Q&A With Documentary Filmmaker Joanna James

Dec 18 2018

As someone who believes so strongly in the power of authentic content and visual storytelling, I am totally in awe of Joanna James courage. She is the founder of Zoel Productions, an independent film, television and multimedia production company out of New York. Her directorial debut was A Fine Line, which is a fascinating look at the workplace culture of female chefs, who are a distinct minority in the industry. In fact, less than 7 percent of chefs and restaurant owners are women. It’s a remarkable film, and she’s an inspiring storyteller with great advice to share.

Q: What is the number one takeaway you found when making A Fine Line?

A: After four years of making A Fine Line and now having screened it for many various audiences, the biggest surprise I’ve learned is how the significant disparities of women in leadership is across most industries. Even more fascinating is how the common-sense solutions to close the gender gap in the culinary field also apply to industries such as tech, filmmaking or finance.

Q: It’s crazy that only 6 percent of head chefs and restaurant owners are women. Do you think that percentage will improve any time soon?

A: I do think there is real hope for change that the 6 percent figure of women chefs and restaurateurs will increase, but it’s based on society taking real, meaningful action. What I mean is the U.S. is the only developed country that does not provide paid parental leave; only a handful of states have enacted that legislation. If women have to regress in their career because they decide to start a family, they are constantly playing catch-up rather than advancing into leadership, even though they have the experience and skills. We also aren’t doing nearly enough to provide creative measures for affordable and accessible childcare. So if we want to tap into a huge talent pool where more than 51 percent of this country’s population is female, then we need to stop making women choose between doing what they love or who they love.

Q: You started out in journalism, reporting for The Boston Globe. What did your time in journalism teach you that you apply to your work as a filmmaker?

A: At heart I will always be a journalist because of my deep respect and love for the craft. I changed the medium in my reporting from newspaper to film, but making this documentary still came down to good-old fashioned reporting, whether that was securing all the chefs (I knew none of them when I set out to make the film), or figuring out which questions to ask and what the deeper story was that kept unfolding. Similarly to restaurateurs and chefs, newspaper reporters are some of the most hardworking people I know, so driven and passionate about their craft and tireless to get it right.

Q: How do you balance your time between being a mother and your creative endeavors?

A: As a working mother passionate about what I’m doing while madly in love with my family, because we can’t only think about making time for our kids but also our spouses, I’m not sure if it comes down to balance or figuring out an equation that works for you. Meaning, there are some stretches of time that I’m on overdrive with tasks, bigger picture concepts to developing my business, daily grind, creative endeavors, event planning, travel for screenings, accounting, website updates — you name it and it’s on my mind. So how can you superficially stop that energy and say, “now it’s time to bake cookies?” It doesn’t mean I don’t include my kids in that or be attentive to them and their needs on a daily basis, but it’s weaving it all together as opposed to separating the two. I despise mornings because I’m a late sleeper doing some of my best work from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., yet I wouldn’t trade my early morning walk bringing my 4-year-old daughter to school at 8 a.m., it’s our time to connect and chat and goof around while climbing a hill. Or taking a break from emails and calls to recharge with my 1-year-old playing on the carpet or getting some housework done while having her strapped on. Somehow we make it work. And some of the best times my husband and I have reconnected are while going to film festivals together and knowing we deserve that time as a couple. So it’s not always easy but I think the most important thing is not feeling bad or guilty about giving too much or not enough of yourself to one or the other, as opposed to being honest about what you need in any given moment and just doing it. So many of the chefs had such inspiring things to say about work/life balance and now that I’m in the thick of it, I really admire them for striving for their dreams and being the best they could be while also being such loving, devoted parents. But one thing for sure I would say is it does take a village to raise a family. I have such a supportive, hands-on husband, whether it’s for dinner or doctor appointments, that it makes all the difference. Also, aunts, uncles and grandparents who come help with child care while I’m traveling. So you can’t be afraid to ask for help.

Q: Your mother, Val James, runs Val’s Restaurant & Lounge. Did her experiences motivate you to make your documentary?

A: I do think the film was validating for my mom, not that she needed it, but I imagine watching her life story on screen and that her daughter made it is a nice feeling. I think she can speak to that better than I, and these are her words: “I always knew my daughter and son loved me to the moon and back, but my guilt was not wanting them to hurt because of how young they were and not being able to understand some things. For example, seeing other kids with their moms and saying, ‘Why can’t my mom do this with me?’ I carried the guilt until they got older and I realized that they knew how much their mom loved them more than anything no matter how many hours I may have been away working. My consolation was they always felt the unconditional love. This tribute has given me tears of joy. My daughter Joanna continues to inspire me and many others to go all the way in making their dreams come true. So if I had a part in that I am so proud.”

Q: I’m a big believer that companies do best they focus on doing good in the world. Is that what you’ve found?

A: I think corporate social responsibility should be as inherent as doing yearly taxes. And not just for major companies and corporations, but small businesses, which can have even more of an impact by doing good in their local communities in so many ways. I had no better teacher than my mom on this one. She always went above and beyond when it came to her staff and her customers. But for her it was just doing the right thing, not thinking about it in terms of PR or simple donations. Even though she had so many employees, she always made time for her staff, whether it was to teach and mentor them or just be there for them to vent and feel like they could go to the boss for help. Even in her hiring, she wanted to offer opportunities to people who she saw something in that maybe others overlooked, including those in foster care and individuals with troubled pasts. And especially when it came to her local community, if she heard of someone battling cancer or an illness she would ensure trays of lasagna and other nightly meals were being delivered to help take some pressure off. If she hadn’t seen some of her best senior citizen customers for a few days she would personally go visit them at their houses to make sure everything was OK or call to offer encouragement. So it’s not just about giving gift certificates, it’s really about so much more than that. It’s figuring out what you do so well and doing it in a way that has a large, lasting impact.

Q: What was the best advice you were given early in your career?

A: To be yourself. It sounds so trite, but if you can imbue that mantra in all your decisions and dealings think of what a rich life that would be. And it’s not always so simple because people can slyly try to coerce you into what you may know doesn’t feel right. When I first started making this film initially it was just going to be on my mother’s story, but then I realized her story was part of a much larger discussion on women empowerment and inspiring gender equality, so I knew I wanted to open it up to hear from other phenomenal chefs and restaurateurs. But when I made that decision, there was constant input from a former colleague, who only cared about the dollars and wanted it to focus only on celebrity chefs. Obviously I didn’t listen and I wanted to stay true to my beliefs that it’s the everyday heroes whose stories we need to propel the discussions and hear more about. I don’t make decisions based on pleasing popular opinion as much as pleasing my inner compass and hoping people will see and respect that. Whether they do or they don’t, at least I can sleep well at night.

Q: I think you’re a rock star in the filmmaking world. If you were an actual rock star, what would be your name?

A: Since you’re the true marketing guru and it would take me way too long to come up with a cool rock star name, I’ll let you choose one.