Tribeca 2022 Women Directors: Meet Becky Hutner – “Fashion Reimagined”

Becky Hutner is a Toronto-born filmmaker living in coastal England. Her filmmaking journey includes five years in London creating short-form work in the fashion and culture space for DUCK Productions. Notable DUCK projects include “Painting Her Story,” a series about the gender gap in art for the National Gallery, a campaign celebrating British creativity for Visit Britain, and the official coverage for London Fashion Week over 17 seasons. Hutner is an Emmy-nominated editor with credits including award-winning documentaries “Being Canadian,” and “Revolution.” “Fashion Reimagined” is her first feature.

“Fashion Reimagined” is screening at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival, which is taking place June 8-19.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

BH: “Fashion Reimagined” is about the environmental impact of the fashion industry through the lens of one designer, Mother of Pearl’s Amy Powney. When we meet Amy, she’s a rising star in the London Fashion scene, fresh off a win of the Vogue Designer Fashion Fund prize. But she’s also an outsider, raised off-grid in rural England by anti-fracking activist parents and increasingly troubled by her industry’s environmental impact.

The film follows Amy’s decision to use her Vogue prize money to attempt a sustainable collection from field to finished garment, a journey that takes us to wool farmers on picturesque ranches in Uruguay, alpacas in the Peruvian Andes and a steam-powered weaver in the Austrian mountains. Unfolding alongside Amy’s narrative is the story of fashion’s impact on both people and planet.

The film is also about a kid who’s bullied for being different, embraces those differences, and makes them her superpower. Amy’s off-grid childhood, living in a caravan with no running water and her father’s hand-built wind turbine for electricity, with no money for brand-name clothes made her a target in school. But this background is crucial to her entire trajectory as a designer and her game-changing mission to create a sustainable collection. It hopefully sends the message that we can all find inspiration from our own surroundings and make changes in our lives that could have a much larger impact.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

BH: Meeting Amy was like the perfect storm. It was 2017 and I was working for a company called DUCK Productions in London which specializes in short-form content for fashion brands. I’ve always loved fashion and its unique power to instantly express my many moods and facets and am completely inspired by my grandma and mom who both had and have incredible, unique, enduring style.

At the same time, my own sustainability journey had started several years before when I co-edited Rob Stewart’s documentary “Revolution” about the collapse of the oceans and the current mass extinction. Suddenly confronted with these issues on day one of the project was eye-opening and devastating and changed my life in an instant, including my shopping habits. The problem was, I had only changed my life. I was making my own skincare, traveling with a self-filtering water bottle, and ranting at my family for buying conventional chocolate — hello palm oil! But what kind of impact was I really having?

As fate would have it, I was assigned to make a short around the 2017 winner of the Vogue Designer Fashion Fund, which is awarded to the top emerging designer in the UK. The winner was Amy and I was interviewing her at home. Off-camera, I asked what was next in her career. She began to tell me about her mission to create a sustainable collection from field to finished garment. She wanted to go all the way back to the beginning of the supply chain and meet the sheep whose wool went into her coats and the cotton farmers that grew her cotton. That is when the lightbulb went off. I knew that Amy was attempting something extremely challenging and important and that I was in a unique position to capture it. And that, personally, this could be my path to moving beyond small changes in my personal life – and annoying my family – and having a much bigger impact.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

BH: I want audiences to have a better understanding of how clothes are made, of all of the people, animals, and resources that go into a garment across complex global supply chains, and the hugely detrimental impact of this process on people and planet. I hope this information fosters a greater appreciation for clothes as items to purchase thoughtfully and cherish.

Secondly, almost every major fashion brand has jumped on the sustainability bandwagon but greenwashing is completely rampant and fashion’s impact continues to accelerate. So I hope “Fashion Reimagined” can provide a clearer picture of what sustainability in fashion really means and help audiences to ask questions and probe deeper and not just take marketing at face value.

Finally, I hope that “Fashion Reimagined” expands the possibilities of what sustainable fashion can look like. Sustainability in fashion can be framed in different ways. There is the stance that fashion is terrible for the planet full stop and thanks to years of gross overproduction we have enough clothes already in existence, so let’s make use of those, boycott fashion brands, and commit to buying nothing new ever again. It’s a completely valid viewpoint but also a bit disempowering, in that it asks us to deny inherently human traits like creativity, a sense of belonging, and the desire to seek out beauty. Not to mention the social impact of shutting down such a massive global industry.

What if the solutions lie in the way we design? And in expanding our pathways to fashion so that buying new clothes is just one of many, many ways we can experience the joy of fashion, along with buying pre-loved, mending and upcycling our clothes, renting, borrowing and swapping, diving into our closets and curating a capsule wardrobe we feel so good in, we’ll wear it for years? I hope that in presenting the latter viewpoint, we make the case to audiences that sustainable fashion is desirable rather than limiting.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

BH: Between raising the money as a first-time director, COVID, and balancing new motherhood, I found every single aspect and stage of making this film extremely challenging. However, the award for biggest challenge goes to the edit. I co-edited the film with the brilliant Sam Rogers and it was a full 17 months. There are even a few scenes we worked on for almost four years! One side of this challenge is just the stamina and patience it takes to visit and revisit and revaluate and reconsider the same transcripts and the same material over and over and over again. And then as you get closer to locking, there’s the stamina and patience it takes to watch your film over and over and over, often three times on the same day, 12 times in the same week.

