There are many ways to go about getting the job of your dreams. Some paths involve being a popstar, some involve being born in the right month and for Sachi Cunningham, award winning documentarian, it had to do with neverending cups of green tea.
Sachi’s first job out of college was as Demi Moore’s assistant. On the set of the 2001 movie Bandits she noticed that the producer Barry Levinson (you may recognize his name from The Perfect Storm, Oz and A Little Princess) had a real fondness for green tea. “I decided to make myself very useful,” Sachi shares. She took it upon herself to make sure Levinson’s teacup was never empty. After weeks of running around like a mad barista Sachi finally caught him mid-sip and asked very confidently: “why don’t you hire me!” It was a suggestion he couldn’t say no to, so he hired her as his assistant on the spot.
From there she started taking behind-the-scenes pictures and video on a first-generation video camera and got hooked on documenting what she saw around her. Sachi says that experience got her itching to make movies of her own. It wasn’t enough to shoot footage of actors preening and meeting their marks; Sachi wanted to find real life stories of “extraordinary people doing extraordinary things” so she set her sights on the oddities of the world around her. “This is where it’s at,” she says she remembers thinking — “forget about all this Hollywood stuff.”
The first extraordinary person Sachi wanted to capture on film was her childhood friend Bill Shannon. Shannon was born with a degenerative hip condition and he wore crutches. Sachi is quick to point out that she “didn’t want to tell the usual disability story.” She wanted to tell the story of Shannon the artist, a man who uses his crutches as part of his break dancing and skateboarding performance art. He even made special crutches to help him dance and skate better. Sachi was inspired by his tenacity and creativity but knew she’d need more education and experience to really do his story justice. So she put the project on hold and headed off to grad school.
After attending graduate school at Berkeley, Sachi went on to be a multimedia journalist, cinematographer and camera operator all around the world. She’s worked for major news outlets like the LA Times and New York Times and traveled everywhere from Dubai to Tahiti to Iraq. Somewhere in between there she became a professor at San Francisco State University, a wife and mother to a seriously cute two-year-old.
Through it all, she kept working with Bill Shannon to tell his story. Over a decade later, Crutch (the documentary about Shannon) is finally almost finished with a little crowdfunding help. Sachi says she has perspective on the project that she didn’t have 14 years ago, revealing, “it’s taken me this long to understand his art.” Sachi and her team raised money via Kickstarter to get an editor to finish the movie. At this point she says she’s earned a huge sigh of relief. “There were times I’ve cursed it,” Sachi says of the project, but ultimately says it was worth it for her to grow as a documentary maker and to get people to “abandon the assumptions they have about living with a disability.”
Aspiring film makers these days have no excuse not to tell their stories, Sachi says. “You don’t even need to know a rich person anymore, you just need a phone and WiFi. So much of success is built on failure,” and that getting the career you want is a lot of “putting yourself in the right place so that luck can find you.”
In the fall Sachi will go back to being a university professor in addition to being a mom/wife/badass documentary maker. For her next project, Sachi is interested in working with women surfers to do a documentary about ocean conservation. The through line in everything she does is “compassion and patience and hard work.”
“Most documentaries don’t take 14 years,” she says. “But good art isn’t made in a day.”
What would you make documentaries about ? Tell us in the comments!
(Photos via Bill Cummings and @seasachi)