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Katja Esson  

Acclaimed Documentary Filmmaker Academy Award Nominee

Katja Esson is an independent filmmaker based in New York City who mixes documentary and narrative genres. Esson began her career in Miami as a production assistant for the notorious rap group 2 Live Crew. Since her days of wrangling booty-shaking babes, Esson has directed a variety of award-winning documentaries, short films, and commercials. Born and raised in Germany, Esson brings a quirky European sensibility to the distinctively American subjects she chooses.

Esson is currently in production with Cantineros De Cuba, a film that reflects on the story of Cuba, a country undergoing its greatest transformation since 1959. Her documentary short Ferry Tales, which turns the unlikely setting of the Staten Island Ferry Powder Room into a celebration of sisterhood, received an Academy Award-nomination in 2004 for Best Documentary Short and aired on HBO. Ferry Tales exposes a secret world that exists in the powder room of the Staten Island Ferry—a place that brings together suburban moms and urban dwellers, white-collar and blue-collar, sisters and socialites. For 30 minutes every day, they gather around mirrors to put on their makeup, talking not as wives, mothers, or professionals, but just as themselves. Sassy and honest, they dish on everything from sex scandals to stilettos, family problems to September 11, leaving stereotypes at the door and surprising viewers with their straight-shooting wisdom. In an interview with the International Documentary Association, Esson explained: “Having maintained the eye of an outsider, I have a different perspective on many things. When Ferry Tales was all over the media, some reporters asked, ‘Why did it take a German director to discover something that was under our noses?’ The answer is that distance and strangeness bring their own kind of focus.”

In 2011, Esson released the 40-minute version of Poetry of Resilience, which had its world premiere at the Oscar-qualifying festival DocuWeeks in LA. Poetry of Resilience is a documentary about six international poets who individually survived Hiroshima, the Holocaust, China’s Cultural Revolution, the Kurdish Genocide in Iraq, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Iranian Revolution. These six artists, including Li-Young Lee, present us with a close-up perspective of the “wide shot” of political violence. Each story is powerful, though the film’s strength comes from its collective voice: different political conflicts, cultures, genders, ages, races—one shared human narrative. Poet Carolyn Forche is featured in the 55-minute version, and gives voice to the role of poet as witness. For Poetry of Resilience, Esson received the Simons Fellowship for the Humanities at Kansas University in 2007. The film was also nominated for the Cinema for Peace Award at the Berlin Film Festival in 2012.

Also released in 2011 was Skydancer, a film about the Mohawk tradition of ironworking, for which Esson received a 2008 Jerome Foundation Grant. From the Empire State Building and the George Washington Bridge to the World Trade Center, six generations of Mohawk ironworkers have raised New York City’s skyline, built the highways over the boroughs, and crossed the rivers by weaving carpets of steel. They are called “sky walkers” because they walk fearlessly atop steel beams just a foot wide, high above the city streets. The film premiered at the Margaret Meade Film Festival.

Hole in the Sky: The Scars of 9/11 premiered at Sunny Side of the Doc and received the 2006 Gold Award at the World Media Festival. Latching On (2010) is an entertaining and insightful documentary on the analysis of the politics of breastfeeding, illuminating the complexities behind a simple, natural act. The film draws on lively first-hand accounts from mothers of diverse ethnicities and economic backgrounds, as well as candid observations by pediatricians, healthcare providers, lactation specialists, and the proprietor of New York’s first breastfeeding boutique. Including data about paid maternity leave, hospital post-delivery policies, and workplace accommodations for nursing mothers, the film compares current US practices with standards adopted elsewhere. Tensions around public breastfeeding and “breast is best” promotion campaigns highlight society’s perceived interest in regulating women’s reproductive behavior, as well as the power of culture to assign sexual and moral meaning to mothers’ bodies.

A Season of Madness, her first narrative short film, played extensively at international film festivals. Adam – Retortenbaby Als Lebensretter (2003) commissioned by ARTE and Germany’s ARD stirred up significant debate in the German medical community. The film, based on on an essay by best-selling Lebanese author Hanan al-Shaykh, examines the thorny issues raised by pre-implantation genetic diagnosis by focusing on a child “designed” to be a perfect donor for his sister. Also commissioned for ARTE: Siegfried & Roy: A Fairytale for Grownups (2004), Vermisst- Geiseldrama in der Sahara (2005), New York Harbor (2005), and Hooker, Harlot, Whore (2010), about the history of prostitution in Europe. Other credits include the documentaries Vertical Traveler (2001), which explores the pioneering spirit of New York City through the metaphoric story of the city’s unique relationship with elevators. The film was broadcast on PBS and on Europe’s ARTE Channel. Searching for Sense (2002), an artist’s reflection on 9/11, also aired on PBS. In 2009, Esson directed an episode for the Emmy-award winning mini-series We Are New York.

In 2004 Esson founded her own production company, Penelope Pictures. She works regularly for German television; in 1997, she received a fellowship for her screenplay El Aleman at Berlin’s Master School. Esson has also received grants from the NEA, NYSCA and the Simons Public Humanities Fellowship.

A dynamic and passionate speaker, Katja Esson is available for screenings, lectures, and seminars. Note: some of the Ferry Women may also be available to attend screenings and panel discussions.


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Speech Topics

Poetry of Resilience

Documentary Filmmaking

Documentary vs. Narrative Storytelling

The Role of Women In the Arts

Expressing Our Feminine Power through the Creative Voice


Women & Work

Cuba: Then and Now


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