Heather Cassano epitomizes how independent documentary producers are connected in the local film community, learning from one another: she teaches documentary production in Boston to students and finds mentorship for herself from seasoned pros, such as those in the The Non-Fiction Cartel. Heather’s first feature-length documentary, “The Limits of My World” was a huge challenge personally and professionally, as it delves into her own family history and discusses the traumas of growing up with a severely autistic sibling. To learn more about the film, visit www.thelimitsofmyworld.com
Meet WIFVNE Member Heather Cassano!
How did you get started in the work that you do?
I started working in documentary film during my undergrad at Elon University. I was pursuing a career in photojournalism until my Junior year when I discovered the power of documentary film. After I graduated, I moved to New York and took an internship with Hard Working Movies to work on Jeremiah Zagar’s documentary “CAPTIVATED: The Trials of Pamela Smart.” The internship turned into a part-time production assistant job. It was there that I learned how to produce an independent documentary. After a year or so of living and freelancing in New York, I realized that I wanted to direct my own films. I moved to Boston to pursue my MFA in Film and Media Art at Emerson College. There I produced my first feature-length documentary, “The Limits of My World.”
What do you love about the work that you do?
Documentary film gives us the opportunity to understand each other. I have met so many people through my work that I never would have met under other circumstances. I believe that documentary film is the key to bridging gaps between cultures and classes. It gives the audience a lens through which they can understand another person’s story.
I’ve always felt at home telling non-fiction stories. I love the idea that a person can walk into a theater knowing nothing about a subject and walk out after the film a mini-expert on the subject. This has happened to me personally many times. I think of documentaries like “Pervert Park” and “The Wolfpack” that showed me worlds I didn’t know existed. It’s telling these individual stories that shine a light on greater issues within our society.
Who is one person you really want to work with?
Kirsten Johnson: I admire her cinematography. The way she builds relationships with her subjects and captures the beauty within everyday life is astonishing. I recommend that every aspiring documentary director and cinematographer watch her film “Cameraperson.” I would love to work with her as a DP on one of my future films.
What is one of your favorite projects you have worked on?
My first feature-length documentary “The Limits of My World” is probably my favorite project thus far. The film follows my brother Brian as he navigates adulthood with severe autism. Brian aged out of the school system when he turned 21 years old and was forced to make the transition from residential school to semi-independent living. The film is an exploration of what it means to be a nonverbal disabled person in today’s society.
The film was also extremely rewarding. It allowed me to forge a relationship with my brother and we are now closer than we have ever been before. Making “The Limits of My World” allowed me to better understand my brother Brian.
What has your experience as a woman in the industry been like?
Being a woman in the film industry definitely has its challenges, but I think the documentary film community is much more welcoming to women then other aspects of the industry. This was part of the reason I chose to work in documentary film. In my experience, women are often overlooked on narrative film sets. They aren’t chosen for some of the more technical jobs, like the camera department. In documentary, the roles are much more malleable and being a woman can be an asset in the more nuanced relationships with your subjects.
Do you have a mentor? Are you a mentor?
Many of my mentors have come from my experience in academia. The filmmakers and professors on my thesis committee were invaluable during the making of “The Limits of My World.” Professionally, I’ve found the most useful mentorship within groups of peers. The Non-Fiction Cartel, a working collaborative of documentary filmmakers in Boston, has been a huge asset to me. Many of the filmmakers in the Cartel are a few years ahead of me in my career. Learning from their experiences as I begin production on my next film has been indispensable.
I teach documentary production at Emerson College. Seeing my students develop a passion for documentary film has been very exciting for me. As I progress in my career, I anticipate that mentorship will become an important part of my creative practice.
What can you share about what you are working on now?
My next film, “The Fate of Human Beings,” is currently in development. In Waltham, Massachusetts there is a cemetery where 310 unidentified people are buried. Graves are marked only with a letter and a number. “C” stands for Catholic and “P” for Protestant, the number indicating the order in which they were buried. The cemetery, known as the Metfern Cemetery, served as a burial site for patients housed within the walls of nearby mental institutions: The Fernald School for “feeble-minded” children, and The Metropolitan State Hospital. Hidden among the trees of Beaver Brook Reservation, Metfern Cemetery is only accessible by hiking trails. 310 lives suspended in anonymity. “The Fate of Human Beings” uncovers the stories of the unidentified people buried in the Metfern Cemetery, interrogating the collective memory of mental institutions held by the surrounding city of Waltham.
To learn more about the film, visit our page on the Center for Independent Documentary website: https://www.documentaries.org/the-fate-of-human-beings
Why are you a member of WIFVNE?
I chose to become a member of WIFVNE because I believe in creating a supportive network of female filmmakers across New England. Through my involvement with other peer-to-peer organizations, I’ve seen how helpful it can be to have a community you can turn to for advice and to share your work. WIFVNE is a wonderful part of the film community in the Boston area and I’m looking forward to seeing it grow even more.
Interview conducted by Dina Klein.
1. Heather Cassano
2. Heather at work
3. Film still from “The Limits of My World”
4. Film still from “The Limits of My World”
3. “The Limits of My World” poster