Dream. Believe. Do. Interview #13 - 99% of the time, you have to give something up

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Fear is what frequently holds us back from pursuing our dreams. Part of that fear is worrying about what one has to give up in order to pursue that dream. Steve Clack, a documentary filmmaker and teacher realized that, in order for him to pursue his dream the way he wanted to, it required faith and sacrifice. The result? It's worth it.

Steve Clack: I was in this small village where there was literally like a team of people cleaning an elephant but the guy who was in charge of the elephant cleaners standing you know, knee deep in the river, had a smartphone. And I guess what I'm trying to say is if you have a smartphone, you have a filmmaking device.

Dennis Hodges: That’s Steve Clack, documentary filmmaker and founder of the non-profit organization Bent Marble. Through Bent Marble, Steve travels the globe offering free documentary film workshops to youth, teaching them how to tell their stories.

Steve: Bent Marble, besides being the name of the organization that I recently started, it's also kind of like my own kind of personal metaphor for, you know, life, in general. Bent Marble was also kind of the name of my “doing business as” organization, when I was working in New York's City as a freelancer, mostly doing sound mixing. But I think Bent Marble was always meant to be much more like what I'm doing now. And this idea actually had been germinating in my head for an embarrassing [laughs] number of years. Like, you know, probably ten years or more, I had this kind of idea growing in my head of what I'd really like to do with my professional and personal time.

Dennis: Which is?

Well, what Bent Marble is doing now is we teach documentary filmmaking workshops that last about one month, in different parts of the world. And what's really interesting is the students use whatever cameras, whatever cell phones and whatever computers that they already have access to, so whether it's their own personal devices or whether we're working with the community center that has a couple of cameras and a couple of computers. Whatever resources already exist in the community, that's what we use in our classes and we teach people how to make short documentary films that are about stories that come from what I call their “world of experience,” that has like their personal point of view about subjects that they are already familiar with. And that's why it's possible to do it in a month's time because if we wanted to do like a documentary, you know, like on the history of religion in India, like, we might need more than a month to get it done.

Dennis: Right.

Steve: But if we wanna do a documentary on, you know, let’s say, on my mother's experience in Judaism, for instance, because I'm already familiar with the person and the topic, that's something that we can approach right way and get started on right away.

Dennis: That's pretty cool. So by using the available cameras you have whether it’s a phone or whatever it is from a community center, in my mind, you have a level of sustainability then as well.

Steve: Absolutely. I mean, I was in India last year and usually, what I do is like, I'll teach workshops for a month or two and then I'll travel for a week or two in order to see some of the country and get a little bit of better feel for the lay of the land, literally. I was in this small village where there was literally like a team of people cleaning an elephant but the guy who was in charge of the elephant cleaners standing you know, knee deep in the river, had a smartphone. And I guess what I'm trying to say is if you have a smartphone, you have a filmmaking device. I think almost everyone today has a smartphone. And because of that, I think you know what Bent Marble, my organization is doing, it's becoming more and more possible to do these kind of workshops in more and more places in almost anywhere.

Dennis: I think it's amazing. I gave a keynote the other day and my first question to the audience was, “How many of you own a camera?” And a third of the hands went up. I said, “How many of you own a smartphone?” And all the hands went up. I said, “So, you all have cameras?” Which is exactly what you're talking about. There's so many smart phones out there now and people have access to doing video work. So, where did the idea for Bent Marble come from, Steve?

Steve: So when my older Bill and I were little kids, my mom was working at a small college in upstate New York. And in the summertime, a group of her friends, who were also educators, decided to set up this kind of like Arts and Sciences camp called Quest Camp. And it was kind of a place for kids during the summer like to explore their intellect and their creativity. And it was really such a wonderful experience. So when my brother was old enough, he became a counselor and then when I was, I became a counselor. And my brother became a teacher there and then I became a teacher there. So we literally grew up in this kind of like creative Arts and Sciences camp over the summers.

Dennis: That's cool!

Steve: So I think this was like one of like the peak experiences that I consistently had growing up as a kid. So I think that later in life, when I finally had a skillset in documentary film making, it was kind of like a natural progression for me to try to wanna set up some kind of creative Arts and Science camp experience. But I guess now, also combine that with my love for travel and to do that internationally.

Dennis: Right. Okay. So you went to grad school for documentary filmmaking, correct?

Steve: Right. The program was called Integrated Media Arts. And it was kind of like a multi-media, like, you could say, like, journalism program, were some people were more writers, some people were more photographers, some people were more documentary filmmakers. But I was one of the large group of documentary filmmakers in the program.

