Each week, SHESAID features an inspiring woman who has been kind enough to share her story with our readers. She might be a leader in her chosen field, someone still on their own path striving to make a difference or simply someone with a remarkable story to tell. These women contribute their own knowledge, expertise and life lessons in order to truly inspire others.
Name and role.
Violeta Ayala, an independent filmmaker. I write, direct and produce films.
What do you do on a day-to-day basis?
My days are so different depending on which stage I am at on a film. There’s researching, shooting, editing or knowing when I’m promoting my next film on the festival circuit. Sometime I have to do all of them at once, but on different films.
At the moment, I’m working on a film trilogy. I’m promoting The Bolivian Case on the festival circuit, Cocaine Prison is in the edit suite and due to be completed by the end of the year and South Meets North is in development. I’m writing a feature film screenplay called Cocaine Queens. I’m also working on a personal film about the birth of my daughter – I really wanted a natural birth and being swept up in the emotional roller-coaster that pregnancy is and how I got caught up with the wrong doctor.
The short story is that after 33 hours of labor, I couldn’t give birth naturally and I had to demand a c-section. The next seven days were the hardest in my life, to see my little baby fighting for her life in intensive care. Fortunately she’s now a year old and a very healthy & happy little girl.
I travel a lot and have to work on the road. I have an office I’m rarely in. Once I begin making a film, I work 24 hours a day. My head just doesn’t stop thinking about it – sort of like how it is taking care of your kids. At the moment I’m breastfeeding Suri and feed her while I’m writing, traveling and even as I spend a lot of time in the public. I even breastfed her the other night in the cinema during the world premiere of The Bolivian Case. Motherhood has grounded me as a woman and as a filmmaker.
How/when did you know this what you wanted to do as a career?
I was born with severe dyspraxia, but paradoxically I was also born with a talent for telling stories. As a little girl, I used to write plays with my brothers and we’d perform them on special family occasions. We also had a family monthly newspaper, which considering how young we were, was surprisingly well produced.
In my teens, I became a theatre actress and performed in London, New York, Paris, Rome, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo and Edinburgh – we toured the world for about a year. My mum was a doctor and always wanted me to go to university but I felt university was too boring.
After the theatre, I traveled all through Latin America, the US and South East Asia, working odd jobs and that was when I decided to go to University. I studied communications at Charles Sturt University and luckily discovered my future career.
I was in second year and had a class in video production, as soon as I saw how a film was edited together, something in my head clicked and I instantly understood how to make films. I spent the next two years at University exploring filmmaking, shooting during the days and editing during the nights, making short films about everything. I even made films for every member of my family as a Christmas present. I’d found a new way to express myself and I just couldn’t stop. It’s been a process of discovery ever since and I’m now making feature films which I find exciting.
Where do you find your inspiration?
I find stories through the people I meet. I’m very curious and talk to everyone. I’m not afraid to talk to anyone from the taxi driver or someone on the street selling things, to the president of a country or a convicted drug trafficker. We’re all people and once you start a conversation it’s often surprising what people tell you, if you only ask.
“Everyone has a story to tell and quite often the most interesting stories come from the people you least expect.”
I’m interested in telling stories relevant to the times we’re living, but I’m a little bit confrontational so I like to tell stories from a different or unexpected perspective. By telling the stories of the people whom society shuns, for instance in The Bolivian Case, I tell the story of a group of people the justice system considers criminals. I give the audience an alternative view to the main stream media and by doing so I challenge the status quo in this case of the War on Drugs.
Did you have a mentor? Who/what helped you to get your career off the ground?
Filmmaking is a very collaborative process and I’ve worked with many talented people from whom I’ve learned a lot. The person I’ve learned the most from is my creative and life partner of the past 9 years, Dan Fallshaw.
I’m also terribly fortunate to have been supported by the wonderful people behind some of the world’s most prestigious film funds such as the Sundance Documentary Fund, MacArthur Foundation, Tribeca Film Institute, Chicken and Egg, France’s World Cinema Fund, Britdoc Foundation, Screen Australia and Screen NSW amongst others.
I’ve participated in many film labs and markets where I’ve met many friends and collaborators in every corner in the world from Berlinale to Film Independent, AIDC to Good Pitch.
What were the stumbling blocks, initially getting started on your career path, and since then?
The film industry is dominated by men, studios are run by men, TV stations are run by men and most film funds are run by men. Being a woman of colour and the daughter of an immigrant to Australia, I’m well aware of limitations set by society. That said, I don’t feel I’ve had many stumbling blocks, but it hasn’t been easy road to get to where I am today.
When I was 6, I was playing in the park with my dad. I started a running race with another little boy, when his mother shouted at me, “you can’t race against my son – you’ll lose, you are a girl.” I looked at my dad who said to me; “Look at your legs, they’re the same as his legs, you can run just as fast.” I was so glad my dad said that to me at such a young age because it marked my life. I don’t like to comply with gender limits imposed on us by society.
How did you overcome these?
By focusing on my work, making the most of the opportunities I have. I love what I do so much that I can’t see myself doing anything else. I will make films until I am 100 years old or even more. I’ve taken a lot of risks, sometimes they pay off and sometimes they don’t. But on the whole, I’d have to say that as a filmmaker it pays off to take risks than not.
What are your goals for the future?
To finish the next two parts of the drug war trilogy I’m working on. I will make my first narrative feature film in the next 5 years. I will continue to build and grow my production company, United Notions Film, focusing on producing films by women, minorities, young people who are talented and hardworking but underrepresented. However, the most important thing for me is to see my daughter grow up, enjoy every single day with her, even when I’m so busy. My overall goal is to keep fighting for what I believe in and to tell stories that matter.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to follow the same path as you?
The only way you will become a filmmaker is by making films. Don’t wait for someone to discover you, don’t try to become part of the establishment; you really just have to get in there and do it. You don’t even need to go to film school, we all watch so much TV, films and media that we know what works and what doesn’t – filmmaking is a trial and error process.
Rock the boat, break the status quo, don’t become part of the statistics that keep women in the waiting seat. No-one is going to hand it to you on a platter. Explore your creativity, fight for what you want and don’t let anyone make you believe that your story doesn’t matter. Filmmaking takes your life. Making a film is like putting a puzzle together without knowing what the picture looks like until you get to the end.
It’s so exciting when you see all the years of hard work and doubts come together into something tangible. It’s this uncertainty throughout the entire process that makes a film such a powerful work of art, capable to ignite change.