Now more than ever, creatives are choosing fulfilment over perceived success
In light of swathes of creatives resigning from their roles over the past year, we hear from one filmmaker’s decision to do the same.
In early 2021, as a future outside of the pandemic began to emerge in tandem with vaccine developments, individuals understandably began to reassess their priorities – especially when considering their careers. As a result, “The Great Resignation” emerged, in which swathes of employees handed in their notice for new opportunities. In the creative field, this of course saw many full-time employees place their craft front of mind in significant career changes, or by leaving the virtual office in favour of freelance working.
Amongst the creative respondents who answered our Balancing Act survey earlier this year, 36 per cent had decided to change roles since March of 2020, with another 20 per cent completing interviews. The reasoning behind such a decision is also clear, with 78 per cent of respondents noting how the pandemic has altered the personal enjoyment they gained from work. Most interestingly however, those who have partaken in “The Great Resignation” appear to have actively improved their circumstances, with 80 per cent of respondents sharing how they felt this change in job was the right decision.
An individual who feels similarly is Jessi Gutch, who recently left her role at the Red Cross in pursuit of life as an independent filmmaker. While, as you’ll read, the life altering factors leading to this decision are personal to Jessi, her resolve to follow her own creative path is an inspiring account – one any individual who wishes to create can learn from.
One of my fondest childhood memories is going to Blockbuster with my family on a Saturday afternoon. A weekly tradition, some of the rentals from that period remain my favourites today, from Thirteen and One Hour Photo to Stand By Me, Donnie Darko and Dead Poets Society. I think films always preoccupied me for their unique ability to create or recreate someone else’s world, or indeed to conjure up another world entirely.
When I went to university it was totally obvious to me that I would choose film studies. I wrote my dissertation on the concept of truth and how it’s portrayed in documentaries – comparing the documentaries Capturing the Friedmans and The Thin Blue Line as two very different examples of both truth-seeking and truth-bending narratives. It soon became clear that documentary filmmaking was what I wanted to do; it seemed to me the most powerful tool for impacting change and making people empathise with those different to them.
Yet when I graduated, the buzz and adrenaline I had around this career was slowly sapped out of me following several toxic jobs in the film industry. I was lucky enough to do a paid production traineeship funded by Creative England for six months, which was brilliant. But then my next two jobs were rife with male-dominated teams, inappropriate behaviour, and bullying. It also wasn’t helped by the fact that the films we were making were purely commercial – the purpose being to make the client money, rather than achieve the kind of social good that I was so excited about at university.
After a brief flirtation with changing careers completely, I saw a video production internship come up with the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). This led to me working in the NGO sector for six years – first at MSF and then at the Red Cross as an in-house filmmaker. I really was very content for a long time at these organisations, but then my world was completely torn apart: twice.
In February 2019, aged 26, I was diagnosed with an extremely rare ovarian cancer called Sertoli Leydig Cell Tumour. After three surgeries and a brutal chemo regimen, I was declared NED (no evidence of disease). Then, after just four months, and in the second month of the pandemic, I was told the cancer was back and on my liver. It was incurable and I would be on some form of treatment for the rest of my life – until those (few) treatment options all stopped working. At which point presumably I’d be terminal. I was 28.
In a way that I could never have predicted, that incurable diagnosis was the best thing that happened to my career. It suddenly gave me a more urgent sense of having a voice that I wanted to use. I didn’t want to make films in the voice of an organisation; I wanted to make my own films. A “Jessi Gutch” film, whatever that was. But it also seemed undoable when I needed the safety net of being able to take paid sick leave, as someone the government had told to shield during a global pandemic.
