Connecting from behind the camera

Seal of the State of OklahomaNovice documentary filmmaker Mira Alpers '24 learns the ropes at Cowboy Churches in her homestate of Oklahoma. 

By ADF guest blogger Mira Alpers '24

Mira Alpers ’24, a resident of Dunster House joint concentrating in Art, Film and Visual Studies (AFVS) and History & Literature, was awarded a Artist Development Fellowship to film a short documentary on cowboy churches, evangelical churches that serve ranchers and cowboys mostly in Oklahoma and Texas and focus on preserving Western culture in the conduct of their ministry. Alpers has directed two theatrical productions: The Fortunates First-Year Musical 2021 virtual production and This Is Our Youth in 2021 at Agassiz Theatre. She also stage managed Hasty Pudding Theatrical’s 173rd annual production Ship Happens. Alpers is a staff writer for The Harvard Crimson’s art section and is a member of the fiction board of The Harvard Advocate.


The hardest thing for me about documentary filmmaking is not the creative decision-making, the technical aspects, ensuring that you have enough visual coverage, or even the fact that (since it's real life) if you miss a shot, you are not going to get it again. No, the hardest part of documentary filmmaking for me is getting the courage to ask people to do something for you over and over and over again. I am essentially a novice documentarian, having shot two films before this one, both for AFVS 50, the film department’s year-long introduction to nonfiction filmmaking. In both of those projects, I would get very nervous when I realized I had to ask someone to do something, such as “turn down the music,” or “turn up the lights,” or (the scariest ask) if they “wouldn’t mind appearing in my documentary project, and I promise no one will see it it's just for class.”


In the context of my curricular work, however, I was always filming with another person, which made the process of talking to a stranger significantly less scary. Still, the idea of being out of place, offending someone or interrupting something filled me with dread.


This summer, with the support of the Artist Development Fellowship, I was faced with a new challenge: filming by myself. Traveling across my home state of Oklahoma, I shot cattle auctions, roping events and church services, all as part of my project, a documentary on Cowboy Churches – churches focused on celebrating Western Heritage. Suddenly I could no longer rely on someone else to ease my social anxiety. I’ve always concerned myself outgoing, but this required a level of warmth and social initiative that even an extrovert like myself found nerve-wracking.


Want to feel incredibly out of place? Drive out to a dual church/arena in rural Oklahoma on a Sunday morning. Park your mom’s Prius next to the handful of trucks (belonging to church-goers) and horse trailers (belonging to cowboys) and hang out nervously in the back of the sanctuary with a giant camera on a tripod. Overhear some people say “Who is that girl with the camera?” Say to a random man in a cowboy hat “Are you the pastor who I spoke with on the phone?” (He is not). Finally, (and mercifully) when that pastor introduces himself and then introduces you to the congregation as “Mira from Norman, who is here to make a documentary on our Church,” some of the anxiety will subside.


Part of the reason making a nonfiction film is so socially stressful is the success of your film depends on your ability to connect with and get to know your subjects. As the goal of my film was to observe (rather than explain) this subsect of Christianity and its connections to “cowboy culture,” I knew it was key that I really try and get to know the people at the churches where I was filming.


A lot of this came down to knowing when to put the camera away, making time to speak with people, being the person to initiate conversations and getting to know my subjects on personal terms rather than just as part of a project. I think I learned a lot about filmmaking through making this film, and I’m hopeful that the film will turn out to be good. Mainly, however, I am thankful for the Artist Development Fellowship that gave me the opportunity to practice connecting with others, even when feeling nervous, out of place or stressed about the sound quality in a room. That is a skill I hope to take outside of only my filmmaking practice and add into my life more broadly.