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November 2, 2018

Documentarian Finds Herself Behind the Lens

By Phenia Hovsepyan

Mary Gerretsen, an MFA candidate at the School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) Film & Television Production Division, is a passionate storyteller and documentary filmmaker. The stories she explores through the lens of documentary filmmaking are a unique mix of tragedy and comedy. Gerretsen enjoys Olympic style weightlifting and also gains strength from life’s challenges, putting her experiences into her work. 

Born and raised in Canada, Gerretsen received her B.F.A. in Film Studies from Ryerson University and a Business Management Certificate from Humber College, both in Toronto. Gerretsen’s parents were filmmakers, and although she jokes about being resistant to working in the industry as a child, as Gerretsen grew up she saw that there was no use in denying her truest passion. “I realized what my dad was saying all along, that the best thing about film is that it brings people from so many creative backgrounds together to make the best film they can,” she says. Afterward graduating from college, Gerretsen worked in Canada on mini-series and music videos, taking on director’s assistant and freelance production work. She also worked as an associate producer for seasons 6 and 7 of the Discovery Network game show Cash Cab.

As Gerretsen’s television career advanced, she began to feel like there was more she could do in the world of film. “I felt like I had hit a ceiling. I was at the height of my career, but I felt empty,” she says. “I loved that I was being creative and getting all of this freelance work, but I was not filmmaking. I wanted to get to the next level.” It was then that Gerretsen decided to attend graduate school. She knew what she wanted to study filmmaking in Los Angeles, and that the ideal program for her was one that supported its students after graduation. She says the School of Cinematic Arts was a clear choice. “I had not even visited the school when I accepted my offer! I drove across the country in a mini-van, and could not believe how incredible the campus was when I first set foot on it.” 

At SCA, Gerretsen says she learned the techniques to realize the full potential of the stories she wanted to tell. “My biggest growth has been story,” Gerretsen says. “You can intuitively understand a story, but what I have developed here is the tools and language to express that story.” Furthermore, Gerretsen learned how to work on a team, and how to combine many voices and many talents on one project. She also found her artistic family in the Film & Television Production Division’s documentary program. “If you discover the documentary family while you are here, you basically have it for life,” Gerretsen says. “They look out for you not only in school, but outside of school. The faculty treats you like peers, and they want you to find work.” Gerretsen also became the teaching assistant for the advanced documentary class, further developing her skills as a director and editor. “The documentary faculty has made me question what I am really making and what am I really trying to say in my work. I have developed a very close relationship with the faculty. It is so much more than what I could have asked for, I did not expect them to be so open-armed.” 

For Gerretsen, the most appealing thing about documentary filmmaking is “uncovering the truth and heart of the topic you are exploring through personal stories.” The most gratifying aspect of the job, she says, comes when people open up in such a unique and uninhibited way that it feels like the camera isn’t even there. “You can move mountains with that kind of emotion!” Gerretsen says the most special moments are when she captures the essence of a story as people naturally engage with the world, something her SCA faculty call “vérité.” “When you create a comfortable environment and something comes out in a scene that could have been easily said in an interview, that is a skill I’ve learned here,” she says. “I not only want people to tell me their story, I want to capture their story.”

Gerretsen also uses her documentary work to “work out issues in my own life.” In 1989 Gerretsen’s mother was diagnosed with four brain aneurisms and suffered a stroke that left her disabled. “My mother was the eternal optimist. She taught me to laugh in awkward situations, even if it meant that she was laughing at herself,” Gerretsen says. “She taught me the age-old notion that from tragedy comes comedy.” Through her family history Gerretsen has become drawn to stories of people over-coming obstacles. Within a five year span she lost her father to lung cancer and mother to colon cancer, and it was in documentary filmmaking that Gerretsen found an artful way to cope with death and pain. “I find myself naturally connecting with people who have experienced something similar, and I try to take away lessons from how other families cope,” she says. 

A beautiful example of that ethic is a film she made about an elderly cancer patient named George Martin. She made two films about him: George and  7/8thof the way There, for her documentary class. In both films, Gerretsen offers a compelling glimpse into the lives of George, who is remarkably cheerful despite his terminal diagnosis, and his fiercely devoted wife, Kathy. They had lost a grandson and daughter to sudden deaths in the same year, were facing George’s own death, and yet had found a way of coping with love and loss in a poetic and colorful way. “When I first met George, he was goofy, open, and honest, so we immediately connected,” Gerretsen says. What Gerretsen found most intriguing is that in the face of death George was still bothered by his inability to remain sexually active, insisting on getting risky surgery to treat his impotence. Gerretsen found parallels in her story and theirs. “George and Kathy became a reflection of my own mom and dad. They were loud, weird, aging, loving, and complex people with complex reactions to their own mortality,” she says. “A meditation on my own experience with death evolved into George and Kathy’s story, and I knew I needed to share it.”

Mark Harris, Academy Award winning documentary filmmaker and SCA professor, has been one of Gerretsen’s mentors. Harris says 7/8thof the way There is some of the best student work he has seen., “It is one of the better films that has been done here. Although it is personal because she was dealing with her own issues, she was able to find an outlet for those issues in George.” Harris, who sees documentary filmmaking as a “way of exploring questions that plague us,” says Gerretsen came to SCA with a clear focus on documentary. “She is very mature, she is very talented, she is clearly very disciplined,” says Harris. “She has drive and determination, and it is a pleasure to work with her.”

Gerretsen hopes she continues to find deep and meaningful stories throughout her career. “The stories I am most drawn to are the character-driven profiles that show something about a bigger topic,” she says. “I would love to direct a factual, episodic documentary series.” Recently Gerretsen has been working as a cinematographer on a Netflix documentary and on the editing team of Trans*formed, a film about a transgender woman that is directed by for Lisa Leeman, another of Gerretsen’s faculty mentors. 

Gerretsen says the most valuable lesson she has learned so far, and what she would tell aspiring filmmakers is to “throw your pride out the door, be open minded, don’t worry what other people think, and listen to your instinct.” She also holds dear the greatest lesson she learned from her mother: “You need to have humility and humor when you are presented with all of the obstacles you are going to face.”