[WE Talk] Alena Schiappacasse: Capturing Truth Through the Lens

Alena Schiappacasse

Capturing Truth Through the Lens

On this episode:

  • Traveling the world as a documentary producer
  • The gifts of a Waldorf education in filmmaking, communication, and relationship
  • Finding purpose and beauty in the everyday
  • Following one’s interests to find one’s passion

Episode Transcript:

Nita June: Hello, and welcome to WE Talk, a podcast that explores the role of Waldorf education in helping children, parents, and families thrive in an ever-changing world. WE talk is brought to you by Shining Mountain Waldorf School, and this is your host Nita June.

Hello and welcome, wonderful WE Talk listeners. It has been a moment since our last interview was published and I’m wishing you all a fantastic, almost-March time. Today on our show, I bring Alena Schiappacasse. Alena graduated from Shining Mountain Waldorf High School, and is today a documentary associate producer with production experience in both fashion and television. Her documentary production experience spans domestic and international shoots in multiple international locations, including Chad, Brazil, China, Japan, the UK, Spain, and many other places. She shares with us today, about her work in these different places in the world, and in the different fast-paced environments of both fashion and television. She most recently completed a wonderful new Netflix show, directed by Emmy Award winner, Rudy Valdez, and produced by Ron Howard, called We Are: The Brooklyn Saints. She speaks about that, and also about how her Waldorf education inspired her and continues to shape who and how she is today in this werful world. Wishing you all the best, and I hope you enjoy…

Welcome Alena, thank you so much for being with me today on this episode of WE talk.

Alena Schiappacasse: Thank you so much for having me.

Nita June: Yeah. And listeners and now viewers, this is our first shared, filmed WE talk that we were doing today too, so exciting new endeavors ahead. And I am so excited to have Alena Schiappacasse here with me. Alena, remind me, and remind all our listeners, what years you were at Shining Mountain.

Alena Schiappacasse: So I started at Shining Mountain all the way at the beginning, in kindergarten. And honestly, I can not tell you what year that was, but I graduated in 2010. Yeah, there was only one year where I wasn’t at Shining Mountain and that was for a brief foray on the East coast, for my freshman year of high school.

Nita June: Oh, cool. What high school did you partake in during that time?

Alena Schiappacasse: I went to Green Meadow Waldorf School.

Nita June: Okay. Sticking in the Waldorf world there.

Alena Schiappacasse: Definitely Waldorf all the way through. Yeah.

Nita June: So Alena, can you share with us just a bit about your first initial steps away from Shining Mountain, not at Green Meadow, but after high school and your time at Bard College?

Alena Schiappacasse: Sure. Yeah. So after I graduated from Shining Mountain, I actually ended up taking a gap year. The process was my parents were like, “Okay, if you want to go take a gap year, you have to apply, get into college, and then you can go and explore the world.” So I did that. I got accepted to Bard College on the East coast, and ended up taking my gap year and spent the year traveling. I started out in Berlin, Germany, where my mother is from. And I spent a lot of time there. I spent the majority of my summers growing up there. So I felt like it was really important for me to connect with the culture there. And then after that, I went to Australia. I was in Australia for a little bit. And then I ended up backpacking around Southeast Asia, which was an incredible experience.

I worked teaching English and worked for a couple of NGOs as well. I did my most kind of like, I guess… How do I say this? It’s like the thing that really like touched my soul in that year was that, I spent about six months of that year working at an NGO for mothers who had HIV and their children. And so we spent a lot of time just like working with the mamas and basically providing their children with just cultural contexts, English education. Yeah.

Nita June: Wow. What an incredible gap year. It sounds like it’s-

Alena Schiappacasse: It is amazing. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to do that, and it kind of spun my passions in a different way than I ever thought would happen.

Nita June: Interesting. I know, it’s so neat to look back on our lives now and be like, “Oh, had I not done that, then that wouldn’t have led to that.” Right.

Alena Schiappacasse: Yeah.

Nita June: Which kind of brings me to my next question. While at Bard you, and correct me if I’m wrong here, you majored in film, right? Or focused on film, depending on how Bard puts it.

