Documentary filmmaker Shola Lynch is breaking away from the pack. Around this time last year, the New York City native was preparing for the gala premiere of her second documentary FREE ANGELA and All Political Prisoners at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film was subsequently picked up by Lionsgate, opened in AMC Theatres around the country, will be released on DVD on August 20th, and is set to air on BET sometime next year.
Lynch’s newest documentary, RUNNER, is about the life and career of the US track and field record holder, Mary Decker. The hour-long documentary aired last night on ESPN as part of the "NINE FOR IX" series, which commemorates the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the Education Amendment enabling women to secure equal funding for athletic programs as men. The series, which is produced by Robin Roberts & Jane Rosenthal features nine documentary films about women in sports directed by female award-winning filmmakers. The series continues on Tuesdays through August 27 on ESPN at 8PM.
EBONY talked to Lynch about her newest documentary RUNNER and how her experience as a runner informs her filmmaking
EBONY: How did you get involved in this project?
Shola Lynch: They were looking for directors for IX for IX. They asked me what I would pitch. I used to run track and I was really pretty good. I immediately thought of Mary Decker because she was the person I wanted to emulate on the track as a middle distance runner.
When I was 14, I broke the national record for 14 year olds in the 800 and they started calling me ‘the next Mary Decker’. Those of us that were breaking records and being aggressive and really kind of learning how to compete in that way were all called ‘the next Mary Decker’ but there's not been one of us who has had a career and the dominance that she has. She's one of those athletes whose times are competitive today. That's unheard of. She's one of the only middle distance athletes to win gold at the world championships.
She won the world championship in 1983 and then in 1984 everyone thinks it's her moment for the gold and you'll see what happens. So it's this great story about athletic prowess.
EBONY: What did you learn from being a runner?
SL: I was a whimpy kid before I learned how to compete. When you're on that line, you don't care if somebody likes you or not. It's not about being nice. It's not about any of that. You have to really give it 100% and it's a practice to be able to do that. And the tough part is to be able to accept the results. Just because you give 100% doesn't mean that you're going to be the winner. You then have to face where you are and what you have to do to get better.
There's no negotiating it. And I love that. I love the finality of competition.
EBONY: How did your experience as a runner impact you as a filmmaker?
SL: I'm a big advocate of girls’ sports because it changes our lives. I was really bad at running the first two years. But what you start to learn is that if you put in the effort there will be results. [Results] are never immediate though. You set a long term goal. And people ask how that relates to life. People ask me: ‘How did you stay the course over the eight years of making Free Angela?’ There's a direct correlation between what I learned over the 18 years I ran track and how I approach filmmaking.
Track helped me develop the ability to make long-term goals and to work on them every day. If you want to be in the Olympics, you can't start training two weeks before. In school that's what we do. But there are certain things that you cannot do at the last minute and you have to work on them methodically. You have to constantly have it as a part of your life. That's what athletics was. It was part of my life. I worked on it daily, whether it was stretching or training or weightlifting or whatever it was.
[Similarly] the way I made Free Angela was, the film was always a part of my life. A certain part of every day I would devote to thinking about it or working on it. I knew I would get to the end result eventually. I just didn't think it would take so long. And track taught me how to handle defeat. Do you stop or give up? No. You reevaluate. You come up with a new game plan.
EBONY: Did you ever compete in the Olympics?
SL: I had a sponsorship from Footlocker and entry into the national competing circuit. And I was training with eye on Atlanta in 1996. I was in graduate school doing my masters in American history and public history, studying to be a museum curator. And then I damaged my discs really badly and when you're 26 going on 27 and you have that type of injury, there’s really no coming back. So I didn't go to the Olympic trial because of my injury, and in January of 1996 I decided to go back to New York City.
After moving back home, I got an offer to work with [documentary filmmaker] Ken Burns. They were looking for someone who was really good at visual research and finding documents and that was all I had done in graduate school to become a curator. So I became a curator for film. And I learned through watching the producers and how they did things and by watching Ken when I was in the editing room. I worked on Burns’ Jazz which was a 20 hour series and my job was to find evidence of black life from 1890 to the present. And I became associate producer on the project. I worked for Ken Burns for five years and that became my film school, where I caught the storytelling bug through film and decided to make my first documentary on Shirley Chisholm [which premiered at Sundance in 2004 and won a Peabody Award in 2006].
EBONY: Mary Decker missed one of her chances to compete in the Olympics in 1980 because the U.S. boycotted. Do you think it's a good strategy for countries to boycott the Olympics given the window of opportunity for competition is so narrow?
SL: When Obama was recently on television and said we're not going to boycott, I was so happy, I got really emotional and thought "you get it!" I was so proud of him. Athletics is the place where politics should not come into play in that way. Prove you're better on the track or in the swimming pool. It shouldn't be about who shows up and who doesn't. Because it's spectacular when the world can come together and compete. There's respect in it. And it humanizes us. When we're all in the Olympic village and you meet other athletes we recognize our humanity, and it's not just about political agendas.
Makkada B. Selah is a journalist based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.