Fairfield native pitted against CBS, ABC

The entertainment business is rarely looked upon by Americans as "business" because they're attracted to the Hollywood glamour and gossip.

You might hear some guy say, "Those guys are artists, not businessmen."

Two problems here: They aren't all guys, guys. And those who succeed are, indeed, business-men or -women.

Southeast Iowa filmmaker Cameron Mullenneaux is an artist and businesswoman, and this week, she's in New York at the Emmy awards. Director-producer Mullenneaux is up for an Emmy against giants ABC and CBS — and their big guns Diane Sawyer and Leslie Stahl.

Mullenneaux, formerly Bargerstock — she married in June — is a Fairfield native, the daughter of Betty and Andy Bargerstock, a professor at Maharishi University of Management. Mullenneaux, who now lives in California, wrote, produced and directed “Angelique,” a film about a straight-A homeless high school student in Asheville, North Carolina.

"I was looking for a bright, creative, and resilient young person who didn’t let their difficult life circumstances hold them back from pursuing their dreams," Mullenneaux said. "I met her through Asheville High School social worker Pam Pauly."

Mullenneaux attended Maharishi School and graduated Warren Wilson College before earning an MFA in Documentary Filmmaking at Wake Forest University. Here's a brief synopsis distilled from an essay she submitted to the Television Academy:

"'Angelique' is a short documentary following the life of a homeless high school girl who battles the odds to stay in school, get good grades, and go to college despite the challenges of living with a mother who suffers from bipolar disorder and an absentee father."

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Mullenneaux's intimate access to Angelique’s day-to-day life allowed her to give viewers a raw look at the tumultuous life of a teenager enduring the challenges of homelessness.

"By allowing Angelique to articulate the narrative of her individual experiences, the filmmaker avoids sensationalizing a young girl’s fragile story and instead allows Angelique to speak for the years she remained quiet," Mullenneaux continues. "Utilizing a traditional verité documentary approach, the aesthetic goal was not to produce the perfect shot but to capture Angelique’s natural rhythm and each genuine moment as she experiences it. Angelique’s story empowers young women to strive for long-term goals and to use their struggles as fuel for learning about themselves, how to change and grow, and when to silence the forces that hold them back from achieving the life they want."

The film does just that, and Mullenneaux's vision, coupled with Angelique's vibrant personality, drives it hard toward the Emmy stage.

"I know I have no safety net,"Angelique says. "Everything that I want to be, it's all on me."

Angelique went on to earn a full-ride scholarship to UCLA to study theater and psychology. That serves as a powerful message to the 600,000 families dealing with homelessness: They, too, can get through it.

Mullenneaux directed and produced the film, funded by Condé Nast for Glamour magazine.

“Condé Nast really took a risk in partnering with me on this project," Mullenneaux told RadioIowa earlier this year when she learned of her nomination. "I’m a first-time female director, so it’s really exciting that they were able to open this opportunity for me.”

If she wins, she won't get money to do another film, but her IMDB page will start hopping.

Mullenneaux is up against all-stars Sawyer and Stahl, but there's no David and Goliath metaphor — this is about strong women, on- and -off camera.

Sexism abounds in today's film and video industry, but 100 years ago, before corporate studios and men with insatiable egos — and appetites — ate Hollywood, women dominated.

Lillian Gish, star of the 1915 silent flick, "Birth of a Nation," was one of the women pioneer directors.

For too long, film crews have limited women to credit-roll jobs such as makeup and production assistant, but Mullenneaux is undaunted.

"I don't see any barriers," she said. "It's the time to be a woman in film."

Credit part of that confidence to growing up in Fairfield under the creative influences of Transcendental Meditation and MUM, where social awareness is part of the social fabric.

"Times are changing," Mullenneaux said. "It's a really good time to be in film as a woman. I mean, doors are being opened just by being a woman."