Alena Schiappacasse: Yeah. I actually ended up getting a degree in developmental economics, which was where my passion started in Cambodia, at the NGO. And I really wanted to take a deep dive into wealth inequality and economic systems. But my main passion really, was always photography and film. And my father, before he ended up in Waldorf education, he was a filmmaker and always had film cameras lying around. So I tinkered with them as a child. And when I went to college, I was like, “Dad, I’m going to study film.” And he was like, “Absolutely not.” And not in like a, “You can’t do that. I’m your dad,” way. It was like, we just couldn’t really afford to have the additional of the film program, which was more in material costs and all these different things.

So I kind of made a deal. I was like, “Listen, I have this passion for developmental economics, developmental societies, cultures in development, and I’d love to learn about that. But I also really want to be able to look at developmental economics through the lens as a documentarian, as a filmmaker. And I want to learn about that as much as I possibly can. So I will have a focus in documentary film. I’ll learn about cameras. I’ll learn about telling stories in a documentary format with my economics degree.”

Nita June: Awesome. That sounds phenomenal. Wow. And so with this gap year, so when you entered your time at Bard, did you feel like you were more ready? Was that transition hard, to come back after the gap year? And just in general, that freshman year can be tough. It’s a new system, it’s a new culture. How was that for you?

Alena Schiappacasse: That’s a really great question. I think that that is something that a lot of people don’t really think about when they take a gap year. When I originally went into my gap year, I was like, “Oh, this is going to be something that makes me more interesting of a human. And I can go into my studies at college with like a more diverse understanding of the world and I can apply that to my studies.” But instead, I kind of felt when I arrived at college, alienated, I think alienated by my broader understanding of the world, in a way. And I think definitely, that had to do with me. But I think part of it was also that I was so enthusiastic about being out in the world, that kind of coming back in and having to sit and study and learn from that perspective, was difficult for me.

And I was never really like the best student. I was always kind of just somebody who really, really wanted all of the hands on that Waldorf education gave me. That was where I thrived. So getting into college and also throwing myself into an economics course, which is also something that didn’t align with my skills coming out of high school. I was really bad at math. Like science, I couldn’t even do it. I don’t even know how I got through math in high school. And kind of got thrown into this place where I had to really focus on learning this new language that takes a lot of focus and a lot of concentration.

But what’s really cool about that, is that I initially thought like, “Oh my gosh, I’m not smart at that.” But never say that to yourself. Like you’re not, not smart at that. You just have to learn it in the way that you need to learn it. And you’re going to get good at it. And if it’s associated with something you love, then it will work for you. And it did. So I think that was the hard thing, coming from my gap year. Really thinking that I could forever learn about the world by being in it.

Nita June: Yeah, I know. Which I don’t know, we’ll see how it goes in the future. I think more and more people are wanting that experiential learning and schools are implementing it more, with more field work or just like studying abroad, or courses that are fully taught abroad. But I just want to emphasize and echo and support you in what you’re saying. Don’t ever say that you’re bad at something. Because yeah, if you’re passionate about it, you can totally do it. It’s all about that interest. Yeah.

Alena Schiappacasse: Oh yeah. You just have to push yourself and like recalibrate how you think about it and always say like, “Hey, I’m not bad at this. I just have to learn how to do it.

Nita June: Hard at the moment. Yeah. Yeah. Congratulations sweetie, I’m forging through with that. I know that at a couple econ majors with my best friends in college, and I just remember looking at even like their textbooks and everything. And I was always good at math, and I was like, “Oh gosh, whew.” I was like, “I’m sticking with my theater degree over here.

Alena Schiappacasse: Oh, yeah. I was like, “Theater, yes. Give me theater, give me film. I want all those things.”

Nita June: I know, still in that world. So you’ve touched on this a little bit, just your travels all around in that gap year, and I’m sure you’ve adventured and traveled even more at this point in your life. If you can think of like, I don’t know, one or two highlights of your times abroad and your travel experiences, what might some of those be? Whether it’s culturally or work-wise or just any other stories that might come to your mind?

