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Meet Bettina Hanna: The Documentary Filmmaker Who Tells Stories That Matter

Telling the stories of people’s real-world experiences, documentary films are needed now more than ever. Documentaries hold the ability to tell powerful stories and educate those on important issues, and documentary filmmaker Bettina Hanna is doing just that with her work. With seventeen years of experience spanning a variety of film and television genres, Hanna is a jack of all trades, and dabbles in all parts of the creative process of filmmaking, detailing the narratives of people from all around the world.

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Hanna to discuss her career and approach to filmmaking, as well as gain some insight on two of her latest documentary features.

Your background is in radio and television, journalism, and communications. How did you initially get involved with documentary filmmaking?

I’ve worked most of my like at MTV Brazil either directing or producing reality shows, live tv shows, interviews, etc. I really loved to work for a youth audience but documentary was always something I wanted to do but didn’t really know how. When I moved to California everything was new to me so I saw many interesting places and stories and people that I thought could give me a great narrative to start my documentaries. Indeed, my first short doc was filmed at a very interesting place in the desert of California where no one really goes.

When it comes to subject matter, where do you generate your ideas for your documentaries from?

I like to say I’m always on the hunt for good stories. I don’t aim for anything specifically but I like to talk to people and I like to show different scenarios. I live in San Diego which is a border city so it gives me a wide range of great stories about immigrants, refugees and people coming here from all over the world.

Your upcoming film, “The Bus Station Project,” documents the important account of two retired, ESL teachers who help asylum seekers in Downtown San Diego. What else can you tell us about the film?

I love this story because these two ladies could be easily sitting at their couches on the comfort of their homes having some tea and watching tv but instead they are giving a lot of their time to help these people who come into the country with almost no food, no money and basically no English. The documentary shows some families arriving at a bus station in Downtown San Diego and the hassle they have to go through to get to their final destination to meet a family member or a friend. That’s when the help of the two ladies come in because their trips take 2, 3 days and both Mimi and Paula help them with food, blankets, toys for the kids, toiletries, etc. There’s a short version of the documentary available at their Facebook page:

I understand that you direct, produce, film, and edit most of your own documentaries. What’s it like wearing so many important hats at once? How do you effectively juggle all of the responsibilities that come with each role?

In some situations, it really helps being just me, myself and I. When you have to do a difficult interview or to be in a place that is a little bit sketchy or different I would say you better not come with a huge crew. It is hard but it’s a style I’m used to. The funny part is that here in the US I do it all by myself and every time I go to Brazil it’s an opposite reality with a crew of 150 people. I like to work both ways.

How do you approach the editing process of your films?

That’s the hardest part. Honestly, I don’t really love editing, specially the first part when you have to watch every single thing you filmed. It’s a lot of work! But I do love constructing the puzzle, adding soundtracks and giving the final touches.

Another one of your recent films, Not Kidding, written by Trish Pavlecich, tells the stories of twelve women of all ages and their decision to refrain from having children. This is such a prevalent topic in today’s society amongst women, especially millennials. What inspired your vision for this project?

Bettina Hanna with Trish Pavlecich

This is a very funny story because when Trish contacted me I didn’t know what the film was about. We met in person and she told me the subject of the story and I was like “I’m not sure I’m a good fit because I’m actually trying to have a baby”. At the same time, I thought it was a good opportunity to show what these women go through with society telling them they do have to get pregnant. Even for myself, even though I’m trying to conceive I get all kinds of weird questions about being pregnant so the movie shows exactly why you have to free your mind and do whatever you think it’s best for yourself. There are very successful women, married women, old, young, all sorts of realities and many reasons why they chose not to have kids and we want to show that it’s totally ok.

What has been your favorite parts about pursuing a career in documentary filmmaking? What advice would you give to those who are aspiring to do the same?

My favorite part of doing documentaries is definitely being able to show people doing good, helping each other, helping the less fortunate. I work with an organization called Unity4Orphans and I’ve been in Mexico for one of their trips and it’s so rewarding to show how important their work is. So being able to spread the word out about good causes through my films is what I like the most. I think the best advice I could give to whoever is willing to jump in the documentary filmmaking is: be curious and don’t judge. It will take you to many places to get good stories.

Check out some of Bettina Hanna’s work on Vimeo: Follow Bettina Hanna on Instagram:

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