When asked to describe her work, Bess Kargman ’04 compared the experience of documentary filmmaking to “an intoxicating high, and just the most amazing feeling ever.” With a charming laugh, she explained, “It is the best feeling when a day’s filming goes as planned and you get to capture meaningful content.”
As a graduating senior who is still unsure of her future, I was inspired by Kargman’s dedication to her passion for documenting sports and dance. Thanks to her resilience, hard work and an eye for a good story, she has produced award winning films “First Position” and “Coach,” received a nomination for a Sports and Image Award and has directed works for numerous platforms including Teen Vogue, Major League Soccer, National Public Radio (NPR) and the Olympic Games for NBC.
City Girl in a Small Town
Kargman was born and raised in Boston. A self-proclaimed “tomboy,” she recalls spending most of her childhood being active. She studied ballet at the Boston Ballet School and played soccer, tennis and ice hockey. When Kargman was applying to college, Amherst was her clear first choice. “The day I visited Amherst, it was a done deal for me,” she said. “I loved the idea of being in a beautiful rural environment. I loved the town, the small school, not having a slew of TAs.” As a student, she pursued her love for photography as a fine arts major and played on the women’s ice hockey team. Naturally curious, she spent her junior fall in Rome and her senior fall at Columbia in New York City. “You want to find a major or concentration that flows really well with the way that your brain works, so that every day isn’t a struggle,” she advised. “And art history meshed well with my learning style.”
Upon graduation, Kargman returned to New York City. She worked a number of odd jobs, from renting out apartments as a real estate agent to interning at a major music label. “I think it’s important for students to both be aware of in terms of their own personal experience, but also to know in advance, to know when you’re only 20 years old, that you might go through some big years of struggle, directly after graduating,” she said.
It wasn’t until she took a night class in op-ed writing that Kargman discovered her passion for journalism. After the op-ed that she wrote was published in The Washington Post, she enrolled at the Columbia School of Journalism. She originally intended to work in public radio, interning at public radio affiliates and National Public Radio because she was compelled by non-fiction stories. However, a documentary class during her final semester inspired her to instead consider film. She realized filmmaking creates an emotional experience: it is a way to make “people feel different — teaching people something, making people laugh, making people cry, educating people about something they didn’t know about and telling stories that deserve to be told.”
Getting into “First Position”
Fresh-faced and inexperienced, Kargman found herself at a disadvantage when pitted against veteran directors in the documentary industry. “You know, everyone wants to know. “‘What is your slew of credits?’” she notes. For her directorial debut, she decided to draw from a topic that she had personal experience with — ballet. With 10 years of ballet training at the Boston Ballet School, her deep knowledge of the topic allowed her to produce, direct and edit “First Position.”
The film follows the lives of six young ballet students on their journey to the Youth America Grand Prix, an annual competition where elite dance companies and dance schools scout young talent. The title comes from one of the five standard placements for dancers’ feet in ballet. “It’s a topic that’s so near and dear to me, and I didn’t think there were enough dance films that allowed intimate access to the lives of dancers,” Kargman said.
Nick Higgins, the film’s director of photography, met Kargman when she first started “First Position” in 2010. The film appealed to him because “there was an easy narrative arc in her idea, which is something that most documentaries struggle with. There was a clear beginning, middle and end in the idea. Fortunately, Bess knew the ballet world and had a great eye for talent. She picked kids that all did well at the competition.”
Kargman described the process of creating the film as “grueling, with lots of tears and struggle.” Working on a meager budget, Kargman directed, produced and edited the film herself, often not leaving her apartment for days at a time. Looking back, she notes with a laugh that she had a “blissful naivete going into it.”
“I hadn’t realized how hard it was to finish a film,” she said.
It wasn’t just naivete that got Kargman through the process. “She is one of the most tenacious directors I have ever collaborated with,” Higgins noted. “When an obstacle gets in her way, she moves around it and continues. To succeed at anything you have to have your eye on the prize and she definitely has that.”