Alena Schiappacasse: Yeah. I love this question. There’s so many places. And even just hearing the question, makes me think about all the amazing places in the world. But I think that the foremost story, it took place in Cambodia. When I was working at the NGO, I spent a lot of time working with the children and had to get up like at four o’clock in the morning and be driven on a moto, out to this like very, very, very rural grouping of houses where the hospitals were for the mamas. And every single morning, it was like one of those things, where you just get on the bike and you can see this like beautiful road and just like these gorgeous, massive fields of lily pads and the sun rising. And it was just so, so beautiful.

And then one of these mornings, I was feeling kind of sick and I was like, “No, it’s okay. Like I’ll just push through and I’ll be fine.” We get to the NGO. And it’s kind of between lessons. And I sit down on this bench in the middle of the courtyard and I was just like, “Oh my God,” I had this terrible stomach pains. Turns out later, I had like really, really bad like stomach disease. But anyway, I’m sitting there and I’m like, “Oh, I can’t alert anybody to the fact that I’m feeling bad. I really just have to push through this. There are people around me who are suffering so much more than I am right now. And like, I’m fine. I’m really okay.”

And without even saying anything, the doctor came over to me and he was like, “What’s going on?”. He didn’t speak English. So this is all in Khmer, and I would not say that I even have a small understanding of Khmer. I can like, kind of get by, but I understood his intention. And he rallied everybody else. He was like, “She’s not feeling well. We have to do something about it. Let’s find somebody who can speak in English to her.” And at a certain point I look up and there was like a group of like 12 people around me, including the mamas, including the children, and they’re all so concerned about me. And I’m like, “Whoa. No, no, no, no, no, no. Please, just stop.”

And amazingly, one of the ladies, she takes this jar of like Tiger Balm, like a version of Tiger Balm. And she lifts up my shirt and she starts taking the tiger balm and massaging it onto my stomach in this really interesting pattern. And after she does this, like all of my internal organs, like all of the pressure that I was feeling just completely went away. And I remember looking up at them and being like, “Whoa. Here I am, I’m supporting this community in whatever way that like Western society has taught me that I’m supposed to support suffering communities, whatever that means. And they’re supporting me in like the most traditional form of care, which is like love and like ancient medicines and just this amazing cultural understanding of the way that bodies react in the environment that it is in.

And that was kind of one of the most eye-opening experiences I’ve ever had. I think that changed my entire relationship to understanding world. I think before it was like, “Let’s just see everything.” And then all of a sudden it was like, “Let’s learn about tradition, culture. Let’s learn about where people and their ancestors come from and how that affects their current environment. And then what has happened to create that current environment.” And most of the time it’s modern society saying, “This is the way it’s supposed to be,” but that’s another whole conversation. But yeah, that was an amazing experience.

Nita June: Wow. And that sounds magical. Yeah.

Alena Schiappacasse: It was kind of a book. And I think I did a really bad job telling it just then.

Nita June: You did a great job. No, I was riveted. Yeah. I’m just struck too, by that last piece that you noted, coming in with that Western mentality of like, you’re there to provide these tools. And I’m sure you weren’t coming in an egotistical fashion being like, “I’ve got everything figured out. Let me tell you,” in any way, shape or form. But it sounds like you had this realization, or maybe not realization, but you like a reminder. And what I’m struck by in your story, is just that reminder, we all, are always learning and have things to offer each other. No matter where we are, how much money we have, how old we are, what’s going on, there’s always something. There can always be a like reciprocal giving there. That’s cool, sweetie. Wow.

So let’s fast forward a little bit to now. And I’m glad that you’re done with your stomach bug, whatever it was. And bringing us into the current day here, of your work in film and fashion and television production. I’d love to just hear some about all these worlds that you live in and what some of the challenges and the highlights of each area might be.

Alena Schiappacasse: Sure. So I currently work as a documentary associate producer. Prior to being an associate producer, I’ve kind of worked my way up through the film chain, which starts as this wild role as a production assistant. And when you go into this role, you’re like, “I went to college, I studied film. I know all these things.” And then you get people coffee and you drive trucks around and you learn how to park cars in New York city. And you all the stress that everybody around you is feeling and how to like calm everybody down and put a lens on the camera. And just all of these things that are like super vital to the fast paced environment that I work in.

