‘you can observe very personal moments and intimate relationships’

Filmmaker Sybil Patten uses storytelling passion to share personal stories

Fri, 07/12/2019 - 10:30pm

CAMDEN — Sybil Patten has always had a love of storytelling and has made her passion a reality through a pair of projects over the last few years. 

Growing up in Camden, Patten attended area schools until her sophomore year of high school when she attended boarding school. She earned a bachelor’s from New York University, a master’s from Hunter College and a master’s from University of California at Berkeley. 

Despite living in other parts of the country, Patten has remained close to a core group of Maine friends. 

In fact, one of her longtime friends, Nicole Dar, hosted a screening of Returning Home in Camden. 

“It was an extremely powerful experience to share my personal film with the people I grew up with,” Patten said. “When I return to Maine, it’s not just to visit my parents, but to see these childhood friends who are now mothers, business owners and active members of our community.”  

Since leaving the area, Patten has produced a web series, Becoming Bronx, and a personal documentary, Returning Home

Patten has always been a storyteller, she said, and developed a passion for the visual component of storytelling in New York. 

“In the beginning when I arrived in New York, I focused on writing for the theater,” she recalled. “However, while teaching at an arts summer camp, I was assigned a video storytelling class where I learned how to edit.”

From there, Patten was hooked. 

“Since then, I have always wanted a camera in my hand,” she said. “I would film my friends’ weddings and other family events, then edit short videos to share. I love the verité film style where you can capture a scene as one of the participants. Very quickly the people in the room ignore the camera, and you can observe very personal moments and intimate relationships.”

Becoming Bronx

Though Patten noted the Bronx is many times labeled New York City’s poorest borough, she saw the borough in a much different light during her time as an English as a Second Language teacher in the area. 

“As I got to know my students and their families more deeply, and got more and more familiar with the borough itself, I began to appreciate the chasm between the reality of what was happening there and the widespread public perception of the place and its people,” she said. 

With Becoming Bronx, she strove to create a map of stories illustrating more accurately, she said, the richness and diversity of the borough. Becoming Bronx, she said, is a web series about the Bronx told through the personal stories of its people. 

The series, which can be found at BecomingBronx.com, was primarily funded through a Kickstarter that raised $20,000. 

“My sound engineer was a guy trying to get his business off the ground and offered to help me with sound for free,” Patten said. “Everything else I did myself.”

When working on the project, Patten noted she was mostly working alone, which was difficult. 

“I found professionals to talk with, but for the most part I was figuring it out by trial and error,” she said. 

The best part of creating the film, she said, “was exploring the Bronx with my camera, which gave me access to people and stories.”

Returning Home

Returning Home was a much more personal story for Patten, one that, in fact, shifted from its original scope during the filming process. 

Initially, Patten sought to narrate and guide viewers through the Christmas season and provide an intimate feel.

“Originally my focus was on the domestic traditions of Christmas, and our individualistic country suddenly transforms into a home and relationship centered culture during the holidays,” she said. “My question was, as a 40-year-old, single and childless woman how do I fit into this Christmas narrative?”

During filming, however, her mother had an aneurysm while Patten was interviewing a historian in Canada. 

From mid-November to the end of December, Patten’s mother was recovering in a Portland hospital. 

“So, my story pivoted to an even more personal topic,” Patten stated. “When I visited my mother in the hospital, with my camera, we had such honest conversations that this became a story about reconnecting and forgiveness.”

The film was funded through grants and the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

Through her graduate studies, she was in a class of a dozen students who crewed on each other’s films. For Returning Home, Patten brought one classmate to Canada but all the other work was done by Patten. 

For this film, Patten found the personal subject difficult. 

“I spent four months rewatching raw and emotional moments with my mother,” she said. “Also, at the journalism school you have to explain why your story deserves coverage. So a Christmas film about mothers is not breaking news. However, by having to defend my idea this lead to more research, interviews and I became more and more attached and determined to tell my story.”

Since the film was funded by her graduate studies, Patten had four advisors, three professional filmmakers and a radio journalist, to lean on during the process, which was a sharp contrast from Becoming Bronx. 

“I was given tons of feedback throughout the process by these mentors who I admired,” she said. “So I went from never having enough feedback, in Becoming Bronx, to often feeling overwhelmed by all the comments and suggestions. This was a great lesson in listening to advice, but ultimately understanding that you are the director, and it’s up to you to make the final decision.” 

Patten is submitting Returning Home to film festivals and searching for a distributor. In the meantime, updates on the process can be found at sybilpatten.com

Patten’s Future

Patten’s next project will follow her genre of personal documentary style films and will include years of footage she filmed with her grandmother and her grandmother’s farm in Vermont, where her grandmother passed in 2013. 

“I want to explore the change in class and gender roles from when she was born in 1928 until almost a century later when she died,” Patten said. 

In the fall, Patten will return to New York from California. 

“There is a lot I will miss about the Bay Area, but being only a bus ride away from Camden will be nice,” she stated. “This fall my advisor from Berkeley will be a judge at the CIFF [Camden International Film Festival] pitch session. I look forward to reconnecting with her in my hometown. I also look forward to visits with my two year old goddaughter Faye at the Owl and Turtle bookshop. She likes the shortbread cookies while I enjoy my morning coffee, then she chooses a story for us to read together.”

Reach George Harvey at: sports@penbaypilot.com