Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Zach Read of Rhyme & Reason Films Is Helping To Change Our World
Don’t let others define success. Success in filmmaking is whatever you determine it is. This is in direct opposition to the line of thinking that says you need to have ‘a feature produced by the age of 24’, ‘worked with x number of notable celebrities’, ‘had a budget of over a million dollars on this or that project’. That whole mentality is hustle culture, and it is its own reward. Real success can be as simple as making a short film that you’re proud of and didn’t compromise your vision on or acquiring a group of individuals that you enjoy collaborating with. These days, success for me is telling as many moving and authentic stories from real people as I can. It can be as small or big as you want it to be. Don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.
As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Zach Read.
Zach Read is a documentary director and cinematographer. His career in documentary began as a video journalist with the NBC, profiling real people behind some of the most memorable headlines. He has collaborated with outlets like The New York Times, Vice, and Al Jazeera.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?
Like most filmmakers, I think this line of work found me in a way. As a young kid, I was always finding an excuse to use a camera. Every project in school, I turned into a “video” project, and in my spare time, I was making cheesy music videos with friends.
I was fortunate enough to have a couple relatives in Atlanta who run a production company. One summer while I was still in high school, I shadowed them and got to see what the world of professional filmmaking looked like. I was immediately hooked, and I ferociously consumed all the online content I could about what steps I needed to take next.
That led me to freelancing as a videographer while I was earning my undergraduate degree. At the tail end of my college career I met my longtime collaborator and partner, Lexi. We began creating films together and that soon provided us with the unique opportunity of working as contracted video journalists for NBC. We traveled around the U.S., profiling real people who had been through tragic events (school shootings, natural disasters, etc.).
It was while we were doing this work that we discovered the power of documentary filmmaking and telling real people’s stories. So we decided to pursue more work in that space after our contract with NBC had ended. That led us to working on our first feature documentary, “Bowen’s Heart”.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
The image that this question immediately evokes is one of my partner, Lexi, timidly holding a chicken in her hands in the middle of an Oklahoma living room. This is an actual photo I have on my phone and I can see it so vividly in this moment. My partner’s face is one of terrified surprise mixed with feigned excitement as onlookers watch with glee. This picture was captured minutes after we first met a family that we were going to film for mini-doc for NBC. They welcomed us into their home, and within seconds of first meeting them, their teenage daughter insisted that we meet her pet chicken who happened to be meandering around the home. Lexi immediately gave me this look that said ‘Please god no’. That look and the general shift in her body language must have given her away to the family because when the daughter returned, they unanimously seemed to single Lexi out to be the one to hold the pet chicken, and they wouldn’t take no for an answer.
What followed was the moment encapsulated in the image I described above and a memory for me to always think back to about the off-screen moments that occur for documentary filmmakers. Those are the occupational hazards that they don’t teach you about.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
This is probably the most difficult question to answer because of the sheer amount of people that we’ve gotten the privilege of meeting during the course of our work. But one individual that sticks out is a former inmate in California. His name is Juan.
We were creating a film about this male-only cosmetology program within a prison where inmates can earn cosmetology license while they serve time. Juan was a recent graduate at the time. When we met and filmed him, he had recently gotten out of prison after serving 22 years of a life sentence that he had received for second degree murder when he was a teenager. The question of ‘What next?’ seemed to weigh heavily for him. We could just feel it while in his presence. The world had changed so much during his time in prison. He was approaching 40 years old with this second chance. What was he going to do with it?
I remember trying to reconcile the crime he had committed in his youth with the man I saw in front of me because, to me, he was one of the most gracious, kind, and gentle individuals I had met. I could see the guilt weighing heavy on him, but that was the only sign that this man had committed such an abhorrent crime. He believed he didn’t deserve anything good in his life, yet, here he was with the rest of his life ahead of him.
Seeing the world through his eyes was an experience I won’t forget anytime soon.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
Knowing full well that my name will never be featured in history books, I tend to draw inspiration from all the folks behind the scenes in the events of history that we memorialize, the average folks that showed up and were diligent to the work in the moment. Those that marched in the Civil Rights Movement, those that fought and died in World War II, those that went on strike and won critical labor rights, and those that continue to tell these folks’ stories. More than anything, we owe a lot to these unnamed people that helped shape our society, and I find them inspirational.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?
While not a cohesive cause in it of itself, we’ve always tried to go find those folks on the margins of society and use our filmmaking to amplify their voices and their experiences: people on death row, people who are unhoused, people who’ve had a child die, etc.
While working as a video journalist, I realized that many of the real stories from people like the ones I just listed were more worthy of attention than the big budget films that end up in theaters. Since then, I’ve always tried to find those type of individuals and put the spotlight on them, knowing that their perspective is a unique one and capable of challenging previously-held assumptions and attitudes.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
It wasn’t necessarily a single moment or this dramatic turning point. It was more of a personal metamorphosis that made me rethink the vision of my career. When I was younger, the dream was always to go film the movies that everyone knows by name but what was actually underneath that dream, the core motivation, was the desire to personally change people via something that I created.
What I realized when I fell into documentary filmmaking was that the stories of these people that I was filming were actively changing my worldview, they were making me more tender and empathetic. They were pushing me in the direction of compassion. As I realized the impact these people and stories were having on me personally, I also realized what they could inspire within others. That’s when my focus shifted.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Like I said above and without sounding too egoistical, it was me. I was the first person to be helped by that shift in our “cause” due to the way that these stories have caused me to evolve internally.