And my first role as a production assistant came on a show that I worked on for Netflix called, Rotten, which is a show about corrupted food systems. And it looks at different food products and basically goes through the economic background of it. And then it has an amazing cultural lens through which this product kind of comes into the world and how it affects the world. And I got on this job because the producer needed a production assistant and I happened to be in her vicinity. And she was like, “Great, get a van. We’re driving to Washington D.C. and we’re going to do all these interviews.” And I was like, “Great.” And it was like the most amazing moment for me. Because people probably remember me as being like super loud and super enthusiastic, and I have so much energy, and like sitting in front of a desk is not my thing. So when this role came into my lap, I was like, “Awesome. I get to get paid to like be out in the field and run around and learn things from people, and coffee, “You need coffee?” Great.

So that was like, my first love of the film industry, was really just like the enthusiasm, being out in the world with people who are really smart and who are spending their time telling a story that they’re really passionate about. So kind of silly. As I’ve worked my way up. I started production coordinating, which is basically just like running all the logistics of a show. It’s about like dealing with gear and making sure everyone’s schedules are on track, and dealing with customs around gear getting in and out of country and people getting in and out countries.

And so I worked on this show called Connected, also Netflix, that it’s hosted by Latif Nasser. He’s an incredible researcher. He does radio labs, it’s a podcast. And they get into these super in-depth stories on almost everything, which is really cool. And Latif Nasser’s amazing because he’s a very unique individual in that, the way that he connects to every single person in the world is just based out of enthusiasm for learning about like the motivations of that person, or the history of that person, or why they understand the world a certain way, or why they’re associated with a topic that he’s researching. And so he has this very childlike innocence in the way that he approaches people, which was another step for me, I think, in like really learning how to see the world differently and like see people differently, and in my own kind of steps towards being a documentarian. So that was an amazing challenge.

We were in and out of Africa, we were in Chad, we were in the Amazon, the Netherlands. We were all over the world. So my role was not on the story side of it. I didn’t deal with any of the research or the interview subjects or any of those topics. My role was basically like, “All right, we have a flight at four o’clock in the morning, and we have this much gear, and we need to make sure that it’s all legal going in and out of these countries, and we’re got to track it right. And it’s five o’clock in the morning now.” And it’s like this crazy…

So uncool. Mostly just me, like almost about to panic about something, or somebody calling me at a ridiculous time in the morning and me just being like, “Oh, I got to fix this thing.” Which I love, I love it. I’m obsessed with it. So that was kind of my push into learning about how to approach story, and learning about how to approach really… And this kind of goes back to my time in Cambodia, too, of seeing people for what they want to say about themselves, what they wish to express to the world. And then those kind of unsaid things that hold them to something else, something else that is of interest, these little details that we get the time, and we get paid to sit down and want to find. And so that’s been amazing.

So now I’m working towards a huge show. It’s a research show on Abraham Lincoln for The History Channel. And most of my work now, it’s a lot of kind of finding interview subjects that we want to bring onto the show and who have something interesting to talk about. So I am basically writing a thesis on Lincoln right now, and then I get to go out and I get some go and interview and really just pull information from these incredible scholars on Lincoln. So that’s kinda-

Nita June: Oh, so cool. It really sounds like you found what you’re meant to be doing in your life. Yeah.

Alena Schiappacasse: It’s amazing. I never thought it was going to happen. I went through so many different levels of like, “Who am I? What do I do? Where do I fit in?” I think something that was very difficult for me, was fitting in, always. And fitting in, in like my understanding of the world. And I don’t know how to explain it. I think that part of it is that, as a Waldorf student, something that is so important in the way that we learn, is having this broad understanding of the world around us. Learning about the world from stories, learning about history through stories, we get to create a relationship with these subjects.

