Nancy Schiesari: Esteemed Filmmaker

A compelling storyteller, she brings the untold stories of wartime to film.

For some, TV is something to pass the time, but for others like Nancy Schiesari, TV is her passion.

There are documentaries which make you change your worldview —movies which alter your perception of “ordinary” things. It is interesting to think about who is behind these movies and how they come up with creative ideas. Schiesari, an Italian-American director, creates documentaries that mostly deal with the themes of war. They encourage the viewer to rethink the facts and small details that they never thought deeply about.

Echoes of the Past

World War II left a huge imprint on her family. Schiesari’s parents picked up roots and moved from Italy to Mississippi, where she grew up. Her father was a doctor during the war. Her aunt was a member of a partisan anti-fascist movement which organized resistance activities. Schiesari applies her craft mainly on war-related films as a tribute to her parents and her heritage.

In adolescence, her dream was to become a painter, which is why she decided to study art. She graduated from the Royal College of London with an MFA. But while studying there, she discovered her new passion, film. She remembers, “When I imagined myself in the role of a cinematographer, I was immediately drawn to this newfound world. I was absolutely sure that I had to follow my heart.” And soon she embraced her new life.

Schiesari is a person who does not limit herself to shooting nationally. Her work involves travel, and quite a lot of it actually. She has filmed all over the world in locations such as Iceland, Pakistan, Latin America, Africa, Europe. It is not a coincidence, however, that Schiesari lives in Austin, Texas. Named as the “Live Music Capital of the World,” the city is also famous for its film industry. It is quite known for its studios, local filmmakers, and setting for various TV shows and movies. In addition to this, Austin hosts thousands of filmmakers and musicians from all over the world at their SXSW Film and Conference Festival.

Considering her and her family’s past in Italy, it is not surprising that the theme of war is prominent throughout her work. What she likes to draw attention to through her documentaries are things that people are not very aware of. Inspired by her family and Italian ancestors, Schiesari tells the story of the Italian Resistance Movement and OSS. In her documentary Behind Enemy Lines, she brings to life the realities of war that are often hidden from the public.

Dogs of War

She likes to focus on themes that are often looked over or understood differently. For example, her most recent work is a full-length documentary, Canine Soldiers: The Militarization of Love, that premiered in 2017 at the Austin Film Festival and was nationally aired on PBS. It deals with the relationship between soldiers and their trustworthy companions. You can view the movie trailer here…

Schiesari shares that, “People often fail to observe the special bond that the military dog and its handler have during the war.” She shows that working dogs in the military and their human handlers have a special connection which is not correctly understood by the general public.

Although some of us might think that dogs are dependent on humans, oftentimes it is quite the opposite. She shows her viewers that these creatures often become the ones who save their humans. They play a crucial role in sniffing out and detecting bombs and other explosives, which a soldier would otherwise fail to notice. People often rely on their dog’s sense of smell to save them in such life-threatening situations.

Schiesari noticed the handlers themselves seemed different than regular soldiers. In an interview with the Blanton Museum of Art, she says, “The handlers’ whole mentality is about saving lives — they have a saint-like quality. I don’t mean to idealize them, but they really have an extraordinary aura.”

Cinematic Accomplishments

An eminent director, producer, and a cinematographer, Schiesari is mostly involved in creating broadcast documentaries and independent films. Among her prominent works are Hansel Mieth: Vagabond Photographer, a documentary about the pioneering woman photojournalist whose contributions to America’s heritage were nearly lost into obscurity, and History Man, a 30-minute documentary about Martin Scorsese for BBC 4, London. Her cinematography in The Human Face, produced by John Cleese in 2002, surprised critics to such an extent that she was nominated for a Television Emmy.

Throughout her 20-year career as a director of photography, she has worked on more than 30 feature films and documentaries. She is the director of such movies as Cactus Jack: Lone Star on Capitol Hill and Tattooed Under Fire.

At the moment, Schiesari is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. She is in charge of teaching filmmaking and cinematography in the Radio-Television and Film Department in the Moody College of Communication.

Learn more about Nancy Schiesari and her amazing films at www.motiproductions.com.