To keep things simple, you could call Alison Watson, the founder of Four Sisters Films, a documentarist. It’s true that she has an envy-inducing job that allows her to travel the world, meet fascinating people, and tell real, compelling stories through film. But Alison is really much more. She’s a visual storyteller, an environmentalist, a non-profit fundraiser, and an arts festival founder. Who needs a label like documentarist? Not Alison, a woman who is always searching for a new way to tell stories, even if that means breaking away from the traditional format of documentaries. When she creates a film (or a festival or an art installation) about a cause she cares about, she’s not just trying to raise awareness—she’s inspiring her viewers to get involved and actually make a difference in their worlds.
You’re a documentarist and executive producer at Four Sisters Productions. What kind of films do you make?
Almost all the documentaries I’ve worked on are tied to a good cause. I find stories about people doing motivating things or about issues that I think people need to know about, and I try to tell an emotional, softer side to these stories. Instead of making a typical documentary and only telling the gloom and doom, which makes you want to go home and forget about it, I tell the parts of the story that will actually get you to do something. I also work with a great team. There is no such thing as “I” in storytelling—it’s a huge collaboration.
Your next big film project is called Elevation. Tell me about it.
Elevation was a huge expedition. We followed four world-class alpinists to China as they climbed first ascents on peaks in the Sichuan region of China. While there, they built an Alpine school to help a local Tibetan village, Rilong. The people in Rilong and the surrounding area were having a hard time recovering and rebuilding after a devastating earthquake in 2008 that condemned the entire town, so the climbers taught them climbing techniques to help them build an ecotourism business and get back up on their feet.
What other projects have you done?
I’ve shot a lot of outdoor, nature-based films that look at environmental issues. Another film I worked on was called Eight Minutes with Sienna Miller and Participant Media’s TakePart. It’s about gender-based violence and tells the story of the International Medical Corps’s work in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We followed different women’s stories and what the Corps does there, which is incredible.
You mentioned that you always try to show the inspiring side of stories. But how could you take a story about rape and violence in Congo and still tell it in a positive way?
I love documentaries, but I’m also generally disappointed with their format. It’s always the same. You have talking heads and B-roll and you hear some kind of heartrending story, and then at the end there is no follow up, besides, “go to this website.” So instead, we thought about how beautiful all these women are, that they’re survivors, and that there are people in an organization who go and do something incredible in the face of the horrible things that happen in Congo. We took the stories of the people who are helping and the people who are being helped and showed that there’s hope. People are actually making a difference there, and seeing that is so inspiring. I feel like if you don’t know that, it’s hard for viewers because we’re so combated today with all these issues and causes. It gets a little depressing if you don’t see that it can turn around.
Besides your commitment to always show the positive with the negative, is there is anything else that makes your documentaries unique?
I tell inspiring stories to make a difference, but also my filmmaking style is more like a narrative feature than a standard documentary—it has an emotional look and feel.
But is there ever any fiction in your films?
No, we don’t stage anything or do any replays. In China, when one of our climbers fell 25 feet and broke his back, we got the fall and the epic rescue on film because it happened as we were filming.
I also hear you don’t just create films.
No, I create visual stories. Anything that can use audio or visuals to capture an audience and evoke emotion, I like to do. I have produced 3D animations using complex data from NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center. I have worked on performance pieces that use music and projection work. Basically, my work ranges across many mediums. I even founded a mentorship-based creative arts festival in Asheville, North Carolina, called Hatch. There’s film, music, design, technology, fashion, photography, journalism, architecture—it’s everything. We bring in artistic luminaries from all over the world who come in and do panels, workshops, exhibits, and performances. We also bring in up-and-coming artists we call groundbreakers. We show off their work and connect them to mentors.
So did people have to pay to participate in or attend the festival?
No, it is completely free for everyone involved. We flew in the mentors and groundbreakers and put them up. We completely raised all the money for it through sponsorships. It took a long time to set up, but we felt it was important to keep it open to the public and to not have any hindrances that would prevent anyone from coming.
Looking at Elevation and Hatch’s websites, it’s clear you get a lot of sponsors. How do you convince so many people to support you?
I have a tendency to be a little overconfident. Whether it’s through a connection or completely blind, I contact sponsors and explain the values of supporting the project—whether it’s to give back to their communities, or for marketing and branding opportunities. I show them that if they support us, they’ll get a lot out of it on both ends.
You do so much! What are you working on right now?
We finished filming Elevation and are in post-production. We’re talking about distribution right now and figuring out details, but it should be released at the end of the year. I’m also working on the Alpine school we established in Rilong. We built it so the climbers would come back once a year to teach, and after three years, the students who graduate will start teaching the school on their own.
So it’s not like you just went, shot some film, and came home.
No, I almost never go somewhere and just leave. I always want to leave something sustainable for the communities whose stories I tell.
What kind of projects do you have planned for the future?
I’m brainstorming a photography and multimedia project about survivors… But I can’t tell you too many details about it yet. It’s only a concept at this stage.
I can’t wait to see what you do next. How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
The best way is to support Elevation. We’re still looking for sponsors and investors. For the Alpine school, we’re looking for donations to sustain it and support its growth over the next couple years.
What about people who are broke, like college students. How can they contribute?
Get in touch with us and volunteer to bring the film to your school when it comes, or just let other people know about the project by sharing a link to our website with your friends.
sponsors, investors, volunteers