we’re committed to this project. Pride is about the riot but also the resilience of our community, and no one has to be more resilient than a couple of independent documentary makers.

We need to take back control of our own narrative. I will never stop trying to tell our stories.

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Sa'iyda Shabazz

Sa'iyda is a writer and mom who lives in LA with her partner, son and 3 adorable, albeit very extra animals. She has yet to meet a chocolate chip cookie she doesn't like, spends her free time (lol) reading as many queer romances as she can, and has spent the better part of her life obsessed with late 90s pop culture.

Sa'iyda has written 128 articles for us.

6 Comments

  1. I really appreciate this look behind the curtain of creating something valuable under difficult funding conditions. I was only able to chip in a small amount but I will bookmark the fundraiser to come back to later. Good luck in navigating this final push of making your movie!

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