Spotlight: Gail Mooney's Uplifting Doc "Opening Our Eyes"

By David Schonauer   Thursday January 10, 2013

The story behind photographer and filmmaker Gail Mooney’s one-hour documentary film Opening Our Eyescan be told with a list of numbers: The film, which focuses on nine people from around the globe making a positive difference in the world, was shot in 99 days in 17 countries on 6 continents. Getting to the film’s subjects required 30 airline flights, eight visas, and 14 vaccinations. The result of the effort was 150 hours of footage—or about 2900 gigabytes of digital information.

poster “I can tell you now, that if I had known what the project would entail before I began it, I would have thought seriously about not starting it,” says Mooney. “But you hear that from a lot of filmmakers after their films are completed.”

      Mooney, who was one of the judges of the first annual Motion Arts contest in 2012, began thinking about her project in 2009 as a way to indulge her love of travel—an interest that had years before led her to pursue a career as an editorial photographer working for magazines like National Geographic, Smithsonian, and Travel & Leisure. “My daughter, Erin, had gone to Chicago for college and had recently said she was going to stay there after graduation, so my husband and I were officially empty nesters,” says Mooney, who is based in New Jersey.

          Having branched out into video a decade before, Mooney decided to stretch herself with a film project that would take her around the world. “I couldn’t just go off and travel for travel’s sake,” she says. Inspired by the work of one of her daughter’s friends, who had gone to Nepal after high school and used her babysitting money to buy a home for herself and 30 orphan children, Mooney determined to tell the stories of “ordinary people doing extraordinary things” to change the world for the better.

       After sending out an email to friends around the world for suggestions, she got an unexpected telephone call—from her daughter. “She said she wanted to be a part of the project and was going to quit her job and sublet her apartment to make the film,” Mooney says.

OPENING OUR EYES TRAILER from Gail Mooney on Vimeo.

The project itself was self-fincanced through two separate rounds of crowdfunding, one on Kickstarter and another on Indiegogo. The biggest expense, travel, was covered by cashing in 160,000 frequent flyer miles that Mooney had accumulated over her career. Total out-of-pocket price for two round-the-world airline tickets: $263 each.

       “The tickets meant we had to carefully plan the logistics,” says Mooney. “You can’t backtrack; you can go to one continent once, so we had to pick subjects who were going to be around when we were in that particular part of the world.”

       The nature of the project also determined what kind of equipment Mooney chose to shoot the film with. “It was the first time I embraced the DSLR as a video camera,” she says. “We knew we were going to be living out of backpacks and that we were going to be shooting stills as well video, so we opted to shoot with a Canon 5D Mark II and a Canon 7D as a backup. In the end I was just blown away by the superb quality of the video footage, even when it was projected on big theater screens.”

        The greatest challenge facing the mother-and-daughter film crew came from working with digital gear in places where the supply of electricity is often undependable. “We had to prioritize what we absolutely had to do before the electricity would be shut down,” she says.


Mooney echoes many other still photographers who have become filmmakers when she says that the essential difference between the two crafts lay in the importance of story. “Film is all about story,” she says. “I’ve noticed a difference between conversations I’ve had with filmmakers and ones I’ve had with photographers. When you’re speaking with a filmmaker, they often are telling you a story and usually not interjecting themselves into it, or telling you how they got this or that particular shot. Photographers on the other hand will often tell you how they executed something. It’s a different mind set.”

     Mooney has spent several months taking her film on the road to film festivals across the country, selling DVD at the events to cover expenses, and is now looking for sales agents for foreign television distribution. “I also think it will fit well in the education market, and hopefully that will put us in the black, which is not the norm for documentaries,” she says.



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