Steffie van Rhee | documentary filmmaker & producer living in New York, USA

Star Sign: Libra
Currently reading: The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power,
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, &The Jetsetters by Amanda Ward.
Hopes her last meal will be: A big bowl of pasta!

Steffie is a filmmaker & producer from the Netherlands, who currently lives and works in New York. As a freelance producer, she works on a lot of different documentaries – from shorts to features and from series for television to online snippets. She works with a lot of female-led creative teams covering subjects from online harassment to climate. She also has her own small production company called Before Films. Under that banner, she is working on her own short documentary project about internal police trials in New York with a very talented illustrator, Annelise Capossela.

When did you first know that this was your calling?

Sometimes I wish I had one of those classic filmmaker stories. You know, the ones where people remember the first film they saw or when they were first captured by the medium’s magic. For me, it was pretty gradual. I studied at the School of Journalism in Utrecht but actually went there because of my love for writing. There I discovered broadcast journalism. I eventually moved into documentaries because I wanted to spend more time on subjects. I think my love for film is still growing, but by the time I was in grad school in New York working on my thesis film, I definitely realized this is what I am supposed to do. This is how I can best contribute and at the same time embrace my creativity.


What made you decide to move to New York?

The honest story, though I don’t talk about this often anymore, is that I fell in love with someone and it made me want to be here. Although that didn’t work out, the larger story is that I fell in love with the city as well, and that holds up to this day. I found a community here, a kinship with people, that is really inspiring. It’s always moving and pushing me forward. Plus, to me, New York will always be the place of movies. It’s the set of so many classics, it’s the home to some of my favorite filmmakers and a breeding ground for so many stories that are yet to be told.

 Over the years I’ve gotten to know so many wonderful people who have had all kinds of experiences I have not; some joyful, some tragic. I think what they all have in common is that they are persevering through it all – and that’s a beautiful thing to get to both witness and capture.

How did you get your career off the ground?

A lot of hard work! I’ve come to believe that there’s no such thing as an ‘overnight success.’ Even the people who are marketed as such really weren’t. They’ve been at it for a lot longer than you might imagine. Maybe it’s cliche, but it takes a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to make it in any (creative) industry. And I think I’ve always been good at creating my own opportunities, whether it was starting an online series magazine with Self-made Story’s co-founder Kirsten Jordan while we were in college, or asking for job positions that weren’t there.


What makes you/ your work unique?

I think especially when I work here in the US, what I bring to it is still an outside perspective. I think I view the world differently, just because I grew up with a different set of (cultural) values and lived other experiences. I’m curious about different things, so therefore I might ask questions someone else doesn’t. I think when I let myself believe that my eye is unique and that it matters, that’s when my work is the best. It’s at that point when I can best help others to bring their creative vision to life.

What is the biggest challenge for you as a filmmaker?

It would be easy to mention how competitive it is out there, or how hard it is to get funding. And while that would all be true, I actually think it really is just starting and then following through on my own films. In, ‘The War of Art,’ Steven Pressfield talks a lot about the concept of resistance and how it works against our creativity. I think truly, overcoming that resistance, all the little ways in which I resist daily, is always going to be my biggest challenge.


What inspires you to keep going?

It’s the people whose stories I get to tell. To me, the great privilege of this work is that others trust me with a piece of their life. Over the years I’ve gotten to know so many wonderful people who have had all kinds of experiences I have not; some joyful, some tragic. I think what they all have in common is that they are persevering through it all – and that’s a beautiful thing to get to both witness and capture.


What’s your life motto/ what mantra do you live by?

This might sound very depressing, but I’ve taken to reminding myself that, ‘No one cares as much as you do,’ as a mantra. What I mean by that is really to just not take myself too seriously, or to think that people are waiting around to see whatever I come up with next. That gives me the liberty to just create things, collaborate on projects that I want to see, and keep going. And additionally, it’s meant to serve as a reminder that I’m truly doing the best that I can. No one cares more about what I do than I do, so what I’m doing is enough.

How do you ensure a good work/life balance?

This is a constant struggle! Since I am a freelancer and also someone who is lucky enough to do what they love, I often find myself saying yes to too many things, and sometimes the lines between private life and work-life become a bit blurry. During this pandemic, I have also once again been reminded that it’s important to take care of yourself first. Honestly, people can do without me being available around the clock. It’s truly OK to take breaks and to have some boundaries. I’m mostly saying this for me, but I think it’s a good reminder for others too.


How has the Corona Virus affected you/your work?

I’m lucky in some ways to do a job that at least partially can be done from home. There’s always emails to answer, spreadsheets to update, research to be done, grants to be written, and so on. So even in normal times, I often work remotely. However, field production has completely come to a halt, which of course means I lost some jobs. Out of precaution, some shoots I was supposed to do in late March and April were already canceled before we started social distancing – and ever since that trend has continued.
It also means adapting projects that were already in production and that need to stay on track. For instance, for one of the documentaries I’m producing we’re thinking about the ways in which we can keep going, with Zoom interviews or taking more time to do some archival research.

What can people do to support you and others in your field?

Watch our movies! It really always means so much to me when people take the time to watch any of the projects I’ve worked on, and even more if they take a minute to thoughtfully respond to them. I love hearing what people think, how something made them feel, if they were challenged by it, if they learned from it, if maybe they didn’t agree with it. Right now watching our projects can also translate into actual cash, because you might rent a movie online (like Netizens, a feature documentary I worked on as an associate producer and I think is eye-opening and important for people to see!), which supports the filmmakers.


What do you see for the future?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and unfortunately I still don’t have a very satisfying answer. I wonder what my industry will look like. Will we shoot with less people on set (on most docs I work on, we already work so minimalistic so I think we’re well suited for this) or will there be a need for a different kind of storytelling? Here’s something I hope, though, that good storytelling and proper journalism will be valued more because they allow you to get a glimpse into other realities. I think this pandemic has really reminded us that we are all very connected, and that we need to be compassionate and understanding towards each other. I think good stories can do that.


Do you have tips for people who want to start a career as a Filmmaker?

Find a story you love. We spend so many hours, even when we make shorts, on our projects, so make sure you really tell something that to you is worthwhile. Then even when you are tired or don’t see how you could possibly finish, the love of the story you are trying to get out there will pull you through. And find good collaborators! Filmmaking is much like a team sport. You need people to work with, who excel in aspects that are maybe not your strong suit. People who inspire you, make your work better, and who will support you on the wild ride that a project can be.

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