AWD member Monika Estrella Negra spoke with Amy Oden about her journey to filmmaking and her 2017 Emmy win for a documentary about one of the first pure-fentanyl overdoses in Maryland.
Tell us your background. Where are you currently working and living?
I’m from New York originally, but grew up in the Washington, DC area. I am currently working at the Maryland PBS affiliate, and living in Baltimore! I worked at a nonprofit station in Northern Virginia called MHz Networks for a number of years, and then at another public station called DCTV, before coming here. I’ve dipped in and out of media in academia, as well.
What drew you to film?
I took a media literacy class in high school, actually, that was a huge game changer. I had the privilege of having access to cameras through school, and once I learned about the effects that capitalism has had on image production in this country, I was hooked on the idea of changing things from the inside. I studied broadcast journalism in college, and off to the races I went.
Do you feel as if your work is participating in the struggle for equality?
I consider myself a filmmaker, journalist, and documentarian who is concerned with questions of social justice. I try, though my work, to make space for underrepresented perspectives, and to connect with the people I film in a way that enables me to foreground their humanity in a de-sensationalized way. I hope the work calls people’s preconceptions into question, and spurs shifts in perspectives.
When did you win your Emmy and what was your motivation for the project?
I won an Emmy in 2017 (so, last year, technically). It was for a short I shot about a mother who lost her son in one of the first pure-fentanyl overdoses in Maryland. Maryland Public Television was producing a bunch of material through a partnership with the state’s health department, and they had asked me to do a segment on fentanyl, specifically. Beth Schmidt’s name came up again and again in my research, and so I reached out to her. We shot the interview and some other footage over the course of several weeks, first meeting in her home in Sykesville, Maryland. What struck me about Beth was her incredible resilience and dedication in the face of her loss. I think her activism began as a response to the trauma she had experienced, and she remains a pillar in the recovery community in Maryland. Her kind and generous heart, I hope, is portrayed in the work.
Did life change for you after winning your Emmy? Did your perspective on life differ?
I think I’ve just started taking my own work more seriously in general in the last few years. It’s easy to feel like you’re always going to be an amateur, or that your work isn’t progressing, but getting a “win” every once in a while helps refuel the tank for your ambitions. I think my workflow and process has gotten more deliberate, but my underlying motivations are the same! Doors and windows open and shut all the time, but of course it doesn’t hurt to have the word Emmy in your resume.
What future projects are in store for you?
I’m currently in development/early production for two independent projects, and am in post on one series at Maryland Public Television, and pre-production for another. One of the indy pieces is called Calasag, and is planned as a feature about a Filipino-American pop-up restaurant of the same name. The other is a short doc about the alt-drag scene in DC and Baltimore. The editing I’m doing at Maryland Public Television right now is for a companion digital series to the Retro Report, which PBS is airing in October. The pre-production work I’m doing is for another short series about food and family, which I’ll be shooting through the holidays. My indy work is a lot more deliberately in-line with my sociopolitical interests, but I slide things in at PBS where I can!
Any solid advice for AWD members and other aspiring filmmakers?
Keep going. This work requires a range of skill-sets, and is often solitary and confusing. Find organizations to join, and mentors to draw from, because you’ll need people to encourage you along the way. Be shameless in your asks – you never know when someone will say yes. Believe in the power of the stories you’re trying to tell, and don’t be afraid to sit down and flesh out your ideas! Watch every film you can get your hands on. Shoot as much as possible. But most importantly, keep putting one foot in front of the other!