Communication graduate: Christel Cornilsen
Bachelor of Arts in Communication (Writing and Cultural Studies)* - 2009
*The Bachelor of Arts in Communication (Writing and Cultural Studies) is now known as the Bachelor of Communication (Creative Writing).
The Life and Times of a Young Filmmaker in LA
From a small town in QLD, Christel has spent the last decade navigating the filmmaking world in LA. She’s worked on documentaries, feature films, music videos and commercials, in roles ranging from camera assistant to cinematographer, producer and director.
She started out as a camera assistant, working on projects with Morgan Freeman, Tom Hanks, Stephen Spielberg and Lady Gaga. But before that, she tele-fundraised for non-profits and unexpectedly found a job in a camera house where she got her start.
Christel’s documentary work has taken her to film in places such as Malawi, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Egypt, Finland, France, the UK, South Africa, and all across the USA. But her inspiration started in Australia when, at 14, she read the book Desert Flower by Waris Dirie.
At 17, Christel convinced her surfer Dad to take her to Africa, to film interviews on her JVC handycam with Maasai, Samburu and Nubian people about female genital mutilation.
She then graduated from Newtown Performing Arts High School as a dancer, and decided to enroll in a UTS Comms degree in Writing and Cultural Studies.
At 18, Christel studied on exchange in the UK and then spent a few months in Kolkata, India, developing a successful non-profit organisation for children.
At 21 Christel graduated from UTS and was on a plane to Los Angeles to be a filmmaker before the ink was dry on her transcript.
Now aged 30, Christel has some gold to share about life and work as a filmmaker in LA, and her dedication to using innovative storytelling as a tool for positive, social change.
Living and surviving in Los Angeles
I was always shooting, directing and editing my own projects, and learning from more established filmmakers. I would be hired as a producer because I could also edit, which led to story producing. Or I’d be hired as a director because the client loved something I shot. Technical knowledge helped me get by, improved my work and ultimately got me better gigs.
How did you manage to work in LA as a creative?
When I first arrived, after some trial and error and a chance meeting at a Hollywood witch shop, I found a job in a camera house. That’s where I learned the basics of cinematography. It was another language to learn and I was seen as some blonde, Aussie, fish out-of-water.
I met a very mixed bag of people there. From well-established filmmakers to lots of other odd folks that make up this crazy town. I used my spare time to learn from anyone I could - namely cinematographers, directors and camera geeks.
I eventually pivoted into producing - mainly docu-commercials and short docs. But I was always shooting, directing and editing my own projects, and learning from more established filmmakers. I would be hired as a producer because I could also edit, which led to story producing. Or I’d be hired as a director because the client loved something I shot. Technical knowledge helped me get by, improved my work and ultimately got me better gigs.
What it takes to be a filmmaker
Having the ability to pick up a camera, know how to use it well, and know what gear you need to achieve a certain effect, has given me independence as a filmmaker. The same with editing… As a female filmmaker much of my ambition is to rewrite the narrative and redirect the gaze in a positive direction for females. And often there is no better way to do that than by directly controlling the camera itself.
Among your portfolio of work, is there one or two projects that mean the most to you?
I would have to say my latest two – docu-series Pussy Politics and short doc Mother: Malawi.
A couple of years ago I started making a doc on the first female to run for the presidency of Somalia. That project didn't go as planned. But the inspiration I started out with metamorphosed into something completely different, and hybrid docu-series, Pussy Politics, was born.
Pussy Politics is my first work where filmmaker becomes a subject, and one that weaves fiction with non-fiction, or satire with cinéma vérité. This is a project that’s been a long, arduous labour.
My latest short doc Mother: Malawi was also an accidental process. I was hired to direct another feature doc in Malawi. It was to do with the first school being built in a rural village that had no running water, electricity, or roads. But there was one woman whose story revealed itself to my camera. But I didn’t realise then just how much until I got back to LA and had it translated.
The film is a glimpse into the life of a woman who overcame all odds to survive HIV. And shows how women’s adult literacy programs can intricately impact the quality of a woman’s life.
Another project is 4000 Haitians in Tijuana - a 15-min documentary that I story produced and edited for SoulPancake and Participant Media. The doc features actors Rainn Wilson (Dwight from The Office), and Jimmy Jean-Louis (Heroes), as they explore the little known Haitian refugee crisis on the US/Mexican border.
The doc was conceptualised with Rainn Wilson and produced to promote Ai Wei Wei’s feature doc Human Flow.
The challenge was to present a serious, complex issue and story in three languages (Haitian Creole, Spanish and English), and in a style that was consistent with the company’s previous, humorous outreach.
Did you always want to be a filmmaker?
