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Conversations with the Inspiring Fiona Cole

Today we’d like to introduce you to Fiona Cole.So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
It all started with my love of dogs! Growing up in England, my earliest memories are of William, our very patient golden retriever who I followed everywhere. I discovered my love of documentary film during a study year abroad at the University of California, Irvine. I had been studying film theory in England and was keen to get some hands-on experience, so I signed up for a course in documentary video production at UCI. I was immediately hooked. After I returned to England and graduated, I landed a job in the film industry in LA. Fast forward a few years and many life turns later, and I am now pursuing my dream of making dog-related films.

I first met Zach Skow of Marley’s Mutts Dog Rescue in a meeting about a documentary series I was pitching about the plight of stray dogs around the world. Zach invited me to visit his prison dog program, Pawsitive Change, in which incarcerated men are paired with shelter dogs for mutual rehabilitation. As a dog-lover and a videographer, I leapt at the chance. My original plan was to film a couple of Pawsitive Change sessions and create a short promo video as a gift to Zach and the program. But once I started filming at the prison, I was so moved by what I saw, I just kept going back… That was nearly two years ago!

I started out on a volunteer basis, filming and editing for Pawsitive Change around my regular work schedule. As my collection of prison videos grew, Zach managed to carve some funds out of the budget to help me continue, and he has now, finally, been able to offer me a paid position. My role as the Pawsitive Change videographer has just been made official, and it truly is my dream job.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way? Any advice for other women, particularly young women who are just starting their journey?
One of the hardest things about pursuing documentary work is, of course, the issue of funding. The most meaningful projects are often the least well funded. My advice to young female filmmakers/artists is to find an alternative source of income that frees you up to pursue creative projects that you love. I was lucky on that front as an alternative job opportunity that I was not expecting presented itself to me early on. About 15 years ago, during a particularly challenging time in my life, my yoga teacher asked me if I wanted to start teaching for her. It was not at all what I had in mind, but I was in between film jobs and stressed out, so I said yes. I loved it. It grounded me and forced me to slow down and reflect, each time I sat down in front of a class.

I soon became interested in helping students who were struggling with various health challenges, and I went on to earn a Yoga Therapy certificate which gave me the tools to work one-on-one with people suffering from chronic conditions such as MS, cancer, back and joint pain, stroke, depression, and injuries. Over the years, I have grown my private yoga therapy business largely through word of mouth, and I am very grateful not only for the income this continues to give me to supplement my creative work, but also the relationships I have developed with my students and the gratification it provides. Teaching yoga requires me to be clear-headed and fully focussed on another human being, so it helps to offset the sometimes crazy and introspective world of creative work.

The time it has taken me to find a path that feels right has been challenging. It is tempting to take on jobs or projects that you don’t feel aligned with or give up on creative pursuits altogether because you feel like a failure. I have certainly been frustrated many times by my lack of traction in terms of creative projects and work, but I think as long as you are moving towards something that excites you, you are on the right track. When I started filming at the prison, there was no job offer. I didn’t apply for the position of videographer for Pawsitive Change, I created it. I started doing it because I loved it and over time, with a lot of hard work, I carved out a spot for myself within the program.

I remember in my first film industry job after college, I was talking about wanting to make documentary films, and a producer turned to me and said: “My best advice to you is to keep your overheads low.” At the time, I thought it was such a boring piece of advice! But as time has gone on, I have never forgotten it, and it is a mantra I still try to live by. As an artist, I think it is very important to figure out a way to live within your means so that you can pursue the projects that inspire you.

I also think it is very important to get out of your comfort zone. Of course, not all uncomfortable situations are right, but my advice would be to find the one that feels appropriate for you. When I worked in the film industry in my 20s, I experienced a number of uncomfortable jobs that were, well, just that. When Zach invited me to film inside the prison, I was nervous. I didn’t know what to expect, and yes, I was uncomfortable. But I knew I was up for the challenge. It was the type of discomfort that I felt I could lean into and grow into and, most importantly, learn from. The first day I walked into prison, clutching my camera and tripod, I saw a group of tough-looking inmates and a filming environment that seemed very difficult to navigate. Now I walk into prison, and I see Will, Charlie, Kiyas, Rob, Thomas, Sabur… human beings whose struggles, hopes and dreams I have come to know. I am comfortable with the unpredictability and the intensity of the prison setting, and I can’t wait to set up my tripod and get started.

As a freelancer, I love the freedom of working by myself, but creative projects can also become lonesome. I feel very lucky that I get to work with my husband, Carlo, on creative projects. He is a special needs teacher by day, and my sound person, fellow interviewer, second camera person and music composer after hours. We started filming together some years ago, and that is where the name Filo Films comes from. It is a combination of our names and, more importantly, “filo” means “thread” in Italian, which captures the essence of what we are both looking for in our creative life. I have also really enjoyed developing close relationships with the team at the prison—Zach and the two amazing women who run the program, Samantha Johnson and Kim Erickson. If possible, I would say find a team you can work with, who inspire you and give you energy, and who you can count on for feedback.

When you work for yourself, procrastination is, of course, a huge challenge. But a bigger struggle, I have found, is not so much sitting down to work, but getting back up once I have started! Now that I am developing more projects, I literally have hundreds of hours of editing in the pipeline. When I am editing, hours fly by, day turns to night, and I emerge from a trance to find unfinished chores, hungry dogs and a list of admin tasks that I told myself I would do after ‘just a little fiddle’ on the editing decks. I am still working on knowing when to go with the flow, and when it is time to tear myself away and take care of other aspects of my life. When you find something that truly consumes you, it is important to make it sustainable. As I try to remind myself on a regular basis: “After the editing, the laundry.”

