When Ricki Stern learned that she and her filmmaking partner, Annie Sundberg, were being awarded the 2011 Career Award by the Full Frame Documentary Festival, she told the Independent that one notion immediately popped into her head.
"I wonder if this means I need to retire now," she asked herself.
In fact, Stern and Sundberg are in the prime of their careers. After the release of their 1998 debut doc, In My Corner, the filmmakers have generated an impressive, award-winning body of work over the last five years, starting with The Trials of Darryl Hunt in 2006.
After that came 2007's The Devil Came on Horseback, an exposé on genocide in Darfur told from the perspective of Brian Steidle, a former Marine and African Union monitor. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010) garnered Stern and Sundberg popular and critical acclaim. Their latest project, Burma Soldier, tells the improbable story of Myo Myint, who converted from a fighter in Burma's junta to a pro-democracy activist and political prisoner.
Although Stern and Sundberg attended Dartmouth College at the same time, they did not know each other. Stern then spent a year at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she was in the actors training program at PlayMakers Repertory Company.
The two finally met while working on the Vermont set of Where the Rivers Flow North, a 1993 feature starring Rip Torn and Michael J. Fox. Sundberg soon followed Stern to New York City, where Stern helped Sundberg land a job working with her at HBO.
Their careers have become so inseparable that they will jointly receive Full Frame's Career Award, bestowed in past years to such documentary stars as Ross McElwee, Ken Burns, William Greaves, Marcel Ophuls and Albert Maysles. They will also host encore screenings of their previous works plus a Center Frame event showing of Burma Soldier.
Sundberg, whose résumé also includes a number of producing credits apart from Stern, made time to chat from her hotel room about an hour after landing from a cross-country flight to Arizona. She was in town to shoot footage for a History Channel special they are making about UFO sightings.
Stern, on the other hand, capped a day at her New York office by speaking with me while preparing a spaghetti dinner for her husband and three children. She says she spends her scant free time traveling to watch her sons' out-of-state soccer tournaments.
"I love Full Frame, but I don't ever go to festivals unless I have to go because I need to be home with my family," says Stern. "I actually don't socialize that much in the business end of the doc world. I just sort of do my work and go home."
"Our working relationship has definitely evolved over the years," says Sundberg. "Where we are similar is that we're both passionate and tireless workaholics. We have a lot of energy when we find a good story, and we know how to push and cheer on each other.
"Where we are different is that Ricki ... sees a great story and wants to just go. I tend to focus more on the fine details. Sometimes we don't agree, and the fights can be pretty dramatic. But, at the end of the day, we really trust each other's voice, and if something really doesn't work for the other person, we'll try to figure out some creative solution."
Although their films have predominantly, and famously, dealt with pressing social issues and human drama, it is rather surprising that Stern and Sundberg do not necessarily see themselves as "issue-oriented" filmmakers.
"We're not journalistic filmmakers in the classic sense," says Sundberg. "There are amazing filmmakers out there who can really take apart an issue, like Charles Ferguson and Alex Gibney. Then, there are opinion filmmakers, like Michael Moore, who takes a stand and his film is almost like an editorial.
"And then there are filmmakers like us, where the issue is in many ways secondary," continues Sundberg. "Honestly, if you were a wickedly good surfer and you told me there was some way to strap on an underwater camera that would stay with you as you rode a 40-foot wave, I'd say, 'Let's go!' To me, that's just as compelling."
In advance of Full Frame, Stern and Sundberg shared some thoughts on their collaborative efforts, including Burma Soldier, which will have its broadcast premiere on HBO next month.
In My Corner (1998) — Although Stern and Sundberg had begun filming Darryl Hunt years prior, this was their first completed documentary.
"We were both working at HBO, and I had come to know this gym in the South Bronx," recalls Stern. "We were following young boxers who were going to be the next Junior Olympic champions—that's what we were told. Then, our main character started to lose. I kept worrying that we weren't going to have a movie without really seeing what was really happening with this 15-year-old kid, Angel Alejandro."
The Trials of Darryl Hunt (2006) — Stern and Sundberg's first collaboration, about a Winston-Salem man's Kafkaesque odyssey through a legal system that wrongly convicted him of murder and jailed him for 20 years, took more than a decade to finish because of the timeline of the case and difficulties securing funding.
"I try to tell (film) students that sometimes you have to just go with your heart," says Stern.
"Did we know the film would ever get finished? No. Did we know Darryl would ever get out of prison? Of course not. But it was a good story and you have to follow your heart."
The Devil Came on Horseback (2007) — "We weren't looking to make a film about genocide," says Sundberg. "Brian [Steidle]'s sister told us about her brother's photos he had taken while working in Darfur that no one had ever seen before.
"We were thinking this was gold ... a secret that's going to be revealed onscreen. Then, as you invest yourself in the film, you can't help but be changed by the experience of what your character has gone through and what you discover during the process of making that film."
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010) — "That was a film I really championed and fought to make," recounts Stern. "We were literally sitting around my office and said, 'What about a film about Joan Rivers?' I had access to Joan because she's friendly with my parents. I called my mother, who then called up Joan, and five minutes later I was talking with Joan.
"I told her this would be a serious doc about her role in comedy as an aging woman performer. I told her, 'I'm going to be in your hair at 6 a.m. when you don't have makeup on, and that's what it's going to be.' And she said, 'Yeah, right ... that's what I want.'
"The tone is bittersweet. She's this really hardworking woman who epitomizes what a performer needs and strives for every day: this acceptance and ephemeral love that doesn't last, but it's like an addiction they keep going back to. Joan was in her 70s but still addicted to performing."
Burma Soldier — "In some ways, [this is] a film that came to us and not a film we were seeking to make," says Sundberg. "Julie LeBrocquy, a producer on the film, approached us, and the way she set it up is everything we generally look for in a documentary, starting with a compelling character who has a singular experience.
"The film flows from a bunch of amazing black-and-white photographs that the other director, Nic Dunlop, has taken over 15 years sneaking in and out of Burma, and his remarkable interview with Myo Myint, whose life parallels modern Burma.
"We then had the challenge of how to make a film where one director's based in Thailand, a producer's based in Ireland, Ricki and I are in New York, and it's very difficult to get inside Burma. But we knew we had this one interview in this place and time with Myo Myint right before he was leaving the refugee camp and his life changes for forever."