Bulgarian-American filmmaker Chakarova spent years as a photojournalist. She traveled the world to shoot in conflict zones, pointing her lens most often at human rights abuses.

And while she became quite distinguished in photography, she always wanted to be a filmmaker. Why wasn't she one? The roadblock, as for many other women in the business, was money.

“I did not come from a family with money,” Chakarova told No Film School. “I couldn't raise the budgets required to direct and then to bring on other folks. So I became a photographer.”

Until one day, she found herself interviewing and photographing women who had been sold into sex trafficking.

“The still camera reached its limitation,” Chakarova said. “I was photographing a woman. She was smoking this cigarette and telling me a story about how she was sold in Dubai. She was pregnant, and the man who paid for her doubled the price because men wanted to have sex with a pregnant woman. As she was telling the story, the ash of her cigarette was getting closer and closer to her finger. She didn't really care. She was elsewhere. And I knew there was no way I could capture this in a still image.”

After spending four more years with that woman, even posing undercover as a sex worker, Chakarova was able to make her debut feature The Price of Sex.

A decade later, Chakarova is a successful filmmaker and founder of the documentary series platform Still I Rise. And now, she wants to help you offset the cost of being a filmmaker, starting with a grant and mentorship to make your short documentary.

Chakarova spoke with No Film School about the new fellowship, tips on applying, and how to build an army of female filmmakers of the future.

How Still I Rise began out of the frustration of being alone

Founded in 2018 by Chakarova, Still I Rise is a documentary film series and distribution platform that focuses on female voices tackling stories of adversity and diving into race and migration.

Chakarova: It started out of frustration, which is how most of my projects start. I had this award at the Lincoln Center years ago for "courage in filmmaking." I got on stage, and I thought, You guys, you're giving me the wrong award, it should be an award for anger. So much of what I do comes from that place where I don't want to just bitch about something, I want to actually change it. I was so frustrated with our industry. I was so frustrated with places where I would feel like I was the only female. This happened for the last two decades, I would say consistently. Whether I worked as a photojournalist, whether I worked as a filmmaker, whether I worked as a freelancer because I took on a lot of gigs to pay bills.

It’s frustrating to be in that environment where you're the only one. I think making films is like an illness and insanity. It comes from this place of passion and deep love, because you know that it's powerful if it's done right. And everyone thinks, "Oh, filmmaking, it's so collaborative." But often it's very solitary. I felt like I was in a cave, making work year after year. I felt that a comradery of professional women was needed.

01_mandela_parkway-1Chakarova, filming with a crew of women including Hélène, two years ago.Credit: Hélène Goupil

Chakarova: And if you're an independent filmmaker, what you have to go through to get funding for your work is crazy. With fundraising, you're applying for grants, you're applying for fellowships. You go to foundations, you know there is going to be 400 applications, sometimes more than that. You're doing your work and it's just all-encompassing. But all of a sudden, you have to stop it, because you have to focus on this application. It'll take you a month and a half to two months to put all of these materials together. You write a special application, you hire an editor, unless you can edit yourself, to create a cut specifically for this grant.

And very often, you never hear from these people. You'll be lucky if you get a generic rejection that says, "Hello applicant. Due to the volume of applications this year... but thank you so much." That's the norm now. That's just how it is, it's so competitive. And so many of us need funding and we're independent. I just got frustrated. I got frustrated with not hearing from people. So I thought, what if I created something where A) we have money to do our own films as from the production company that I founded in 2012, and then B) create something that actually offers support to other women? And that became Still I Rise.

What the brand-new fellowship is all about

In its inaugural year, Still I Rise is offering grant money and mentorship to women filmmakers for short non-fiction films between 15 and 30 minutes that can be finished within six months.

The deadline is May 15, and you can read the official submission details here.

Chakarova: We've allocated $50,000. We state on our website that it's a range between $1,000 and $5,000, but most of the grants are $5,000 for films. Sometimes we get projects that are by illustrators or still photographers, which might be less, but for films, we're awarding $5,000 grants.

A lot of the stories, a lot of the applicants are shooting, editing, producing. I love this ability too, because of the technological advances, because of the cameras that we can finally afford you can get a 5D and shoot really beautiful stuff. And then I love women who also edit their own stuff. I just love that. I love the fact that you have full creative control of what you're putting out there in the world.

Chakarova: A lot of these stories that people are pitching, as well as the stories that we produce, are under-reported, and a lot of them focus on migration and race. A couple of the women on my team were immigrants. We came from other countries. This is our new home, but I think we see America through a different lens because we didn't grow up here. We grew up in other societies and other cultures. And I think it's really important to have more women behind the camera having the opportunity to tell those stories.