In the end, Kargman’s hard work paid off almost instantaneously. The film garnered critical acclaim, premiering at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival and winning over a dozen festival awards internationally. It was also nominated for Outstanding Documentary at the NAACP Image Awards and a Fred Astaire Award. “First Position” also screened in hundreds of movie theaters across dozens of countries, which Kargman noted is unusual for a first-time filmmaker.
“My story isn’t that common, and I am so grateful for my successes," she said. “In hindsight, it was great for me to not know so much about the process, because I really took it step by step, moment by moment.”
Put Me In, “Coach”
After the release of “First Position,” Kargman was contacted by ESPN Films. Representatives at ESPN had seen her work and asked her to create a documentary short for the “Nine for IX” series, which celebrated the 40th anniversary of Title IX. “[They] saw no difference between a dance film and a sports film,” Kargman said. She agreed with this similarity, noting how both dance and sports involve “young people doing something that they’ve done since they were three years old, learning to excel at it and devoting their whole lives to this one activity.” Kargman signed on to the project and started making her next directorial project — “Coach.”
“Coach” follows the career of C. Vivian Stringer, the coach of the women’s basketball team at Rutgers University and one of the most accomplished coaches in college basketball history. She was the first coach to lead three different schools to the NCAA Division I Final Four and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009. The film explores her leadership through a scandal in which national radio show host Don Imus called Stringer’s players “nappy-headed hoes.”
“Even before learning about this incident, [knowing] how amazing and incredible this woman is as a coach, parent, leader, public speaker made me so excited to take on the project,” Kargman said.
Kargman described the short as a good challenge for her career. “[Stringer] had been burned by the press in the past, and so she was really hesitant to open up and show emotion at first, I felt lucky to be the one to tell her story,” she said.
Executive produced by Whoopi Goldberg, the short was nominated for a Sports Emmy and won the Jury Prize at the Tribeca Film Festival. “After the film won, [Stringer] called me the next day, and she thanked me, almost in tears for telling her story,” Kargman remembered.
The success of “Coach” opened the door for more sports documentary opportunities. Soon after, Kargman directed “Keeping Score,” a docu-series following the U.S. women’s national soccer team program in the lead up to the 2016 Olympic Games. Kargman also returned to ballet, creating a web series with Teen Vogue called “Strictly Ballet.” Her other major directing credits include a video on dance for Sesame Street, called “D is for Dance.” When she is not directing short films and series, Kargman also directs commercials and branded content.
“Every couple of years, I think about dance and always want to come back to it,” she said. “But shooting sports is also so fulfilling because I was an athlete. Hopefully, something with ice hockey and more ballet are in the cards soon.”
“I think, right now, we are entering or are already in the golden age of documentary film, and not only film, but content as well, short-form, long-form, multi-part series,” Kargman said. “I think the reason for that is that there is something so special and unique about non-fiction storytelling.”
Kargman plans to create a sequel to “First Position,” aptly named “Second Position.” She hopes to fundraise for the film primarily through crowdsourcing in order to better engage the public. “Even though I could go to a distributor or private investors, I think the huge benefit of doing a GoFundMe page is increasing audience involvement and having people who care about the film help push it forward,” she said.
Other future works include a documentary about two deaf twins who start to hear and speak with cochlear implants. The film will follow them throughout their childhood and development. “It’s a much bigger story, and there are also twists that I’m excited to film,” Kargman said. She is also in early stages of producing a piece about the National Hockey League.
In addition to her filmmaking, Kargman hopes to mentor aspiring filmmakers: “I’m at a point now where I wonder, ‘what is the point of having these ups and downs without sharing that with up-and-coming people in the industry?’” She hopes to dedicate a portion of her time to teaching.
Kargman is also the mother of a two-year-old girl and is married to her husband, whom she met during a shoot in London. “I hate cliches, but my daughter is the light of my life,” she said. “Lately, I’ve been privileging knowing when my daughter needs me, and it’s okay if my work slows down for her right now, because I want to be a strong presence in my child’s life.”
Indeed, her story is anything but a cliche. Her passion for dance and talent in filmmaking will continue to amplify important voices that need to be heard.