I also think our film was uniquely challenging editorially in that it marries a personal real-time narrative with an issue. The need to communicate specific information puts added pressure on the narrative in that it can’t just simply unfold. We had to find ways to weave the hard facts about fashion’s impact that felt organic to Amy’s journey, that didn’t disrupt the story and that didn’t tip the scales into an “issue film.” Don’t get me wrong, I love issue films, but “Fashion Reimagined” is a personal cinematic journey and we needed to stay true to that.

Furthermore, we had the privilege — and burden — of knowing that audiences would be learning some of the information about fashion’s impact for the first time. So unlike, for example, the fact that climate change is caused by greenhouse gas emissions from human activities like burning fossil fuels, which people are generally now aware of and therefore doesn’t necessarily need to be overtly stated, we knew we had to be overt with our information while staying within our narrative world and without sounding preachy.

Also quite simply, how do you make an entertaining film about supply chains?

I could go on about the many challenges of this edit. It really took everything I had to get through this process. I credit the multiple rounds of feedback from the team and friends and also our consulting editor Peter Norrey, who came in with his scalpel near the end and elevated the story as if by magic, helping to steer us to the best version of the film.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

BH: It took three years to secure the funding for “Fashion Reimagined” and during that period, I was probably spending 50 percent of my time just trying to raise that money. I will forever be grateful to the production company DUCK and specifically the founder, “Fashion Reimagined” producer, Lindsay Lowe for putting in the first money and carrying the project for the first few years. It would have been dead in the water without her support and belief.

From there, we completed our funding with a combination of grants – from the British Film Institute/Doc Society, the Climate Story Fund, and the Rogovy Foundation – and private investors who seemed to appear like angels out of nowhere, during a pandemic no less, to scoop us up and take our film to the finish line.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

BH: I’ve been completely swept away by movies since I was very young. I’m sure my dad’s complete obsession with old Hollywood had an influence – our family’s extremely limited VHS library included “Laurel and Hardy,” “The Three Stooges,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and the original version of “The Wizard of Oz.” I had the impression growing up that being a filmmaker was the most important thing you could possibly do! Which sounds quite funny now because ya know, doctors are quite important.

I’ve also been an avid writer from a young age and was really involved in performing growing up – dance, theatre, endless musicals. I saw filmmaking as a way to combine these interests.

The passion for documentary filmmaking came in my last year of film school when I took a documentary class with a really inspirational professor called Gabor Kalman who introduced me to filmmakers like Michael Moore, Joe Berlinger, and Errol Morris. It totally blew my head off and made me realize docs could be just as sexy and engaging as narrative films, and in the words of Amy Powney, “completely changed my course.”

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

BH: Best advice: “If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.” This is from my dad, a successful businessman who always cautioned me that working around the clock without taking care of yourself would only result in short-term success. He really drilled into me the vital importance of daily fitness which I completely rely on to manage stress and keep my energy levels up through the long hours of filmmaking life.

Worst advice: At a pitch meeting for “Fashion Reimagined,” I was told by a male commissioner of a major TV network that I would never cross the finish line with this film and his network wouldn’t take it seriously unless I was willing to bring on a name director and he specifically name-checked a high-earning established male director. You know what? I should email him right now!

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

BH: Don’t be afraid to ask questions or make something terrible. I guess this applies to all filmmakers, but as a woman starting out I allowed myself to feel intimidated by certain male superiors who in many cases were incredibly knowledgeable, brilliant people who’d been honing their craft for decades, but equally loved to shout about it. I spent too many years bottling up my questions for fear of looking stupid and abandoning ideas for fear of failure.

Neither of these things served me, and in the competitive world of film, there is no time to waste. Accept that you’re probably going to look stupid and make bad work and just get it over with!

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

BH: I’ll give you two. “Stories We Tell” by Sarah Polley because I love everything she does and this presented a totally different, unexpected side of her. Plus, it’s such a fresh, interesting way to tell a personal story – through “ a chorus of voices,” as I’ve heard her describe it. Basically everyone else’s opinion but her own. And “Dig!” by Ondi Timoner, which is the only film I found so riveting that as soon as I finished it, I immediately watched it again. It captures a certain essence of being young and creative in the ’90s that makes me feel nostalgic for pre-digital times.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how? 

BH: Difficult to answer as the pandemic hit as we were starting the edit, so I would have been holed up in isolation for an extended period anyway. Shortly after, I became pregnant and moved to a rural village so all of these life changes had just as big an impact on my life as COVID, if not more.

The worst part of the pandemic, hands down, was being separated from my family in Canada. In fact, I just reunited with my brother yesterday after being apart for almost three years. I’ve always loved my family but one of my very top “post-pandemic” priorities is organizing my life so I can spend as much time with them as possible.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

BH: I think the first step is awareness. Once you’re aware of what groups are underrepresented, you become more mindful of how you’re telling stories and choosing your collaborators. One tool I used when searching for an editor was the BIPOC editors database, which is an incredible resource for editing talent. I was pleased – and also disappointed – to find that the editors I reached out to from this list were all way too busy to take on our film. That’s a good sign, but I know we have a long way to go in all areas of filmmaking both on and off-screen.

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