From the orderly confines of her Greenwich Village atelier — as Loki the cat stalks regally through a concise landscape of idea boards, spiritual mementos, and minimalist furnishings dotted here and there by various ‘notes to self’ — storyteller/ filmmaker Dar Dowling is adjusting her lens. Not a literal lens, mind you, but that of her mind’s eye, as she reflects upon several groundbreaking projects in various states of completion.
“Focusing is one of our greatest tools,” says Dowling, whose documentaries and scripted works have made a strong impression at festivals in the US and Europe. “It’s a very effective trick… any time that you feel you want to ‘check out,’ do the opposite and ‘check in.’ I get curious about the small details and try to explore things at a granular level.”
Big concepts explored at street-level: such is the magic of Dowling’s work. She has done so, expertly, with a spectrum of subjects… Sex education (Hey Mom, What’s Sex?), political disenchantment (Apocalection), and family trauma (her debut scripted work, By Any Means). With Double Take, Dowling offers a glimpse into the life of a captivating trans man, as he comes to experience the dubious luxury of ‘male privilege.’ And she is currently at work on a film that casts light on the big business of sex trafficking.
There are countless moments worth chronicling and lives worth following at any given time. But upon inspection, these stories hearken back to just a handful of universal truths—the inherent worthiness of all beings, the inevitability of change, humankind’s indomitable search for acceptance and love. It takes an artist, at a moment of great inspiration, to light one of our everyday stories from within so its truth can shine through. Such is Dar Dowling’s goal each day behind her camera, one she seems to meet with each new film she releases.
“I’m just calling life as I see it,” says Dowling.
As you put the finishing touches on your latest doc, how do you feel your style has evolved as a filmmaker?
Ah well, my team is actually finishing up editing two new films, Hineni, which in Hebrew means, “Here I am God.” This documentary is about a transgendered man’s conversion to conservative Judaism. Then there is the Body Doc, which is all about how people feel about their bodies. I am very excited about the Body Doc because it touches on so many issues, ranging from gender and sexuality to how people see themselves.
Over time my style has continued to reflect my intense desire to get to know people on a deeper level, which is why I was drawn toward making documentaries even though that was never my intention. Documentaries let you dig deep, and stylistically I shoot in a very low key way, so even if you have people in front of the camera for a short time, which happens in some of my films like Hey Mom, What’s Sex, which was about peoples sex talks with their moms, they will reveal their truth more fully if the energy is right. When that happens it is literally pure magic, and makes my heart happy.
What kind of person do you find most fascinating?
Ah…well, there is a certain energy that they have that I don’t really have words for, sometimes it’s a spark in their eyes, the way they tell their story, the aura that envelopes them, or something else. It’s really hard for me to pin it down.
It takes a big leap of faith to settle on a theme for a documentary and put it into motion… how do you just know when a subject matter is worthy of your focus?
Usually it’s just a feeling, and a pull in a certain direction, whether it’s about exploring body issues, male privilege, or telling someone’s story. For example, when I decided to make my newest documentary, which I hope to wrap up in 2021, I was at a conference on human trafficking because my friend had put it together. I like to show up for the people I love. While there I heard this young woman speak about what she had been through, and how she was helping the police get other women out of their trafficking situation.
There was something about her, about her energy, about how she told her story, which made me want to know more. At the time I didn’t want to do a film on trafficking, and kept telling myself as she took us through her story, that I would not make this film for lots of reasons, including the fact that it would be hard on me emotionally. But thirty minutes later I walked up to her and asked her if we could make a film and she said yes. I’m grateful that she was up for it, because meeting her has been a very real gift, and changed my life.
You began your filmmaking after spending time in other careers… what did it take emotionally to decide this path and persevere every day and, now, through several successful projects?
Yes, I have worn many hats over the course of my career, including being the CMO for Atlas Elite Partners and Raver Magazine. In reality they all involve story telling. I guess at the core of my being that’s what I am – a story teller. It’s what I have always been, whether it’s when I’m writing a book, making visual art with my pen and brush, or using a camera. They all have a certain beauty about them. What I love about filmmaking is that it brings them all together.
These days even when I write a story I am wondering how it would look on film. Speaking of that, in 2021 I will be releasing my first hybrid graphic novel. Samantha Ouellette, who is an amazing artist and animal rights activist in Ontario, Canada, is creating the art for it. I am very excited about this project. Yes, I have an eye on bringing it to life even more fully on the big screen.