And then the most serendipitous film funding opportunity came up. The Uncertain Kingdom, an anthology of 20 short films about Britain in 2020, was looking to fund a final 21st film offering a unique perspective on the pandemic. And here I was, staring out my window wondering what on earth it meant to potentially be in your last months of life and unable to be with loved ones. A funding requirement was having a director who had screened at least one film at a Bafta-qualifying festival. Luckily for me, my childhood friend Molly Manning Walker was such a person – and whose talent I trusted wholeheartedly. Together we wrote The Forgotten C, which told the story of cancer patient Aisha and her family’s grieving process, all shot through the distanced perspective of her window. We received The Uncertain Kingdom’s funding and again my documentary love kicked in. This was based on my authentic experience so it was going to be shot in my flat, with my real neighbours as extras, and dedicated to a real person, the legendary Saima Thompson, who had died of cancer during strict lockdown.
At the time, going from shielding to having an entire film crew in your flat was a slightly unhinged thing to do. One moment, when my husband and I were anxiously scrubbing every bit of surface with disinfectant, I did begin to wonder if it had been a mistake. But when we chose to release the film online primarily to our shielding and cancer-diagnosed audience, and had the reception we did, I knew it was worth it (the BIFA nomination didn’t hurt either!).
I still believe that The Forgotten C saved my life. I think I was at a fork in the road and the process of reclaiming that life event allowed me to realise that I could be both ill and alive. It also gave me my “first break”, leading me to make another three industry-backed short films from September 2020 to December 2021: Until The Tide Creeps In, Blind as a Beat and Octopus. Alongside this I was making an in-house documentary about the biggest humanitarian response since WW2 for the Red Cross: Covid. I was living the career dream at a million miles an hour, but I was also burnt out. In August 2021 my cancer showed progression for the first time and I began to reassess what I was doing to myself in pursuit of this “dream”.
I saw a tweet during this time noting the ages of a lauded group of film directors when they made their first breakthrough film. Mostly, they were in their 40s and 50s. A lot of people were retweeting saying it gave them comfort, but for me it was indicative of why I felt like I needed to push myself. I don’t know the exact figure, but it’s statistically very unlikely I will live to 40. I do believe everyone is individual and cannot be reduced to statistics, however I’m also not completely living in a fantasy world where I’m this one-of-a-kind patient. This is not a battle that I win or lose – it is simply part of my story that I was unfortunate to get a life-threatening disease at a young age. But I also always wanted part of my story to be that I become an award-winning filmmaker. That was literally in my top three life goals before I was even diagnosed.
This burnout and reevaluation of importance led to two major life changes: I quit my job at the Red Cross to become fully freelance and I moved with my gorgeous husband (and even more gorgeous rescue cat) from London to Folkestone. Both of these were very instinctive decisions. I felt like I had to progress in life, not just towards death, and be led by what makes me happy. That was really the key to it all – not to make films to win awards and not to try and compete with careers that I’ll never live long enough to have. To make films because it gives my life a purpose that goes beyond perceived industry success.
Since then, my tumours appear to have shrunk (they don’t lie about the sea air!) and I am about to start working on a dream project where the producer was actively seeking a Folkestone-based documentary filmmaker. I like to think it’s the universe’s way of saying that you should always follow your heart, rather than your head or ego. But also I’m loath to end this piece with an “and then it was all happily ever after” – in the way that much inspiration porn around disability and illness does. I still have incurable cancer, it will still kill me at some point, but equally this isn’t tragedy porn either. There are no neat endings. But aren’t they the best films?
The Balancing Act
The Balancing Act is an Extra Nice-supported editorial series by It’s Nice That investigating how our industry has altered since the first wave of Covid-19 in early 2020. Developed from a survey shared with our readers, the resulting pieces are a reflection of the way the creative industry was feeling two years later.
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About the Author
Jessi Gutch is BIFA nominated filmmaker with a particular interest in experimental documentary, charity commissioned video and authentically told narrative stories. She is a joint company director of female-led Fig Films, having worked with industry funders The Uncertain Kingdom, BFI, Doc Society, Audible, and Arts Council England. In 2021 she was selected for BFI Network at London Film Festival, aimed at industry trailblazers working toward their first feature. In 2022, she will be working on various projects, including short films Home, The Guest, Border Town and Seen.