This week we’re featuring Kari Barber, award-winning documentary filmmaker, professor of Journalism, and mother of four. Her most recent film Struggle and Hope had its world premiere at the Pan African Film Festival in Cannes and has won a number of awards. The film documents the battle of the residents and descendants of Oklahoma’s historically all-black towns as they work to preserve their homes and has an accompanying participatory website featuring oral histories and short web videos gathered from the remaining all-black towns.
Could you explain what your art is like?
I’m primarily a documentary filmmaker. I’ve worked on historicaldocumentaries, investigative public affairs documentaries, and social issuedocs. I’ve also worked in nontraditional and nonlinear narrative such asinteractive documentary web projects and experimental projects including live“events” documentary.
What are important motherhood contexts people should know aboutyou?
How many children I have is a difficult question to answer. I have two boys on this Earth, 10 and 2 years old, and two more boys who aren’t here right now. One left too soon at five years old, and one who hasn’t arrived yet (dueDec. 24). We had two boys close in age and thought we were done with that phase of life, but when our younger son died suddenly and unexpectedly from an undetected heart arrythmia disorder soon after his fifth birthday, plans changed. We are in the second wave now and finding ourselves beginning the baby and toddler years again, but feeling fortunate that we have that chance after experiencing such loss.
How has the practice of your artmaking changed since motherhood?What were your routines like before and after?
I became a filmmaker when I became a mother. My first son was born the first week of my MFA program. I had previously been an international journalist working often in challenging environments.When I became pregnant I knew would have to find challenge elsewhere and in new ways. I need challenge, it sustains me. Creativity and the risks that come with that have become what living risky used to be. Now the risks are less physical and more about fear of failure, but I also think being a mother makes you more okay with fear of failure. Fear of failure is part of motherhood. Sometimes I have to be gone for long periods of time to film, without a supportive partner it would have been impossible. In terms of approach to work before and after,I’d say I’m much more efficient with time now. I think that’s true of all working mothers, we don’t mess around, we get stuff done. Maybe that means we are impatient at times with others who aren’t prepared or seem to not mind wasting time. I’m working on my patience! Of course, I have less free time as a mother and schedules are tougher, but in general I think the confidence that comes with motherhood is really beneficial. After facing down a strong-willed two-year-old, no one is intimidating.
What has been most challenging about sustaining a creative lifein motherhood?
The most challenging part is when others make assumptions about what you are able/ capable of doing because you are a mother. That, and going to parties (like at film festivals)! I know it’s a good idea, and that I’m supposed to go network, but I cannot network after 9 p.m., it’s waaaay past my bedtime!
What’s been the best surprise about having a creative life inmotherhood?
Other filmmaker mothers (and many fathers) are hugely supportive of each other – at least in film circles I’m part of. Filmmakers are passionate people and they adore their children and love experiencing life with them. When you mention you have kids, most filmmakers with kids are eager to connect and talk about experiences, so it can be really bonding.
What are the particular issues that come up for you as an artistin your field with children?
Kids are noisy and shooting and editing really require silence. I realized early on that I can’t work from home anymore. When it comes to editing it’s also hard to work from work (on campus) because there are so many interruptions. Sometimes I’ve tackled this by doing major editing work on Sundays at my campus office when no one is in and during spring break or other holidays when the university is empty. I was at my campus office editing this past New Year’s Eve until just before the ball dropped because I needed focus and silence.
What’s been the your most important source of inspiration tocontinue having a creative life as a mother?
I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer and an idealist and I was lucky and married someone who is the same. We don’t have a separation between our artistic life and our home life, but we like it that way. Even through losing a child, and there were times I wondered if my work and projects were still worth it, he always encouraged me to continue my work and he kept fighting for the causes he cares about too with, if anything, with more conviction and dedication. After a few months on the couch after losing my son, I came back to my work. Now, my next project will delve into grief and child loss. Work I create and my family are all integrated and I think it has to be that way for me.Being able to do that is important to me.
Who are other artist mothers in your field that inspire you?
There are so many, but a few filmmaker moms who I know or have met personally who really inspire me are Ingrid Veninger aka “the indie queen of Toronto,” Julia Reichert who made A Lion in the House after her daughter’s battle with cancer, and the incredibly supportive female film faculty that I had at American University – Brigid Maher, Pat Aufderheide, Maggie Burnette Stogner. They are all mothers and all showed me that we don’t have to segregate our lives; family and our craft can be connected.
Anything else you want to say?
I think we need more mothers’ voices in filmmaking. There are stories missing and going untold.
To learn more about Kari’s most recent film, Struggle and Hope: http://struggleandhope.com/
Watch it here: https://worldchannel.org/episode/arf-struggle-hope/
Here’s a bit more about Kari: https://www.unr.edu/journalism/faculty-and-staff/directory/barber-kari
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