I think I always wanted to be a subversive voice in some way. As a kid, I was an avid writer and dancer. And my grandfather shot a lot of home movies. I grew up in a small town in south-east QLD surrounded by a lot of bush. It felt remote and cut off from the world.
But like most kids, I felt connected to the world via TV - mainly through music videos. I would escape my reality by visualizing these fantastical worlds of dance in my head.
Another influence was my high school geography teacher Miss Michelle Taylor, at Newtown Performing Arts High. Her classes helped me not drop out and actually graduate high school.
I was an independent student living outside of home at the time. Her classes gave me a reason to care. She would break down globalisation, inequality and the political economy for us 15-16 year olds.
She would put on these documentaries in class and I’d be intrigued at whatever we were dissecting. She also remarked once that I could “really write.” That encouragement went far.
One film that had an impact on me was Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen. My mother took me to see it when I was 14. To say I related to that film as a kid is an understatement.
(Cut to 15 years later and I’m filming Catherine Hardwicke in her lounge room for a female directors’ initiative.)
Girls have stories we need to tell in order to rewrite the narrative, protect others and create a better paradigm. So certain films, books, teachers, and making sense of my own life, made me want to become a filmmaker.
Has it made you realise anything about yourself, working in this industry? Anything that it’s made you think about what is important to you professionally and personally?
Having the ability to pick up a camera, know how to use it well, and know what gear you need to achieve a certain effect, has given me independence as a filmmaker. The same with editing.
As a female filmmaker much of my ambition is to rewrite the narrative and redirect the gaze in a positive direction for females. And often there is no better way to do that than by directly controlling the camera itself.
I’ve always underestimated my skills and passion as a cinematographer. Technology and “big boys’ toys” on set can be intimidating. It’s another language one has to learn; certain protocols, math and constantly evolving trends, technologies and techniques.
My comfort zone is framing through the eye-piece, body contorting to get the right angle. I try to be as unobtrusive as possible, ready to frame whatever is unfolding, paying attention to detail and emotion.
As a director, instead of articulating to someone else what I want in that moment, it can be easier to intuitively frame it myself. It helps when you really understand the technical side as a producer or a director. Whether that be to shave costs or determine the look of the film – technical education is key.
If you don’t know how to do something, learn it. Ask questions. Volunteer. Practice. Repeat.
I also find men tend to take me more seriously when I can speak technical cinematic jargon.
What motivates you to be a filmmaker?
It’s my job as a filmmaker to push the boundaries of cinema and my job as an activist to weaponize it in a way; to spark conversation that ideally translates into tangible, positive, social change.
I’ve always been motivated by social and economic inequalities and hypocrisies. I saw film as a way to navigate through that.
Notions of power and powerlessness, and perceptions of truth, usually involving feminism, speak to me most.
Have you observed a positive social impact happen as a result of your films?
Good question. They've certainly helped raise funds and awareness of certain issues. Whether that be raising funds for girls in Haiti or bringing attention to immigration issues on the border. How the screen can measurably translate into tangible change is always up for improvement.
#metoo, comedy, hustling, and the red light districts of Kolkata
I have been exposed to new characters in a world I wasn’t familiar with. I tend to find a lot of unlikely heroes in unlikely places. That’s eye opening.
What experiences have been your most life-changing?
Moving to Sydney at 14 from QLD to attend Newtown Performing Arts High. Moving to the US as a broke 21 year old and eventually becoming a permanent resident. Acquiring various skills along the way that helped me get hired and survive in the business. My grandmother recently passing away in our family’s arms. Looking after her in her final days.
Most joyful experiences in life usually revolve around dancing and comedy. I get a lot of joy out of writing feminist comedy and funneling the serious into the hysterical.
Seeing my work finally come together in the edit room. Or the writing finally taking shape in a director’s treatment. Countless, sleepless nights, sweat, tears, technical obstacles, health issues and bills, finally mounting to something that you intended on screen. Those little achievements add up in the end.
Also, being in some far off land, quietly operating behind camera as someone reveals their world and trusts you with that. It’s a quiet moment. And I feel the camera operating from my heart, the same way I do when I dance.
Just staying in the game and making sure the quality of my work, and resume, is getting closer to where I want it to be.
Los Angeles is a city filled with hungry, hustling beasts who have flocked from every corner of the world, in pursuit of a dream. There will always be someone working harder than you, connected to more people than you, has more resources than you…some sort of advantage or talent. And as a female filmmaker and first-time immigrant, my path has been anything but easy.
And as a female filmmaker, we’re now starting to get some recognition. The #metoo movement has put many men on their toes, and helped women band together when hiring. Women have many more obstacles to jump over and that’s taxing, but it can also be very motivating.
