On Her Own is not just about the plight the of the modern independent farmer, but about the very personal, very real struggles of one woman as she tries to keep it all together through extremely trying circumstances. Nancy Prebilich bares the burden of being a single woman trying to hold on to family land during tough financial times experienced all over the country after the crash of 2008. Documentary filmmaker Morgan Schmidt-Feng began filming Nancy on her ranch for a period that ended up spanning half a decade, the result of which documents a family in transition.
We spoke with Morgan and Nancy following their world premiere at the Slamdance film festival in Park City last January.
Dork Shelf: How do you describe what On Her Own is about?
Morgan Schmidt-Feng: The film is about a fifth generation family farm in Sonoma. It’s about their struggle to hang on to their land and their heritage and their family through the great recession of 2008 that is still happening for many people, including this family.
DS: How did you meet Nancy?
MS-F: I met Nancy through a colleague, she introduced us knowing that I would be interested in what she was doing.
DS: At what point did you realize the material you were capturing had feature film potential?
MS-F: Honestly, I went into the project with no preconceived idea of what I wanted from what I was doing but I knew that there was something compelling me to shoot. After the first day I was totally energized and felt like, wow, this stuff is amazing, I gotta come back and keep shooting. I was hooked immediately.
DS: Nancy, what was like to have your life documented like this?
Nancy Prebilich: I’ve been asked that a lot and it was actually really easy. Morgan is a pretty easy going guy. Granted he is from Berkely so I was a little cautious (laughs). I jest. He was really easy, honestly he became like a family member. The brother with the camera, always has his camera out, but very comfortable.
DS: How do you make your subjects so comfortable?
MS-F: I didn’t say here’s a script, here’s my outline, here’s a contract to sign. I didn’t do any of that. I was just like, I’m genuinely interested in what you guys are doing. I would literally start far back and slowly move closer and closer to what they were doing, I tried not to interfere as much as I could with what they were doing and that was my approach. I feel like the turning point was when Nancy’s father passed away suddenly and we asked if we could film the funeral.
NP: Yeah, basically Morgan was one of the very first people, when I got the news myself, instantly he was one of the first people I reached out to. But mostly because I knew that he had an investment in our family, and he’s, like I said, part of our family, we needed to let people know and he was at the top of the list. So yeah, I think you asked, would that be okay if we come…
MS-F: Cindy, her sister, had some reservation, but after we filmed the funeral and cut a DVD of the funeral itself, she felt a lot more relaxed and felt like this an incredible thing that they now have as a memory of their father. So I think that was the turning point for the whole family trusting me to film them. That was a year into the project, then there was another four more years of filming after that.
DS: How would you decide when to drop in over the years?
MS-F: I would come a day at a time generally, sometimes maybe two consecutive days. I would check in with Nancy and she would shoot me a text and say, hey we’re going to be harvesting chickens or I’m going to go this fundraising event, or I would check in with her and ask how things are going. I would go out based on what was going on.
DS: When did you decide it was done and time to edit it?
MS-F: I knew that I could keep shooting forever because her story is that kind of a story and I was so drawn into it but I knew that I wanted the world to see this film and I felt like this was a good time to do it. We did an indiegogo campaign to raise the money to do the post production.
DS: You must have had a ton of material by that point, how did you go about cutting it?
MS-F: I actually shoot pretty tight. We shot for a little over 40 days in total and I probably had about 50-55 hours of footage and we had a 7 hour assembly within a few months. All in it was about 9 solid months of full time editing to get to where we are now.
DS: What was it like to watch this with an audience of strangers?
NP: It was incredibly emotional. It was a very surreal experience hearing people audibly and emotionally respond to the story that just happens to be my life (laughs). It was also comforting, because I think whenever you experience trauma, like the passing of my father and other things that happened that are in the film, we move on with our lives and part of our recovery is to compartmentalize it, in some ways minimize it too. It was like, yeah that really did happen, that really was significant and people really do respond and share and empathize. So it was actually really kind of healing too.
DS: Has your family watched it?
MS-F: Cindy texted me asked for a DVD and I sent her a DVD and, as she put it, when she got brave enough to watch it, she watched it and she was really moved by it. I think she realizes that it’s not her perspective but it’s Nancy’s perspective and she knows that it’s going to be hard for the kids to see it but she really does want them to see it at a festival near where they’re living. She is looking forward to showing it to them, but I think it was hard for her to see herself on the screen, for most of us, to be on camera is hard. But I think overall Cindy is thankful to have this film, and I feel incredibly privileged an honoured to have been able to be in their life and to give them this document so that they can have that given the loss that they’ve gone through.
DS: What do you hope people take away from this documentary?
NP: I hope that people get a much more realistic idea of what it takes and how much is at risk. I really hope that people walk out thinking, oh my gosh what can I do? Especially in today’s day and age with social media and the crowd funding and whatnot, we really can effect big change so I hope that this will be a catalyst for inspiring people to help effect change.
DS: What kind of change?
NP: Whatever your forte or asset may be, there’s a farm and a farming family near you that could use your help. They’re so busy and wrapped up with so much of the day-to-day, that, whether it’s investing, to put it straight out there. Literally investing or providing services like doing taxes for them or helping them to streamline their operation or-
MS-F: -help them build a website…
NP: …help them build a website. As their business grows and they need more backend support, helping them with those types of things. We were just stretched beyond thin and there’s really too much at stake to be stretched that thin, and there’s more people like us.
Read our review of the film here.