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into Filo Films story. Tell us more about your work. 
I am a documentary filmmaker and a freelance content creator, producing video and written content mostly for artists and non-profits. I always used to think of myself, first and foremost, as a writer. It has taken me a long time to acknowledge that I actually feel most at home with images. My video work is simple in style. I am less focused on the technological aspect of filming and more interested in capturing human beings in authentic moments. When I look down the lens of my camera, I am certainly driven by aesthetics, but above all, I am searching for something real. I am looking for the light in people’s eyes when they tell a story, the interplay between what the mind is thinking and what the voice and body are expressing. I am seeking to capture who a person really is, and then to thread all of that together on screen within a narrative that hopefully brings us a little closer to what it is to be human.

One of the things I love about filming at the prison is capturing the personal transformations. There is a raw intensity to the prison environment. Faces are fixed, shoulders are set, and the tension in the air is palpable. The dog training program challenges the inmates to shift perspectives and ways of being that they have held onto, in many cases, for decades. They are required to delve into not just dog psychology, but their own psychology, and they are asked to open up and be vulnerable—often for the first time in their lives. The program is based on ’emotional honesty,’ so the inmates learn that they have to be able to understand their own feelings in order to more effectively communicate with their dogs.

By learning to become calm, grounded leaders for their dogs, the men turn not only their dogs’ lives around, but their own. They become more compassionate towards themselves and their fellow trainers, and many of them achieve sobriety through the program and reconnect with family who are able to follow their progress on social media. I have received lovely messages from family members who have seen their inmate relative in one of my videos, sometimes for the first time in years. The shelter dogs, many of whom enter prison with anxiety and behavioral issues, pass their Canine Good Citizen test and are adopted into loving homes once they graduate from the program.

As well as my freelance work and my work in prison, I am currently working on two documentary projects. The first is about the plight of stray dogs around the world and the unsung heroes who are working tirelessly to save them. The idea began eight years ago when my husband and I rescued our current dog, Dino, from the side of the road in Southern Italy where he had been dumped and left to die. Through that mission, we became connected to an international network of dog rescue activists online who rallied to help us. When we returned to Southern Italy a few years later and became involved in another dog rescue (one of the hazards of traveling with me!) our desire to make a documentary film looking at the world through the lens of dog rescue was reignited. We managed to raise a small amount of funding and went to Italy this summer to film the first segment—back in the country where it all began. We are currently looking for more funding so that we can expand the project into other countries.

The second project I am working on is called ‘Underdogs’ which I am creating through my YouTube channel Dog Hub TV. In this series, I am filming follow-up interviews with the inmates who have graduated from the Pawsitive Change program and been released from prison. We have seen how the dog program affects the inmates within the prison system, but less is known about how the program will impact the men moving forward, once they are back on the streets. Many of the Pawsitive Change graduates hope to work with dogs once they are released, and most of the first wave of graduates who have been released this year are doing just that. The question I want to ask through this series is this: Is the prison dog program just a great rehabilitation tool for men on the inside, or can it create a lasting impact on the rates of recidivism? ‘Underdogs’ is the story of what happens next.

Looking back on your childhood, what experiences do you feel played an important role in shaping the person you grew up to be?
There were definitely experiences in my youth that fueled my desire to document human stories, and that have led me to where I am now. My mother was from a poor, working-class neighborhood in Liverpool, Northern England, and my father was from a more affluent family in the South. I grew up equally comfortable with my very raucous Northern family—some of whom spent time in prison—and my more conservative relatives and friends in the South. I think this early exposure to both ends of a very rigid class system gave me the ability to find comfort and seek out a connection with people from all walks of life, a trait that has served me well as a filmmaker. I have also traveled a lot, which has broadened my perspective, and I have spent time living in Italy where my husband’s parents are from.

When I was growing up, my mother was a fierce advocate for the underdog, and it was a value I took on at an early age. She was a school teacher who had an incredible gift for reaching even the most troubled of children. She was always looking to help humans and animals in need, and she adopted several elderly people in the village who did not have a family of their own. In my early 20s, she underwent a routine surgery that went wrong and she almost died. Soon after, without any history of mental illness, she suffered a complete mental breakdown, and my world was turned upside down. I immediately stepped up as her advocate and spent years fighting a very resistant healthcare system to get her the care she so desperately needed. The many long hours I spent in psychiatric wards over the course of the following decade—visiting her and talking to other patients—gave me an insight into human suffering and institutionalization that drives me, to this day, to be a voice for those who cannot speak up for themselves.

One of the things I love about documentary film is the awareness it can bring to the “invisible” struggles in our society. Whether it’s a prison, a psychiatric ward, a factory farm or a dog shelter, when suffering happens behind closed doors, it makes it so much easier for us as a society to justify or ignore it. My role as the videographer for Pawsitive Change is obviously not to produce an exposé of the prison system, but by highlighting the humanity of those within it, my hope is that I can at least inspire people to think about it. I have spent many hours listening to the stories of the prisoners in the program. My intention is not to demonize or romanticize them, but to show them as I have come to know them, as human beings with life struggles and dreams of their own. I honestly think that if more people had the opportunity to sit down with a prisoner and talk, the fight for criminal justice reform would be over.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Fiona Cole
April Massirio (prison image)
Francesca Scerbo (dog kennel image)

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