“Filmmaking is my way of learning about the world.” (Sam Berliner, Filmmaker)
Interview by Sarah Winawer-Wetzel, class secretary.
Name: Sam Berliner
Current location: San Francisco Bay Area
Accolades: Films have screened at over 50 film festivals around the world including Frameline: The San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, National Queer Arts Festival, Seattle Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, Melbourne Queer Film Festival (Australia), PINK APPLE Gay & Lesbian Film Festival (Switzerland), KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival (India), Fairy Tales Queer Film Festival (Canada), Image+Nation 24: Generation Q Program (Canada), Pink Screens Film Festival (Belgium), BFI: the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival (UK), Hamburg International Queer Film Festival (Germany), Diversity in Animation (Brazil)
Awards: Audience Award for Best Short Film at the Translations 2011: Seattle’s Transgender Film Festival (GENDERBUSTERS).
What are you working on right now?
I am currently working on my thesis film for my MFA at San Francisco State University. It’s an animation/documentary hybrid, tongue-in-cheek Dating Guide– the first in a web series about my personal challenges and triumphs dating outside of traditional categories of gender and sexuality.
My previous two films in my program, Genderbusters and Perception, also discuss gender. Genderbusters address gender in a more playful way with gender superheroes (or as my friend says, super-queeros) who drive around getting gender-variant people out of binary-gender dilemmas. Perception, on the other hand, takes a more contemplative approach through experimental animation exploring the disconnect between my own perception of self and how I am seen by the rest of the world, specifically around the journey of transition from female to male.
Outside of getting my films into festivals, it has been a really important goal of mine to get the films into the hands of youth and college-aged LGBTQ and gender-non-conforming folks in schools, support groups, LGBTQ centers and similar organizations, so that’s a big part of what I am working on now. The films have begun screening in alternative venues like college classes, fundraisers, Pride events and PFLAG groups. I also have done a handful of in-person speaking engagements with the films, which are super fun. And Smith College has purchased a copy! Yay!
Tell me about your road to the world of film.
I didn’t always know I wanted to be a filmmaker. When I got to Smith I didn’t know what I wanted to study and tried all kinds of things. The magical moment happened when I was taking a Music in Film class where we learned the basics of video production and editing to create our final project which was a music video. I shot my piece with a humongous camcorder recording onto a VHS tape (you know, the big kind that you have to balance on your shoulder?) and I couldn’t get enough of it. I’d even go back to the editing lab at night after dinner to keep working. My friends kept asking, “Where are you going? Let’s hang out.” I couldn’t help it; I’d fallen in love with filmmaking.
The thing is, Smith didn’t have a Film major, only a minor. [Ed note: They do now!] So I worked with Alex Keller and designed my own major in Film by combining the Theatre and Film Studies departments. My idea was that the Video Production and Film Studies classes would teach me what to do behind the lens and the Theatre classes would teach me what to put in front of the lens. This proved to be true to a point. Over the years since graduating I have filled in those gaps in my knowledge by working on tons of film sets, taking classes, making my own films, and currently pursuing my MFA. It definitely has been a different path but the theatre knowledge has come in handy at surprisingly helpful times!
Where would you like to be in five years?
That’s a hard question! I definitely see myself staying in the Bay Area and ideally I would love to be dividing my time between working for a film production company, seasonal film festival work, and continuing to make my own work. I am also considering going into teaching at the college level. I am teaching 16mm film production this semester and loving it!
Looking back, what advice would you give your Smithie self?
1. Take more non-film classes, and consider minoring in something completely unrelated. Knowing how to use the equipment is only half the fun. Knowing what stories to tell begins with a curiosity in the world and a desire to investigate and learn.
2. Push yourself and take celluloid film production classes at Hampshire, even if it’s hard to work out with your schedule.
3. Go abroad for a semester junior year!
4. Don’t worry so much about gender. Things will fall into place in their own time.