Like… What is it? Fourth grade history. Is it the Greeks? [inaudible 00:24:35]. Fifth grade history, okay. The Greeks, right? By the end of it you’re like, “I know that person. I have a relationship with that person. And because you have a relationship with that person, you remember the dates, and you remember these important facts. Whereas I think a lot of other education systems are like, “Here’s a bunch of facts about this person that like maybe makes them interesting.” And then you have to kind of like figure out how to relate to them or not. And if you relate to them, you’ll remember, and if you don’t, you won’t.

So yeah, I think that that part of leaving Waldorf education was very tough, because I feel like I was in such a protected environment where, who I was as a human being was so valued. And the things that I was good at, or the things about my personality that were of interest or something that was like unique, were always nurtured. And then when I left that environment, I was like, “Whoa. Nobody cares?” Really, nobody cares. Everyone’s kind of on this like rat race path of, “I have to keep doing what I’m doing. I have to keep doing what I’m doing.” And in that way, you kind of don’t see other people around you and you don’t have the time to observe, because you’re trying to make a mark and you’re trying to be of value somehow.

And so I think that was difficult. And over the years, I’ve kind of learned that what makes the world interesting is not others value in me, but it’s that what Waldorf education gave me, was that I understand myself, I value myself, and now I can go into the world and because I have that, I can see that in others. So that’s been a really interesting… And you know what? The pandemic year did that for me. I like realized that, like this year I was like, “Oh, wow.”

Nita June: Perhaps blessings, well, I don’t know, silver linings to the pandemic. Yeah. Yeah, of personal insight. Yeah, self discovery, more reflection time. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Thank you, Alena. Those are wonderful, wonderful insights just about what you’ve taken from your Waldorf education and coming out of the Waldorf, I don’t even want to call it a bubble or a cocoon, because I feel like in some ways that it’s negative about it, but it’s a held space and it’s a really special space and a wonderful community. But I totally had that similar feeling too, like stepping out in the world, like, “Wait a second. What? But I people know me. Just understand me like everyone else did.

Nita June: Yeah. It just takes a longer time out in the real world. Yeah. Yeah. So thank you so much for talking about just how you feel like your Waldorf education has impacted and influenced you and inspired you to do what you’re doing right now. I’d love to hear a little bit about one of your most recent projects that you completed. It was a production called “We Are: The Brooklyn Saints“, and documentary again, that was produced by Ron Howard. And is it now available on Netflix or will it soon be?

Alena Schiappacasse: It is. It’s available on Netflix. Yeah.

Nita June: Okay. And can you share just some about that experience and the project itself as well?

Alena Schiappacasse: Yeah, that is a project, I think the project, that’s closest to my soul. I was really lucky to be recommended for the position with Imagine Documentaries and Disarming Films. And I really had no idea what I was getting into. Rudy Valdez, the director, had just won an Emmy. And I didn’t know that. Part of what I do for myself is that when I go into jobs, I don’t research all the press or the media behind people. I really don’t want it to reflect on the way that I interact with people. So I kind of just went in blind and I also didn’t really know what the subject matter was. I was really interested in the way that Imagine produce documentaries. They’re an incredible company and they always go into a story in the most truthful lens, I think. And so that was really exciting.

And then as it developed, it was really just like we started with like the most simple concept. The show is about a youth football team in East New York. And what’s really interesting about this topic is that, East New York is incredibly devastated neighborhood of New York. It is an incredibly poor community, and it is one of the foremost neighborhoods in New York city where school funding was completely cut. And so Rudy, our director, kind of went into this neighborhood one day and was like, “Wait a minute. We have to tell this story.” And he kind of came across this youth football team that was all run by coaches who were volunteering. They were saying, “Listen, we want to create an environment where our kids aren’t on the street and where we can provide an afterschool activity where they’re taking care of. Most of their parents work. What happens to them when they’re not in any kind of school format?” Well, they go on the streets, and their communities are disadvantaged because of that.

And so it’s amazing. These incredible coaches and this incredible community provide this youth football team, coaching, mentoring. And we had this amazing opportunity to be flies on the wall. It’s unique in that, a lot of documentaries these days, there’s a storyline that goes into it before you even get there. You’re like, “We’re going to paint this picture this way.” And then you go and you bring a camera and you interview the right people and you get your talking points and you make a film. For this it was, “We don’t know what the story is. We don’t know who these characters are. Let’s learn about these characters. Let’s learn about their community. Let’s not look at this through the lens of racial inequality. Let’s look at it through the lens of, “Who are these people and how do we tell the story?””

