Mid-morning on a day this past October, California-based filmmaker, writer, and photographer Soraya Simi met a group of over 50 people at Seal Beach Pier. She brought her camera and started filming what ensued.
The gathering was meant to be a paddle out to honor Angela Madsen, the three-time Paralympian and Marine veteran who sought to become the first paraplegic person and the oldest woman to row the Pacific Ocean. Madsen, who took the bronze in the shot put at the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London, had reached out to Simi after seeing a short film on sailing that Simi had directed while studying at USC film school. It was 2019. The two had never met but she wanted Simi to help her tell her story.
When Madsen died by drowning in 2020, over 1100 nautical miles from Los Angeles and 1200 miles from her destination in Honolulu, Simi had spent the year before filming Madsen around her home in Long Beach. She’d also exchanged satellite messages with her the day before she drowned. Now, in the wake of the tragedy, she faced something of a crisis of artistic faith. What do you do when you lose both a friend and a story? How and when do you move on?
Simi has followed stories to Nazaré, Portugal, to the Caribbean and to Baja, California. She’s filmed, photographed and written about everything from climate change to big wave surfing to piano making. Her work has been selected for Cannes, Yale, and Berlin. At the time, however, documenting Madsen was meant to be her first feature-length film. Her death left Simi unmoored.
At the time of the paddle out, Simi had set the film on Madsen aside. But there was something worth documenting in the community that showed up for Madsen. “It was just so hard for [Madsen] to get attention until she passed away,” she tells LAMag. “And then, yeah, it was just breathtaking to see everyone who came out for her.”
Just a few months earlier, Simi published an essay in Outside on the road trip she took across the Western U.S. as she tried to address her grief and the artistic purgatory that came with losing her hold on the film she had been making. “I write and I write and I write until, quite simply, I have nothing more to say,” she explains in the essay. “And have the courage, finally, to go home.”
Away from the parched acres of the deserts through which she drove, the uncertainty and vast possibility that comes with staring out at the ocean is, perhaps, symbolic of the questions Simi faces as an artist. These questions are entwined with one’s understanding of how to move on from loss and how to turn to storytelling as a salve, an instrument of both internal and external exploration, and a tool for healing and confronting.
LAMag spoke with Simi about her grief, owning her story, and her newest projects writing about big wave surfing and documenting country dancing—the first film she’s tackled since working with Madsen.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
LAMag: When we spoke earlier, you mentioned that you gravitate towards women more and more as creators who have influenced you. Do you think that’s also true of the subjects towards which you gravitate?
Soraya Simi: I think so. I don’t even know if I do it consciously. I think I’m just game to tell a story that I haven’t heard before. I don’t want to put out more of what is boring to me right now. What already exists. With Angela and the first time I met her, here was this 60-year-old paraplegic with wild gray hair and a really inappropriate sense of humor. In a wheelchair. An Olympian. She’s just so unexpected. I’d never met a character like her at that point in my life.
And when did you decide you wanted to do a documentary on country dancing?
The country dancing is actually one of my closest friends, my next-door neighbor growing up in Arizona. It’s a really personal story about mental illness more than anything else. I just feel really connected to the stories. I think one, women’s stories just haven’t been told enough. So it’s by sheer probability that I’m going to tell a woman’s story because it’s less of what we’ve heard. And then, also, I really believe it’s what you get invited to tell. I feel like stories are the most profound thing that we own… Angela asked me to tell her story. Jillian, the country dancer, we are co-telling this story because it’s relating to both of our lives. I feel a really strong ethical boundary with only pursuing things that I’m really invited to participate in.
I know the country dancing project is in progress but is there anything you can share about that experience right now?
It’s essentially about this woman who lived next door to me when I was nine years old. She became one of my closest friends and she developed a pretty serious mental illness and shared it with me one day. It shocked me how checked out I had been in this friendship that I hadn’t even noticed how seriously it had gotten. It sort of made me realize how insidious and secret a mental illness can be. The reason we say it’s so much easier to say it’s a documentary about country dancing is because we get to tap into the stories via this lens of who she’s become in a very short period of time. In like, two years, she’s considered one of the best country dancers in the state. It’s so random and no one could have predicted this. But she’s finding a piece of her real authentic self and lets go of all the baggage for a few hours a night.
Being so enmeshed in that world of country dancing, have you had any revelatory moments in terms of when you first knew this was a story and then certainly a visual story?
I think what surprised me the first couple of times she took me country dancing is, one, it’s so much fun. But then, there’s this question of, what is country dancing? To me, it symbolizes the fluidity of identity. I would have judged it as a very Republican thing to go do. It’s so horrible to say, but I’m pulling up to the parking lot and it’s like a million pickup trucks. It’s you know, Make America Great Again. Which–not to get political, but that’s the perception. But I love to put myself in places that make me a little bit uncomfortable or where I don’t feel like I fit in because it challenges me to explore…I just have learned through filmmaking to be a less judgmental person and to not put people in boxes.
I know you’ve written about wanting to re-engage following the trauma of losing Angela as a friend but also the struggle of losing a project and a story. Was this project the first one you moved to after that? And can you speak a bit about how you learned to re-engage?
I took time off right away. I moved to Portugal and lived in a village called Nazaré that is really famous for big waves. I needed a full system reset. And when I came back, we were still in the heart of the pandemic and I couldn’t find work…I realized how much I liked writing and how writing felt like what no one could take away from me. So I started writing a novel about big wave surfing. It’s been very difficult to get back on the filmmaking horse when you feel like you just failed so profoundly. But I’d had the country dancing idea for a while. And then a very close friend encouraged me to do it rather than continuing to take some giant bites out of a feature film or a whole novel.
Is there a place where you’ve been especially surprised to find a story?
Myself. I had no idea my own stories would be stories I wanted to tell… I’m interested in pointing the lens outward but I think what happened after Angela’s passing—I was grieving privately. But I came back to this really defining moment of you own everything that happens to you. And no one can take that away. I feel like half of my grief was around losing this story I cared so much about, compounded by the loss of a friend. When you have the capacity to tell your own story, I suddenly felt really protected by that.
How has your understanding of the impact of storytelling and resilience changed as you’ve continued pursuing storytelling in all of these different forms—writing, photography, film?
SS: I keep learning like that I don’t have to go so far. What I learned about the impact of storytelling and resilience is that my own immediate backyard has all that there…I feel like I’ve been able to deepen my relationships with my own friends, my own family, and even strangers because I kind of don’t have a lot of time for small talk. I just feel like we’re all harboring such extraordinary things about ourselves. I’m so curious to tap into that.
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