If I think about it though, I actually wasn’t the first, because the individuals that we filmed were helped and impacted by simply having the camera turned in their direction. There were many folks we filmed who would express deep gratitude to us for doing justice to their story or experience. They would communicate that it meant something to have someone pay attention, listen, and capture the core of the message they wanted to share. Ultimately, we saw our jobs as amplifying voices rather than interpreting stories, so when we would hear that from our subjects, it always felt like a success.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
Listen. I think that’s the most important thing. Listening really is the most important job of any documentary filmmaker, and I think that if our society could get in the habit of leaning into the places that might be uncomfortable and hearing from folks who have rarely had the microphone in front of them, our priorities would be different and the pervasive hatred that you see everywhere would have less of a foothold.
Learn. I never want to stop learning. I always want to be curious and uncover new things that pique my interest, which is why I enjoy documentary filmmaking. But, that requires being humble and admitting that I don’t know everything. This is something that I think people in places of power could do better: learning from average working class folks, being teachable and owning up to not having all the answers. This is something that filmmaking has taught me.
Grow. The last thing I would say individuals in positions of power could do to help would be to take things to heart after listening and learning. It’s not enough to hear the story of a single mother on food stamps who is having to flee her abusive husband and conceptually learn about the issue at large. The next step would be to do something about it, using the power you have in the circles that you occupy to enact change.
If our society and government could adopt this cycle of listening, learning and growing with regard to the issues that pushed many folks to the margins, I think that we would all be better for it.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Don’t let others define success. Success in filmmaking is whatever you determine it is. This is in direct opposition to the line of thinking that says you need to have ‘a feature produced by the age of 24’, ‘worked with x number of notable celebrities’, ‘had a budget of over a million dollars on this or that project’. That whole mentality is hustle culture, and it is its own reward. Real success can be as simple as making a short film that you’re proud of and didn’t compromise your vision on or acquiring a group of individuals that you enjoy collaborating with. These days, success for me is telling as many moving and authentic stories from real people as I can. It can be as small or big as you want it to be. Don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.
- Don’t wait for permission. There is no moment when you get the official certification to do the things that you want. No award, no film school, no project can give you that, so waiting around for it is futile.
- The vision is the director. Whenever you’re creating something, there is always the risk that it gets bastardized for one reason or another, and we’ve all watched those things that have suffered from someone screwing up the initial vision at some point in the process. Do whatever you can to avoid that. The projects that I’m still the most proud of are the ones where the vision was executed and it didn’t get coopted.
- Good art is rarely good business. This builds off of my previous one a bit. As filmmakers we’re in this weird spot where we are engaging in a medium that can be creative, human and artistic, but more often than not, it shows up in our lives in highly commercialized forms. Being attentive to that difference is very important. You can either make creatively gratifying things for little amounts of money or make commercial things for more money. I’m not going to argue that there aren’t instances of crossover, but from my vantage point, the more money behind something, the more it requires a certainty of success. And there’s nothing I can think of that’s more antithetical to creativity than certainty.
- Find your co-conspirators. Find those people you enjoy working with. I’d say usually it’s the ones who it feels effortless with, the people who you jive well with. I was lucky enough to meet my lifelong partner early, and that pushed me into a new realm of what I saw as possible. I think that’s true across the board. Nothing can set a project up for success more than building a community around it that’s invested in it.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
If you’re a young person who wants to become a filmmaker who creates a positive impact, I’d say you need to make things that challenge the conventional wisdom we’re living under. When I think about the movies and films that shifted my perspective in a positive direction, they all put cracks into the ideology of the status quo and introduced the thought that ‘it doesn’t have to be this way’, that the society we live in could look drastically different. And I think that if you have enough stories like that, permeating our culture and society, we might be able to show that a better world is possible.
And since I’m not delusional enough to believe that the soft power of media can do much to change large systemic issues, I’d tell all the other young people who want to make a difference to build a coalition. Get clear about your mission and then get bodies. My reading of history tells me that without a coordinated mass of determined and unintimidated people forcing powerful officials to enact positive change, nothing happens. So, get organized or find those that are.
We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
Piggybacking off my answer above, I’m interested in collaborating with anyone that shares that mission of creating media that challenges the dominant conventional wisdom and empowers average people to realize the power and agency that they possess.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Only fools are positive.”
Although that statement has been appropriated by many people over the years, I first heard it from my 7th grade American History teacher. If someone sheepishly provided an answer to one of his questions in class, he would first ask them, “Are you sure about that?” Usually, they would respond, “I’m sure.” Then he would ask, “Are you positive?” And if you answered in the affirmative, he would always jokingly chide you with the statement above.
Although he always meant it half-jokingly as one of his canned quips, I’ve returned to the quote throughout the years in a serious capacity, reminding myself to interrogate the things I think I know for certain, to be willing to listen to new information and change accordingly. It fits alongside my documentary work quite well.
How can our readers follow you online?
I’m admittedly bad at social media, but if you’d like to follow me, I’d suggest my Instagram profile, @zachread. These days, it’s mostly me posting pictures of my family, but occasionally you’ll see something about professional projects I’m working on. And if you’d like to see some featured work from me and my partner, Lexi, over the years, go check out our site: www.rhymereason.co
Also, check out the site for our first documentary feature here: https://bowensheart.com/film
This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!
Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Zach Read of Rhyme & Reason Films Is Helping… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.