So I’d moved to New York and had really understood New York through the way that movies and media portrays it in this beautiful light of, you get to go to New York City and the shows and the fashion. And I was in fashion too. So like my whole perception of New York city was like New York fashion week, and like all of these super high end things. And then I went and walked into East New York and I was like, “What? I’d never ever experienced anything like this. I can read about it in an economics course. I can understand the numbers behind racial inequality. I can understand the numbers behind injustice. But what they don’t teach you is that every single person who was associated with that cluster of numbers, that piece of data on a piece of paper, is amazing. And they have these amazing stories and they have these amazing lives. And nobody really cares to hear them, because we want to paint it in a light that we put on it.

So that was really unique about this documentary. We didn’t have a story. We just said, “Let’s learn about these people.” And if you get a chance, watch it. It’s not only an amazing story, but it’s also an incredible feat of filmmaking. Everything was, it’s called verite style, documentary filmmaking. So everything was shot on like handheld cameras. And we like ran around and we followed these little kids around and we got into people’s cars, and yeah, it’s like not set up at all.

And at the end, when we were going through the edit, we were like, “Wait. Wait, we like lost a beat there. We got to fill out this other thing that somebody mentioned once in some sentence somewhere,” and then we’re like, “Wait a minute, let’s call [inaudible 00:33:18] and say, “Hey, can you expand on this thing that you talked about? Or what does this mean?”” So, yeah, it’s a really unique, incredible piece of film making. I can’t say that I had any part in the creative of that either. That was all coordinating, which was a nightmare. Because coordinating a film that is not coordinate-able or planned, is a pain in the ass. But I feel very lucky to have been a part of it.

Nita June: Wow. Wow, I’m really eager to watch it. Absolutely. That is so, so fantastic. What an experience. So my last question for you here today, Alena, is your next project is this Abraham Lincoln piece. But in terms of like, if you could, let’s just step into a world where your imagination and everything, all your dreams and hopes will become true, what is that future? Are you directing? Are you a creative producer? Are you producing? Yeah. What does it look like? What kinds of stories are you finding and shaping and creating?

Alena Schiappacasse: Yeah. That’s a great question. I really am looking towards working on documentary films, as a producer, that are associated with climate change. I’d like to do a lot of ocean documentaries. I’m a diver. I started diving and I was like, “Oh, wait, I can dive and bring a camera down there and [crosstalk 00:34:53]-

Nita June: Oh, my gosh.

Alena Schiappacasse: So I’m really excited about the opportunity of working with the National Geographic and BBC. And don’t tell, but I’m like interviewing with BBC right now and National Geographic and wish me luck.

Nita June: We’ll put it out there [inaudible 00:35:13] so that’ll happen. Yeah.

Alena Schiappacasse: Thank you. Yeah. So I want to continue just creating, be a part of the creative process of telling stories of cultural importance, economic importance, and then also, having a focus on climate change and nature documentaries.

Nita June: That sounds phenomenal. You will get there. I know you will. Yeah. Yeah. You have the brightness and the enthusiasm and just the energy, and it just feels like that’s what you’re meant to be doing. So I have no doubt my dear, whether it happens this year or next year or beyond. Yeah. It’s going to happen for you. Alena, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. So fun. It’s just this insight into the beauty, and the depths of the challenges I’m sure, too, of your world, to the busy-ness of it. But yeah, so phenomenal to catch up. Thank you.

Alena Schiappacasse: Thank you.

Nita June: Thank you for listening to WE Talk, brought to you by Shining Mountain Waldorf School and hosted by Nita June Davanzo. WE Talk is made possible because of listeners like you, who invest in the production of the show. Share your appreciation for what you’ve heard today. Help us explore the value of Waldorf education and preparing our children for the future by going to patreon.com/wetalkpodcast. If you’d like to be interviewed, have a suggestion for an episode ahead, or simply wish to share feedback. Please email us at, wetalk@smwaldorf.org.