Bobbi Jo Hart is an award-winning American-Canadian documentary filmmaker whose latest feature, Fanny: The Right to Rock, airs on PBS on May 22. With a career that has spanned 25 years, Hart has filmed in countries as diverse as Pakistan, Russia, Guatemala, Australia, Scotland and Zimbabwe — with subjects ranging from women’s professional soccer and tennis to classical music, comedy, dance and manic depression. Her documentary films have the most common thread of revealing untold stories of marginalized girls and women, weaving universal threads of dreams, family, love, loss, happiness, sadness, success, failure and determination. (Photo courtesy Icarus Films.)
As a fearless young woman with a dream to become an accomplished documentary filmmaker, I knew in the back of my mind that one day I would like to have a child.
In 1996, I was filming my first documentary in Pakistan, A Calling to Care, a celebration of the dedication and passion of nurses in a fascinating country of contradictions. There I met the most generous people, drank the sweetest fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice – and our crew was held up at gunpoint while filming a street cricket match at sunset in Karachi. I also found time to quietly buy a baby rattle that I hoped my yet unborn baby could hold one day.
Documentary filmmaking is a craft that requires one to be a mother of sorts: we nurture our films to grow; make our crews to feel safe, supported and inspired; ensure our main characters trust us and feel respected in their journey; and gently guide the film through the post-production process, a dance of creativity and conflict.
However, just like women really have no training for motherhood, I actually never formally studied filmmaking. I put myself through college on sports scholarships, Pell grants, part-time work and loans, and earned a BA in International Studies from Southern Oregon University. I took out a student loan to visit Europe for the first time as an exchange student in Avignon, France, in order to nurture my desire to speak fluent French. At the time, I imagined I would work for the Peace Corps or another NGO after graduation … and while in France, I even applied, strangely enough, to a job at Euro Disney. I always had a passion for documenting life unfolding and was drawn to the power of storytelling and its magical ability to unite us.
It was when I met a documentary filmmaker in Edmonton that I had my Eureka moment, which would drive my journey and career for the following 25 years. She advised that to become a documentary filmmaker, I should use my communication skills to leverage my way into a job in the industry. So I fearlessly jumped from a secure job into the Wild West of working on a film set, convincing a producer that I could be a film publicist for his next narrative feature, despite the fact that I had absolutely no experience.
I have learned along this serendipitous path of life that fear is only in our heads and failure is simply a series of hurdles we must metaphorically clear in order to reach our dreams. There is no path to success other than facing our fear of failure, over and over again. As Einstein once said, “Those who have never failed have never tried anything new.”
During my college years, I spent my summers working as a certified windsurfing instructor in Hood River, Oregon. After graduation, I decided to take a gap year from the “real world” and spontaneously moved to Maui for a year to teach windsurfing on Kanaha Beach. It is an expensive place to live, so to make ends meet I also took a job as a waitress and wove baskets in traditional Hawaiian fashion. Unfortunately, I was fired by the restaurant after a week, and tourists had no interest in buying handmade baskets from a “haole” … so I ended up juggling my windsurfing instruction job with promotional work at the local KAOI radio station.
Life (and love) brought me to live in Canada a year later, and I now live in Montreal, which has been my home for more than two decades. As a dual American-Canadian citizen, I have spent about half my life in each country, watching my home and native land through a unique lens I would never have had if I had stayed in the States. It is a gift I am deeply grateful for.
After many years traveling the world to make films, at age 38, I became pregnant with my daughter, Phoenix, who was born in December 2004. To this day, I tell her, “My most important job in the world is being your mother.” And I mean it with all my heart. Honestly, if we are going to bring a child into this world, should we not make them our first priority, assuring that we give our all to help nurture them in deeply visceral ways to become a healthy, happy, inspired human who helps positively influence our world?
So when I became pregnant, I decided to make a process film so I could stay home full-time to raise my child, at least until she was in grade school. I started filming the journey of 12-year-old Juilliard-trained pianist Marika Bournaki, bit by bit, in her hot pursuit to become a concert pianist. That film, I Am Not a Rock Star, was released eight years later. I juggled this part-time film project with doing documentary-style wedding photography and even started a funky kids’ cashmere clothing line which I ran out of my home.
Interestingly enough, Phoenix (age four at the time) ended up playing four-hands piano with Marika for the final scene of the film … and she has worked with me on location and had serendipitous cameos in every film of mine since.
It is strange that we need a permit to drive a car but no training or elite membership to become a parent. All this to say, I made my own slips along the way as a mother who happened to also be a dedicated documentary filmmaker, but I tried to quickly learn from my mistakes, seeing my daughter as a compass to help guide me to make soulful choices and be a better mother. Now 18 years old, she is still my compass.
Right now, I’m in California for 12 days of touring with the subjects of my latest documentary, Fanny: The Right to Rock, which celebrates the untold story of the groundbreaking Filipina-American co-founded group Fanny. The trip meant I had to spend the first Mother’s Day of my daughter’s life away from her, but I find solace in the journey we have taken together and the lessons she has taught me along the way. The latest lies in the words of her original song “No Fear,” which I have been playing several times a day during my trip, and I hope it helps whoever may be reading this piece of writing today … to leap that next hurdle of life with abandon.
Featured image is Phoenix Hart’s picture of Bobbi Jo Hart filming Fanny: The Right to Rock; all images courtesy Bobbi Jo Hart.