Dennis: Okay. Cool. So you had this idea for Bent Marble…

Steve: Mh-hm.

Dennis: How did you get started? How did you get this thing going?

Steve: Right. I think the more immediate creation story for Bent Marble is why did I decide to start this a year and a half ago? And fortunately – slash – unfortunately it's because I very badly broke my foot. I've been a springboard diver most of my life and it's always been my favorite sport. Even in recent years, when I was living in New York City, I was part of like an adult USA diving springboard diving team. And one day, at practice, literally after doing the best dive I had done, you know, probably in the last twenty years of my life, I ended up, like, really twisting my foot, being off balance on the diving board. And I broke three bones in my right foot as well as dislocated a fourth. And I was unable to walk or even work for almost six months after that.

Dennis: Good grief!

Steve: And it was during that time when I really got to think about, “Well, if I can’t run around with sound gear all day or if I can’t run around with a camera all day, what can I do with myself?” And as it turned out, after having plenty of time to think, it was the right time for me to kind of switch towards doing, you know, cubed teaching. And so when I literally got back on my feet again, I went back to work in New York for maybe just like half a year or so just to save up a bit more money, cause I kind of provided the seed money to get Bent Marble going. And then within six months, I was on the road and left New York City behind. I gave up my beloved apartment, you know, still on good terms with my contacts but you know what it's like as a freelancer when you stop working for your contacts for a year and a half. So literally, happily gave up everything in order switch gears and turn from, you know, working in New York to traveling and teaching abroad.

Dennis: Wow! That's a serious commitment you made there.

Steve: [laughs] Yeah, I mean especially as a freelancer, it's like “We can be replaced.”

Dennis: [laughs]

Steve: Especially in a big market where there's hundreds of people, if not, thousands that do what you do.

Dennis: Right. So where did you first launch Bent Marble then?

Steve: Well, at the time, I started the trip with my girlfriend at the time, now my ex. Her family was from Russia so we kind of combined the trip as a way for her to visit her grandparents. So we started in St. Petersburg, Russia. And because I don't speak Russian, I ended up teaching workshops at an English language school there, kind of like an extracurricular activity for people who were trying to apply the English that they were learning. And you know, that was an interesting way to get started. I wouldn't say that you know, that in the future, I'm always going to look to work with English language schools. But it was it was an interesting partnership and it worked okay. But as time’s gone on, we've ended up working with more nonprofits, more NGOs and more community centers for the arts.

Dennis: Okay. And you've done this several places around the world this point, right?

Steve: Right. Yeah. So today, we've done workshops in Russia, in Indonesia, in the Philippines, in Uganda, in South Africa and now, currently, we just finished our workshops in Colombia.

Dennis: Wow! So describe a workshop. Who gets into these workshops? Where do you set them up? How does it work?

Steve: Well, when I look to set up workshops, one thing I've learned in my first year and a half of operation is, like, the best way to set up the workshop is to already have someone you know in the community that could help you get your foot in the door. So I usually start by thinking about who are my friends, where have my friends worked, where my friends lived, where have my friends volunteered, you know, where are my friends from? And then based on the friendships that I already have, I see if they can kind of set of some kind of a contact or some kind of a Skype session like this one, with local foundations, you know, that deal with technology or the arts.

I never teach these workshops alone. I always partner with local organizations, whether it's a university or a Montessori school or a non-profit. And so it's these local organizations that find the group of ten to fifteen students for each workshop. It's these local organizations that provide us with the space in order to teach the workshops. And they also usually provide us with a large television set or some kind of a video projector, so that when we're having class, we can see what we're doing on a larger screen. So it's not like I just show up and I just try to grab people off the street. The first step, which is oftentimes the hardest step, is to start an organizational partnership with another foundational or organization that exists in the country where we want to go.

Dennis: And why is that so hard?

Steve: I think it's just I've just discovered that when you have an introduction from a friend, it works out great but if I just cold call people on the phone or if I send them like a cold call email, you know, it’s funny even if Bent Marble sounds like a great idea, you'd be surprised that the vast majority of people never write me back.

Dennis: No kidding?

Steve: And I've tried to change my wording, make things shorter, make things more formal, make things less formal, but I’d say I have about ten percent batting average with cold calls and about like an eighty percent batting average when I get an introduction from someone I know.

Dennis: Interesting. Well, once you find the market, you find the partner locally and everything and students queued up, you move on site for how long?