Note that the terms "film" and "video" are used interchangeably by industry professionals, even though almost no one shoots film anymore. Steven Soderbergh shot his newest feature, "Unsane" using three iPhones, but it's still called a film.

"I have never shot film. That was never really an option," Mullenneaux said. "I do have a Super-8 camera. I like to bring that around to fun events."

Fun events like a big parade led by Bernie Sanders.

"I followed Bernie with my Super-8 the entire parade and got amazing footage of him interacting with kids and people who were running up to him. So that's my film treasure," she said.

Mullenneaux, who lives in San Francisco, has a film project she wants to do. She said it's not difficult finding film, but getting it developed is an expensive service now.

"Not very many labs do it; you have to fly it to L.A. or Boston or somewhere," she said. "I don't like asking for money. But I know I'll get it done."

Making films or videos may seem as simple as whipping out an iPhone and shooting scenes — and, in reality, it can be that easy. But to succeed in the movie world, directors must understand the business end of the industry, not just the glamorous camera-related aspects.

"We learned every aspect of filmmaking, from how to shoot, to editing, to producing to directing," she said of her Wake Forest education. "When you're fresh out of school and you don't know the job yet or where the funding is to do your film, you have to do everything. My first experience with making a film was with my feature called 'Exit Music,' and I was doing everything solo. There is no opportunity for anyone to question that. I'm just carrying that forward."

She said she decided to go to film school because she was "at a stage of life where I needed a little kick in the butt."

"What I got out of it was, I had to treat my art like a business. I learned how to write grants and do budgets, and I feel like it was very valuable, because the hardest part of being a filmmaker is finishing anything," she said. "You become a filmmaker when you can actually finish something. There's so many things that hold you back; sometimes you're shooting for a year and you never know when to stop."

And that ends up costing the filmmaker more money than she budgeted. Always. Every time.

"So yeah, I learned how to finish things, I learned how to get money, funding for projects," she said.

In America, you can't make art without money.

Mullenneaux describes "Exit Music" as "a challenging story about the dying process, loss, fatherhood, and the redemptive power of art and imagination in the face of suffering."

It's an invitation into the world of Ethan Rice, a young artist dying of cystic fibrosis as he and his father navigate the journey at the end of life.

The film is a a co-production of ITVS with additional support from the LEF Foundation, the Visual Storytelling Consortium, the Independent Filmmakers Project and the San Francisco Film Society. "Exit Music" premiered at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival last April; the U.S. premiere was at Rooftop Films in June. PBS will air the film on a date to be determined. 

Here's what an industry magazine had to say about "Exit Music."

"Cameron Mullenneaux’s toughly moving study of a cystic fibrosis patient’s final months thoughtfully avoids the mawkish pitfalls of its subject.” — Variety

Filmmaking is hard work, and to be good at it, a director or cinematographer or other principal has to have a drive. For some, it's fame. For others, it's the money. For Mullenneaux, it's neither.

"I do need to tell stories. I would love to tell you about my new film I just started," she said. "It's about a Native American woman who spent the last 25 years of her career working to end the cycle of violence against women and children on her reservation. After she opened the first safehouse for victims of human trafficking in South Dakota, her son was accused of molesting her granddaughters, leading the family on a painful quest for reconciliation."

It took Mullenneaux two years to get access to her main character. She started shooting last month on the Crow Creek Reservation.

"The story is really through the eyes of every one of the family members in the film," she said. "It's going to be difficult; that's going to be something I'm going to have as an outsider."

Mullenneaux said she's currently developing two new documentary projects with strong female leads. She said she's looking for a name collaborator to partner with her.

IN October, Angelique will be taking cover from Hurricane Florence in North Carolina, right about the time Mullenneaux gets up — hopefully — to thank her.

Maybe that's a good sign from the heavens.

You can watch "Angelique" here: https://www.glamour.com/story/homelessness-was-this-teenagers-biggest-secret. The Emmy Awards will be broadcast on NBC this Monday September 17 at 3 p.m. Central Daylight Time.