Melissa Godoy Captures Life Itself

Cincinnati filmmaker Melissa Godoy talks about her latest documentary, Determined, screening at this month’s OTR Film Festival.

Illustration By Zachary Ghaderi

Melissa Godoy wears many production hats: digital cinematographer, director, editor, producer, and writer. Just like great stories, her filmmaking career is layered with compelling chapters and hard-earned pearls of wisdom—starting at Northwestern University, where she studied theater and creative writing. “Ultimately, my study became a deep observation and experience of people and how relationships often play out what’s happening socially and politically at the time,” she says. “I was also learning how to write for media. When you put the two together, you’re learning how to direct.”

Godoy’s film Determined will screen at the 2021 Over-the-Rhine Film Festival July 8–11. The documentary follows three women at high risk for Alzheimer’s engaging in long-term medical research about the disease. Godoy served as cinematographer, director, and editor. “The thing I most lately strive for in my work is to capture the present moment, with all its pain, humor, and contradiction,” she says. “And as I mature, that presence has fewer words, more silence. That’s one thing I am proud of in Determined, the airy dialogue of the vérité scenes. It’s what I would have perhaps written in my journal as a 20 year old, but now I understand it better.”

What keeps you engaged in the documentary genre?

What’s nice about documentary-making is that the story is there. There’s no need to labor over making something look real. It just is, and you have to be present and take it in without interfering. You need access, courage, and skills. Ideally, I like to work with a small team that includes people with similar life experiences as the people in the story. I like to approach documentary as a collaboration with the people in the film and the crew. The producer who came up with the idea of Determined—the force behind the project, Therese Barry-Tanner—is in the same Alzheimer’s study as the main characters. Being one of them, her peers greatly trusted her and opened their doors into the most intimate moments of their lives.

I don’t ever want to be judgmental from behind the camera. If you don’t “feel” the person on the other side of the lens, try harder. You also need to remove your assumptions. We tell stories in media by putting people within a frame, but no one likes to be put in a box.

Tell us about some of your most remarkable experiences.

It’s really not one thing, but just the everyday Zen that comes from attentively watching life unfold in a way that you could never write in fiction. Even after a long day, it’s energizing. When I made a crucial decision in my career that I love docs, I began working with Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert on A Lion in the House as their line producer. I continued with them on The Last Truck, American Factory, and 9to5: The Story of a Movement, in addition to other short docs where I also got to shoot. I was an additional camera on the last two as well. From the art to the business, experiences working on these films changed me, and I am ever so grateful.

Probably some of my most remarkable personal experiences have been the cumulative years spent in and around Washington Park from 2010 to 2013. Formerly called Rebirth of Over-the-Rhine and now The Park, that film is incomplete. It’s a coproduction with Cincinnatian Joe Brinker and Steve Dorst, who lives in the D.C. area. I want to finish it, but it needs support. It’s about some of the people around Washington Park during the time of renovation. The story is told from multiple points of view and has some amazing, shattering, funny, and redemptive characters and scenes.

Another remarkable experience was making collaborative short fiction at a creative daycare for people with Alzheimer’s disease at Mercy Health West Park, right before Determined. My team on that project worked with Amy Kruep and her nursing staff and the folks in the daycare to listen, write, use improv, and shoot some fiction films. Some of the participants used the camera attached to their wheelchairs and such. It was very ambitious, and we laughed a lot.

You’re a founding member of Women in Film Cincinnati (WIF). What inspired you to help bring together women in film production?

We’re door-openers at WIF. If you can dream it, you can do it, though it will take time and sweat. I’d like to see all women who want to make movies—however they wish—pick up a camera, lights, and microphones and have the support they need. Friendly eyes, kindred spirits. We offer vocational training, networking, and opportunities. We have women, men, and nonbinary members. There are a range of talents represented on our board, from gaffer/grip to wardrobe to editors and producers in ages ranging from those in their 20s to late 60s.

It’s hard for the twentysomethings to get started in the industry, and we can help. In mid-life, it’s hard to move forward when you have children and car payments or are stuck in a rut; people in mid-life need respectable, paying work. Ageism can be a problem in the industry, and I want to fight that. Seasoned artists enhance and lift up not only the present creative work but the next generation. My mother, Eileen Littig, at 83, is one of the producers of Determined. Because of her age, she was the perfect coproducer. Making the film also inspired her, and she’s become an exercise fanatic.

Tell me about this year’s Over-the-Rhine Film Festival and its theme of “a new lens on life.”

To our city just emerging from a pandemic, a new lens may mean joy in the moment—a celebration of health and hope for the future. In the film industry, we’re returning to the set like cicadas! But beyond that, this is a festival of inclusion. When anyone risks sharing their stories from beyond the tired old stereotypes or tropes, we’re invited into new worlds less frequently explored and we become richer and more empathic. That’s the strength of independent film. The lens of this festival looks toward freedom, identity, diversity, disability, and faith.

For Determined, it has just been a dream to get in. We will also have a panel discussion. I hope to bring together our Ohio crew and some of the insightful people who participated over the years giving rough cut feedback and moral support to discuss the final film. This is also an opportunity for local Alzheimer’s organizations to share what they offer regionally for support and research. Even though the film was shot in Wisconsin, it was embraced and made better by our community in Ohio.

Cincinnati has been emerging over the years as a film city. In your opinion, what makes it ideal for filmmaking?

Well, Cincinnati is drop-dead gorgeous and interesting. Our varied topography and our historic architecture is like a set for any era. Our picturesque neighborhoods, fabulous estates, farms, and the river. And Cincinnati is beautifully diverse in people. Our casting for actors and extras is rich. This is a city that takes performing arts seriously!

We have highly-skilled, credited union and non-union crew making major motion pictures, and doing it very well. From Rain Man to Carol to interesting movies with directors from out of town who will be in production this very summer. We have college programs training young people who are eager to join the ranks. We have a Midwestern work ethic with strong values of family and community, so we keep our soul. The Cincinnati film industry also has state-of-the-art cameras, lights, gear, and trucks. Most of Determined was shot with equipment rented from The Camera Dept. here. The Ohio tax credit is also a nice incentive. The hard work to keep it and expand it, along with the entire film infrastructure, is an ongoing accomplishment by Film Cincinnati and FilmDayton.

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