Steve: Yeah, so once I have at least one workshop set up in the area, then I move onsite, I'll get myself, the cheapest plane ride possible…

[both laugh]

Steve: …to get to that location. And the workshops typically go for one month. And the classes themselves go for about three weeks. And so we meet twice a week for about two hours per class, for three weeks. And then that final fourth week is kind of like the students doing whatever they need to do to finish their films. Everyone has a specific topic and maybe even a different technique in how they're executing their film. So everyone could kind of be doing something different at that point. But in general, you know, the first one or two classes is kind of about finding the story and finding a way to translate that story into a short documentary.

The next class, we begin with camera work. I teach handheld camera work in them and a technique of almost like using your body and using the world around you as your tripod. Most of my students don't have any money at all. They don't have extra money for equipment like a tripod. So let’s say that most of them are using, as you mentioned, their cell phones or their smartphones, so we learn how to use, you know, your smartphone and your body in order to do all the camera moves.

Dennis: I love that. I mean, the fact that you're using the tools you have available, right? And you're teaching them skills on how to leverage that to the best of their ability and to capture their work.

Steve: Right.

Dennis: Wow!

Steve: Yeah, we're trying to like, I remember this fable of like the “Stone Soup” that I heard when I was a kid. Do you remember “Stone Soup?”

Dennis: Why does that sound familiar?

Steve: Let me give you just like the briefest summary in case any of your listeners also don't know about it. Stone Soup was basically this fable were like these two kind of like hooligans showed up in a small town. And they had nothing to eat, they had no money but they were starving. So they went to some of the townspeople to kind of try and trick them into getting food. And like, “Well, we wanna make stone soup, so all we really need is a pot, some water and a stone.” [laughs] And the people thought it was funny. So they gave them a pot, some water and a stone. And so here they are, they were boiling their stone soup. And then the hooligans begin to think and they say to the townspeople, “Well, this soup would be a little bit better if we had a carrot.” And so the town people go, “Okay, it’s stone soup. We'll add a carrot.”

Dennis: [laughs]

Steve: And then a few more minutes go by, “This soup would be good if we could add some chicken.” [laughs] Anyway, as you can see the story goes, they ended up making like a regular giant pot of soup and they share it with the community and everyone was so impressed with this stone soup.

[both laugh]

I guess what's similar about what my foundation and organization does is that we use whatever resources are available in the community to make something delicious and something with which the community can, in the end, celebrate.

Dennis: I think it's a great story. [laughs] So when the students have their films, what happens after they shoot their films and you’ve edited them and produced them and so forth?

Steve: So in the workshops, each student or each group of students, if they choose to work in small groups, they make their own short documentary film that’s, maybe between two and five minutes long. At the end of the workshops, and sometimes it's quite a rush, you know, for people to get their films done at the end. I'm always scared they're never going to finish and I'm always impressed with how much work they get done in the last week, honestly. [laughs] Because we end up having some kind of a public screening, you know, whether if we're doing it at a Montessori school, that screening will probably be at the school. If we're doing it at a public library, like we did in Medellin, that screening might be at a big theater, if they have one of those in that public library. And it's open to friends of the students, it's open to family and also open to the community as well. And so this is kind of like the first audience that they get for their films. And one thing that's so great is, as you've probably have gathered, half of them probably have just finished their film about twenty minutes before the audience sees it for the first time.

Dennis: [laughs]

Steve: So they're getting this, like, immediate feedback. And you know, normally, immediate positive feedback on their works.

Dennis: Sure.

Steve: They are the producers of their own films. They are the directors of their own films. From their perspective, the workshops are entirely free. The only thing that I ask is that I get a copy of their film to put on our YouTube channel. So basically, their films also exist on YouTube, which, as you know, like worldwide is like the most commonplace for people to watch and to put their videos. I need to do more and I seek to do more in the future in terms of trying to do more with this kind of like online film festival idea or this online curated series of films. We also have our website, www.bentmarble.com, which connects to the YouTube channel. And where we also have our own kind of links to the very same films playing off of YouTube. But I think seeing how well things can go when we have that public presentation, I would like to promote their films more and that would be another bonus for these young filmmakers to know that their stories are being shared and their films are being seen.

Dennis: Yeah, sure!

Steve: And maybe a third way that the films are presented is the students that complete their films in the current workshop become the examples for the following workshops. So, also, like when I'm teaching, you know, the courses, like, the new students are always seeing a collection of the films that were made in Uganda and in the Philippines and in Colombia now.

Dennis: So, students in Colombia, for example, are seeing films from other parts of the world from your workshops?

Steve: Absolutely!

Dennis: That's cool!

Steve: Former students are the examples for current students.