The deadline is on May 15. By June 15, we have the announcement of who the chosen fellows are going to be for 2021. So that's a pretty short [turnaround].

The other great thing is you're going to get to hear back from us. Each single person who applies, we'll get the individual attention they deserve and not fall through the cracks. Because we are small, and I think that's really important, to care for the filmmakers and kind of treat them the way I want to be treated.

NFS: You don't just find out that you lost when they announce the winners.

Chakarova: That sucks! And also, I think it's pompous. I hope that that's how we're different, because we are filmmakers. We're not on a pedestal. We're just trying to share resources and make sure there's more good work that's being made by more women. There is a real need for that in the documentary world.

Tips from Chakarova on applying (because she will actually read your application)

Chakarova: I don't want to put roadblocks along the way. So we're taking projects in almost any stage.

However, if you're in the development stage, we do need to see visual materials, so it's like if you include your website, which is what part of the application, I'll take a look at other examples of work. And if you don't have a website and if you don't have other examples of work, even sending clips is helpful.

We're looking for projects that are outside of the box, that are not the conventional factory cut. I don't come from a film background, and I'm not really attracted to that type of work. I'm not attracted to work that follows the rules. I'm attracted to work that says, "Screw the rules, we're going to create our own." And I think as women, it's really important to have that space, to do that. To say, "You know what? I don't want to tell this in this way. I want to tell it differently. And I want to have the room to do that." To explore and to take those creative risks is really important.

You can apply in production. People in post-production are welcome. The only ones that we can't do much with are finished films, where it’s been shown in different film festivals. We're not in the position yet to acquire films because we're so new. We're building our platform, so maybe two or three years down the line, we can actually acquire films and pay filmmakers for finished work. Right now, it needs to be work-in-progress.

The advice that I can give to folks is just do a little bit of homework, and see what we're about. We are attracted to films about adversity. They're usually focused on a personal narrative, so it's someone's story who has overcome adversity against the odds, but also what they're doing with that to help other people in return. It's the whole full circle. Those are the types of stories we're really looking for.

What it really takes to get more women in leadership roles in the film industry

We asked Chakarova what she would like to see going forward to make bigger, lasting changes for women in film.

Her biggest idea?

Chakarova: Greater creative control. We need greater creative control of our work. It's not just enough to have more women behind the camera shooting. There's a lot of cinematographers I know who are women, but then who ends up telling the story? There's a lot of women editors I know, but then whose vision are they really editing? Same goes for distribution, which is the final stage. If someone is asking you to make certain changes to your film, and those changes do not reflect your sensibility, do you do it?

The challenge is, "Okay, do I take the money? Do I take the contract?" Unless you're independently wealthy, it's not a very comfortable lifestyle. You're independent. Sometimes things go well, and sometimes you're spending life eating yogurt. There were periods when I was finishing two feature films, and I had just enough to pay my team, and there was nothing left over. And it was horrible.

So when you're sitting at some fancy place in New York or Los Angeles, both places I've frequented quite often throughout my career, and someone is like, "We really liked this, but we want to take it in a different direction.” What do you do as a filmmaker? What decisions do you make? So you've carried it this far, do you let go of it? I hope that we don't.

These greater changes would be to enable women to make better choices for their work, and be able to also feed yourself.

On creating an army of women filmmakers

Chakarova: We had this webinar with Women Make Movies and Chicken & Egg, and the moderator said, "So, with Still I Rise, you're really creating a family."

I don't think I'm creating a family. I'm creating an army. That's what I want. I don't know these women and honestly, I'm not trying to make them family. I just want them to do work. I want an army of change. I want to know that there are 20 of us, and next year is going to be 40 of us. And the following year, it's going to be 60 of us. That feeling alone fuels me and makes me get up at five in the morning.

It's not like we're just building community and it's all love and all family. We got a lot of work to do. You need someone who's going to just look at your rough cut and give you a whole four or five pages, or have a discussion on the real problems you need to address. Like, your ending is falling apart. How can you restructure that?

It's not family, it's work. It's what you do with colleagues. I mean, "army" is bad because it implies war. But sometimes it does feel like this. These are battles. It's a battle to make a film, and you need that type of support.

How to submit

Thinking about applying? Head over to the Still I Rise submission page here.

The deadline is May 15.

If you decide to submit, best of luck!

Header image illustration of Mimi Chakarova courtesy Still I Rise.

Correction, May 13, 2021, 9 a.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Chakarova as an Emmy winner. She has been Emmy nominated.