Another challenge is filming in some remote places that may not be the safest, especially as a woman.
The most challenging aspect of my life is managing health and living so far from family - not seeing them enough, year after year. Life is short. People don't live forever. And life is tough. It’s hard not having loved ones closer. Having people you can trust and be vulnerable with.
Travelling and working with children’s organizations in the slums and red-light districts of Kolkata. Filming in rural Malawi and living in a village with no running water, electricity, roads. Sleeping on the concrete floor of a small hut with village women and their children each night. Showering with a bucket. Not being able to communicate. Learning how to charge batteries without electricity.
Being a female behind the camera is always interesting and seeing how people respond, especially men.
Lately, I’ve been filming in dominatrix dungeons in NY and LA, so I have been exposed to new characters in a world I wasn’t familiar with. I tend to find a lot of unlikely heroes in unlikely places. That’s eye-opening.
But my most eye-opening experience was recently looking after my grandmother at her home in her final days. That makes you graduate to a new level of humanity.
My family and I became DIY hospice nurses; sponging her mouth, giving her droplets of water, changing her diaper, or increasing her morphine each hour. Holding her while she gradually left her body, after a painful battle with Asbestos cancer - something I only ever heard about in the news.
She was our Everything. I stayed by her bed for two days after she passed - painting her nails, writing, talking, crying, holding her. And then I made a doc about her for the funeral. Every time I saw her over the years I filmed her.
And now that’s all we have left. Memories and mundane moments captured on camera. Grieving changes you. Each day is different.
Current and future projects
I have an interesting creative network in the US, but I’d like to pool some Aussie talent together and take our skills back down under.
What are you are working on right now?
I’m in the middle of post-production for Pussy Politics. I’m also wrapping up post for Mother: Malawi.
These projects will be housed under my new creative lab The Female Factory, in the US, and soon to be in Australia.
Also, this month I’m back on the road as cinematographer for a feature doc about grief, by another female director. We’ve been traveling all across the USA, filming families who have lost loved ones. And today I directed a docu-commercial for a children’s organization.
What is The Female Factory?
We’re a creative lab making feminist films.
I was waiting for the right name to come to me. I went to Tasmania last year with my mother to track the history of our Irish-convict ancestors. Female Factories were prisons, or torture chambers really, for females brought over from the UK and Ireland. It’s inhumane what went on there.
I want the Female Factory that I’ve created to be a complete reversal of what the original Female Factory was.
I wanted an umbrella name that covered my work as a filmmaker and writer, but also one that could house other projects with other creatives, especially working in tech innovation.
What do you hope 2019 will bring? And what do you plan to do next?
My main objective for this year is wrapping up Pussy Politics. I also hope to get a series of investment funds for the Female Factory. I have an interesting creative network in the US, but I’d like to pool some Aussie talent together and take our skills back down under, where the Female Factory originally began. I also want to expand more into the realm of political comedy.
I think feminism and comedy is where it’s at.
Being a student and being bold
Spend a lot of time in the library. Improve your writing by re-writing. Use a pen instead of the keyboard, if you have writer’s block. Create a website. Get a mentor. Be bold.
What was your experience of UTS?
UTS allowed me to go in, concentrate on my work, study at the library for hours, and enjoy what I was writing about. And I was impressed by the political open-mindedness of the university. The degree enabled me to further carve out a creative and political voice on the page.
What did you win the 2008 UTS Human Rights award for?
I was submitted for my work with non-government organizations, and first time filmmaking.
At the time I had travelled back and forth to India to develop an NGO called VITAL for Children, which now funds several schools and child health programs in Kolkata.
When I won the award, I had also travelled to Kenya and Egypt to film my first short doc on female genital mutilation. I was also the Head Student Delegate for UTS at the Intervarsity Summit of Australia Role in Ending Extreme Poverty in 2008, and edited UTS student magazine Womxn’s Vertigo.
What did winning that award mean for you? What happened afterwards?
In times of doubt, which there’s plenty of in this industry, it can give a much needed boost of encouragement. I hadn’t really noticed until now that it’s been 10 years and I’m still pretty much doing the same thing, in pursuit of the same goal, but in Hollywood.
What is one key thing you took from your time at UTS? What advice do you have for current students and new grads and anyone thinking of studying writing?
The key thing I took away was I felt accepted, by the teachers and the course itself. The caliber of the coursework was encouraging. It gave my intellect a good outlet.
Advice: Spend a lot of time in the library. Improve your writing by re-writing. Use a pen instead of the keyboard, if you have writer’s block. Create a website. Get a mentor. Be bold.
Feel the fear and do it anyway.
Learn more about the Bachelor of Communication (Creative Writing) or explore our Bachelor of Communication (Media Arts and Production).