Whistler Film Festival 2018 Filmmaker Interview: Caroline Monnet, director of EMPTYING THE TANK

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Caroline Monnet’s ten-minute documentary short, Emptying the Tank, is a profile and tribute film about Ashley Nichols, a masterful Chippewa female mixed martial artist. The film eloquently captures, demonstrates and celebrates the athlete’s inner strength, fortitude, and her steadfast dedication to her physical and spiritual health.

Jennifer Merin: Please tell us what your film is about.

Caroline Monnet: Emptying the Tank follows Chippewa female mixed martial artist Ashley Nichols and looks at the inner strength and dedication it takes to compete at such a high level.

JM: How is your film stylistically distinctive?

CM: Most sport driven films play on fast editing, colorful images and high strong competition. Emptying the Tank is not a sport film per say. It focuses on a strong female character, it is stylistically shot in black and white using heavy mise en scène situations. It’s looking at suggesting what goes on within one’s mind before competing and while training. It looks at the respect, focus and community involvement in practicing martial arts. It creates parallels between honouring ancestors and practicing a high physical sport.

JM: How and why did you encounter and commit to the subject/theme of your film and the main characters in it?

CM: I first discovered Ashley Nichols through my partner who had been a fan of MMA for a long time. It is inspiring to see a strong indigenous woman following her dreams, fighting her way up and by doing that becoming a role model youth. With the small production company DESC, we decided it would be a great subject for a short documentary, as her story can inspire other indigenous youth to pursue their dreams. But also I’m always up for putting strong women on screen and telling their story. I believe this is a tool for me to brake stereotypes and simply put inspiring, great, constructive stories out in the world.

JM: What did you learn about the subject/theme from making the film?

CM: Meeting Ashley Nichols has inspired me to be a better person. She reminded me the importance of working as a team, honoring the people that have come before me and the people that are around me. Nothing is accomplished alone and I believe that filmmaking is similar as what she does. I knew very little of the world of Mixed Martial Arts, and have now learned to appreciate it. I especially appreciate the efforts and the dedication behind it. As artists, athletes, or any other strong minded people, we constantly push ourselves to be better and thrive for quality. But most importantly, it’s about finding balance and being good people.

JM: What did you learn about filmmaking from making the film?

CM: I was very lucky to work under good conditions in making this film, tanks to CBC Docs for trusting my team and for believing in the film. Every experience is a learning curve and making this film allowed me to practice my directing skills. Because we approached this documentary as scenes with mise en scène, it was almost like directing a set. This was DESC’s third creative project as a team and I think we learned a great deal in production. We are extremely proud of this new film because wich each project, it feels we get better as director, assistant director, director of photography and producer.

JM: What were your biggest challenges in making the film?

CM: I’d say the biggest challenge was to create a bboxing ring right out in the forest. The production team had to travel to the location two days in advance to clear the site and build the ring from scratch. They did a fantastic job in building a surface where Ashley would be comfortable moving in the space. This took a long time also because we wanted to add ropes of lights and it had to remain elegant, without seeing the devices, etc. Those shots took an entire evening to film and required special lighting out in the forest. It was a very fun time and I am extremely proud of the way it turned out. All images are shot by Director of Photography Eric Cinq-Mars.

JM: Do you think that being female gave you a distinct perspective and/or way of handling the filmmaking process?

CM: I always believe that you can only make a film from your own sensibilities. So of course my perspective is embedded in the film. It’s not a coincidence that the subject matter is a strong female mixed martial artist and that I would be the one directing it. There’s an interesting parallel between the athlete and the artist. We both strive to surpass ourselves, be better, reach higher grounds. I don’t think that film would have been as compelling if it was directed from a male perspective. Simply because as a woman I was interested in themes around male dominated industry and how to make room for ourselves. How to be respected in our discipline and how we approach things. I wanted to film to be more intimate rather than action packed and sensationalist.

JM: What are your plans for the future?

CM: I am currently devloping my first feature film. It is a long process and also a laborious one. When every short film feels like an exploration of style and subject, the feature film carries much more responsibility and details. My wish is to make a groundbreaking film that can be authentic and true to my visual style. I also simultaneously work in visual arts with several exhibitions underway.

JM: Who are the Filmmakers whose work has inspired/influenced your own?

CM: Stanley Kubrick would be one of my most influencial filmmaker, as well as Jim Jarmush and Akira Kurosawa. Claire Denis is a tour de force, as well as Maya Deren. When I started filmmaking in 2009, I was greatly influenced and inspired by incredible women filmmakers such as Danis Goulet, Lisa Jackson, Helen Haig-Brown, Michelle Latimer, Alethea Arnaquq Baril, Darlene Naponse, Zoe Hopkins, and Elle-Maija Tailfeathers

JM: What advice do you have for other female Filmmakers who are trying to make their way through a still male-dominated industry?

CM: I think the best advice is to simply do whatever you want to do. Never let anyone tell you you can’t do it. Never underestimate the power of your thoughts and dream big. Make films, tell the stories you want to tell because no one else will tell them for you. There’s a great deal of responsibility when you take up a camera and start making film. Believe you can do it. One step at a time.

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