Dennis: Right. That's great!

Steve: And like I said, in the future, if I can get some more money coming in, if I can get some more people hired, it would be great to do more, in terms of promoting people’s films and getting it seen by more people. The basic premise of what Bent Marble does is to try to get people to share their stories. And in this day and age, making a documentary film on your smartphone is an achievable way to make a story that can then be distributed quite easily via online.

Dennis: Right.

Steve: But I'm hoping we can do even more as Bent Marble grows.

Dennis: So you started this because you had a germ of an idea. You had an accident that laid you up and you finally had the chance to think about how to move forward with this idea. And you started out with Russia, based upon a girlfriend you had a chance to do it there. You’ve moved now to multiple countries around the globe. How are you making this happen, Steve? How do you keep this thing going?

Steve: Well, I mean, honestly, like the first year of Bent Marble was, like, entirely self-funded by my own personal savings. I needed to answer a couple questions that first year and among them was, “Is this something that I want to do? Is this something I was able to do?” And also questions like, “Does the world even want this?” Or “Are there enough organizations and people out there who want this kind of experience?”

Dennis: Right.

Steve: And I think, in general, after having done this now, first for a year and now a year and a half, the answer to all those questions is, you know, for the most part, yes. Not everyone necessarily wants to have a workshop, but I am finding that there are multiple groups in every country I go to that are very excited about having these kinds of workshops. The funny thing is I've encountered the most resistance, I would say, in my own country and maybe it's because we have so much, you know, like legal stuff to deal with in the United States. It's like the first step when you approach an organization or school in the US is like a background check and then like insurance. And then more background checks and more insurance. And these are also the organizations that I usually never even hear back from when I send them an email. And maybe you found this too as a fellow traveler that sometimes, just when you're traveling, the energy is flowing and people open up to you in the same way that you open up to them. In some ways, I think it's a lot easier to do this internationally than to even do it in my own country.

Dennis: That's a crazy thought but you're right, the energy when you're outside, traveling and the connections you make with individuals is amazing.

Steve: Right.

Dennis: Just amazing. That's amazing to me that you’ve had more difficulty in the US than you’ve had outside the US when you were trying to pull together workshops.

Steve: I tried in my hometown, I mean, I tried for a little while in my hometown of Elmira, New York and I tried in what was my mother’s former hometown of Austin, Texas and with very poor response. And I'm sure that if I stuck with it, eventually something would have come true. But you know, I love traveling and I love the kind of experiences that one has while traveling. And like I said, I also find that it's been easier for me to do this kind work abroad.

Dennis: That's great. What kind of surprises? What's been the biggest surprise, thus far, on the journey?

Steve: I think one of the big surprises is something that I may have you know, mentioned a little bit earlier is that, the fact that you can teach someone everything from like kind of forming their story, to camera work, to sound, and then to doing interviews, and then finally, to even editing, all within such a short amount of time, you'd be amazed at how many students that I've had that maybe… imagine with some students in Uganda that didn't really have much access to computers before, and when I asked them when I interview some of the students at the end of a workshop, I was like, “What was your favorite part?” Like, the majority of them say, “editing.”

I mean, we have students editing in Adobe Premiere, professional software, that had very little experience with computers before. And it just blows my mind in such a short amount of time, you know, people can learn so much. And I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that it's fun and it is a topic that they choose. And they always pick something that they're deeply interested in. But then you know, as you know as well, technology in this day and age is also just inherently cool.

Dennis: Right.

Steve: And to make your own movie and to be able to edit video, I mean, that's cool stuff. And that's impressive stuff, not just for young people, but for adults as well. And I've consistently been surprised and impressed with how much editing people can learn, even if they have no experience prior to the workshops.

Dennis: That's amazing. I think there are two things there: one, you said it's something that's interesting to them so it's not work, it's fun. That's true so often in life, that if you're doing something you really enjoy, you don't view it as work. It’s just part of your life and you're really into it. The second thing you mentioned is the fact that you're able to teach this class and have access to technology with these people today. Let’s go back ten years ago, you didn't have smartphones. You couldn't do this type of video work. You would have had to bring in some sort of camera to make it happen. It would have limited your ability to deploy such an amazing program.

Steve: And I really do think you're right in that, this is the right moment, you know, give or take a year or two, this is the exact right moment in our species’ [laughs] history to be attempting this kind of project. You know, like Bent Marble for me has always been a bit of an open metaphor. And while making documentary shorts is what we're doing now, you know, it's possible that if this still exists in ten or twenty years, we don't know what form the stories are going to take.

But at this moment in time, I think doing something in video is highly appropriate and a question might be, “Well, hey, Steve, do you guys ever do fiction films?” And well, the reason why I choose documentary is it's another thing that doesn't require any money. Like, you don't need costumes, you don’t need to hire actors, you don't need to feed a crew. I mean, if you have a smartphone, you can make a documentary all by yourself. If you have one friend that's willing to help you, well then maybe one person can do the interview questions while the other person is filming. But you don't need any resources other than your smartphone in order to make a documentary. And that's another reason why besides doing video but why we specifically do documentaries.

Dennis: I think it's a smart idea. Makes perfect sense. What's your vision? What is in your wildest dream? Where do you see this going?

Steve: Well, it would be great; the world is a big place and I'm certainly not looking to the like the McDonalds of documentary film short courses or something like that.

[both laugh]

Steve: But I think, in my dreams, it would be great if there could be at least three people like me, doing this kind of work. And in my mind at least, it would make sense to have these people have different language skills. I'm not a big fan of colonization but because of colonization, like there's a few language groups that tend to kind of dominate the globe and that's kind of like English, French, Spanish and Chinese and potentially Arabic as well, although I know there's different dialects. But to be able to have a workshop facilitator like myself, you know, working in each world region, maybe focus on language groups would be great. I speak Indonesian and I speak Spanish and so I've been able to go to parts of the world where those languages are spoken, but I'm limited to who I can teach, like, you know, based on the limited languages that I speak. And I wouldn't want that to limit Bent Marble.

Dennis: Right.

Steve: So I think it would be great to get more people involved who could be facilitators and especially people that could potentially teach in places where I can’t.

Dennis: That makes a lot of sense. That’d be cool to see that happen, too.

Steve: I’m not a businessperson by training or in my heart and I'm at this kind of crucial juncture now where I need to get really good at finding money for the organization. Not just to continue what I'm doing, as I kind of have self-funded for much of the initial period, but also if I want to expand, like there's absolutely no way I can expand without getting some funding coming in. One thing I can say is like, it's a very volunteer kind of mentality in Bent Marble, like, living in cheap apartments, renting a room in a shared apartment while I'm staying in different places, sometimes staying in youth hostels. This is not the job for someone like looking like to make a buck after their master’s degree, but If I could find other people that are kind of like volunteer-minded with the documentary filmmaking skill set and the ability to teach that cross culturally, that would be amazing. So I'm going to have to keep my eyes, ear, heart and email open to [laughs] try and find those types of folks.

Dennis: They're out there. Look, you’re out there – there’s somebody else, similar to you in mind and spirit and talent set that I have no doubt you’ll make it happen.

Steve: Cool.

Dennis: You know, seriously. Steve, you've been working on this project now for a couple of years with Bent Marble trying to grow it, trying to make it happen. It was a dream of yours that you're realizing; you're out there making it happen, touching people's lives, teaching documentary skills to young people globally. If someone else is trying to pursue a dream of theirs, what advice do you have for them?

Steve: Wow, well, like I told you, when I gave up my job in New York, I mean, it was quite a risk. And obviously, you have to be willing to take a risk. The good news is had lots of time with a broken foot, actually for many months in order to make that decision, to make the big change. I don't think anyone should rush into any decision that they're making, but I think that eventually, once they’ve thought long and hard, don't let it go too long and you need to take a risk. You need to give something up, I think ninety-nine percent of the time, in order to make a big change in your life. It's not like you can keep your apartment and your job and travel the world. I think, at times, you have to make those hard calls and just kind of have faith. Not necessarily any kind of a religious faith, but just faith that you've made the right decision for your life’s course. And that it’s not the end of the world. Like, if I do this for three years, and it no longer works, I can always go back. New York City will always be there.

Dennis: [laughs] That's true. That's great. That’s great advice.

Steve: I think the biggest thing that I’d say is, “Be brave.” Take some time to make the decision. But after enough kind of months and maybe years have gone by of thinking, make the move and don't let your fear hold you back from attempting to do what you dream to do.

Dennis: That's great advice right there. It's perfect. Steve, this has been great. Thank you so much!

Steve: Sure. Thanks a lot. Thanks a lot for thinking of me for your podcast. It was certainly a pleasure working under your direction, traveling the world with you back in 2009, [laughs] I believe?

Dennis: Yeah, it was! And it was great. So the website is BentMarble.com?

Steve: .com yeah.

Dennis: And I’m Dennis Hodges. Dream. Believe. Do.

Dennis Hodges
Dennis Hodges


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