Megan Shutzer is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and investigative journalist who focuses on issues related to race, gender, and class in the U.S. and around the world. Her work includes the documentaries “New Generation Queens: A Zanzibar Soccer Story”, an examination of the history and culture of women’s soccer in Zanzibar that Shutzer worked on during her time at Dalberg, “Knocking Down the Fences”, the story of AJ Andrews, the first woman to win the prestigious Rawlings Gold Glove award, and most recently, a deeply reported story for the New York Times called “Dying Inside: Chaos and Cruelty in Louisiana Juvenile Detention” and the accompanying documentary “8 Days at Ware.”
Shutzer was a San Francisco-based project manager at Dalberg between 2013 and 2018. Upon leaving, she entered a two-year masters in journalism program at UC Berkeley, where she cemented a career change from strategizing solutions to the world’s most pressing social issues to investigative journalism, a path with many similarities.
In this interview, Shutzer speaks about her work, how Dalberg influenced her journey, and the power of storytelling to drive positive social impact.
Thanks for doing this interview, Megan. All of us here at Dalberg are big fans of your work. Let’s start at the beginning. How did you first get interested in journalism and documentary filmmaking?
When I was in high school, I saw two documentaries that had real impact on my life. One was “Ghosts of Rwanda”, a film about the 1994 genocide. The other was “Life and Debt,” which looks at the effects of the IMF on the Jamaican economy.
I think the combination of those two films, one which emphasized the consequences of U.S. inaction during a genocide and the other, the impact of U.S. economic policy – both on countries in the global south – led me to feel a deep sense of alarm about my responsibility as an American and a global citizen (I realize that term is cheesy but I was a teenager).
These documentaries led me to study history and international development and eventually to work at Dalberg because I was searching for how to right some of the wrongs of the system we live in, and how to address historic global inequality, which is also extremely racialized. At the same time, these documentaries cemented my belief in the power of film, which eventually pulled me away from Dalberg.
Where did the idea for your first big documentary “New Generation Queens” come from?
Before I started at Dalberg I was working in East Africa and I spent some time in Zanzibar setting up a study abroad program for the Harvard Summer School. When I was there I learned about the one women’s soccer team on the island and got the chance to play with them. Many of the soccer players were queer (though not out), and as a queer woman and soccer player myself, I felt an immediate sense of connection. I found myself wanting to tell everyone about this team, and the team really wanted to share their story with other women in Zanzibar to combat the narrative that women playing soccer is immoral. The players on the team wanted other girls to know that you can be a woman, a muslim and a soccer player—that these identities are not mutually exclusive.
So after I finished my internship in Dalberg’s Johannesburg Office in 2013, I flew to Tanzania and began production on a collaborative documentary, working with the soccer players to decide what the film would be about and who it was for. I was pretty new to documentary filmmaking and to be honest, I didn’t think anyone besides the players on the team and my mom would watch it, but “New Generation Queens” ended up having a pretty cool festival life, with screenings all over Zanzibar and in countries around the world.
Why did you apply to Dalberg? And how did you balance working at Dalberg with documentary production?
Dalberg seemed like a place where I would be surrounded by really smart people trying to figure out answers to the same kinds of questions that had been driving me since high school: what to do with my privilege, education and time to address global inequality and other pressing challenges around the world.
Working in consulting is a unique opportunity to see how different organizations try to tackle global development challenges and that felt like the right next step for me in my own process. I liked that I could keep learning with each project and that over time consulting would give me a bird’s-eye-view of development work in those spaces.
I had already shot “New Generation Queens” when I started full time at Dalberg, so I was editing the footage at night and on weekends. It was my side hustle, something that seemed really normal for Dalberg-ers to have at the time. While I was editing, I was fortunate to be on a project that involved travel to East Africa so I was able to go to Zanzibar repeatedly and show cuts of the film to the women on the team, who gave me feedback and really contributed to the shape of the film.
How did Dalberg influence your storytelling pursuits, and vice versa?
My time at Dalbeg definitely helped me become a better storyteller. First, the project management skills that I learned at Dalberg have proven incredibly helpful on a long investigative project or documentary. For example, this last story I did for the New York Times was a three-year project where we interviewed over 150 people in total. I had to keep everything organized and be strategic about how I spent my time on a daily basis and I can’t emphasize enough how consulting skills have helped.
Second, being able to move between on-the-ground perspectives from interviews and high-level theory is part of journalism, too. At Dalberg we were often interviewing people impacted by the issues we were working on and then finding academics and policymakers who could help us zoom out. I still do that now.
Third, Dalberg’s focus on training the next generation of leaders helped me identify the kind of change agent I wanted to be. Dalberg has been a launching pad for me and so many other consultants. At the global retreats, in the kitchen of the San Francisco office, on flights around the world I had so many conversations with Dalberg colleagues exploring how we want to have an impact. Dalberg is a place where you are doing really important and intense work already but there is a sense that it is OK to be honing your other aspirations because we are all striving and seeking and trying to figure out our roles in this world.
How can storytelling increase the impact of work that is done in the development sector? And what role do you think it can play at Dalberg specifically?
Many consultants in the development sector are already collecting all of the necessary materials to tell great stories—they are interviewing people who are affected by different issues, talking to experts to gain perspective and technical knowledge, learning about history and context, and then adding their own critical thinking to the mix. Often they take these inputs and transform them into Powerpoint slides tailored for a particular audience – typically clients and partners on the project. This is an effective kind of storytelling to be sure, but there is also a massive opportunity to draw more people into the subject matter, just by thinking differently about audience and medium. All the pieces are there, so maybe it comes down to hiring a cinematographer or a great photographer, or training consultants on audio production.
Where do you look for inspiration in creating your own work, and how do you ultimately decide which projects you’re going to pursue?
There are many issues that I care about, including the criminal justice system, which was the focus of my last project, and at the end of the day, my work as a journalist and filmmaker is about making people pay attention to those things that I think are important.
Consent is also really important to me. It takes a long time to make a documentary and I don’t want to force a camera on people, so I really look for people who want their stories told and at times even want to collaborate with me. I really love to work with people to think through what is important and how it can be conveyed.
I also think about my own identities and blind spots. I don’t think that journalists are limited to reporting on our own communities but I recognize that when we report on people and places with different identities and experiences, we are likely to miss a lot of nuance and important context. So I try to be conscious of my identities and to create teams where we align on vision and values but differ as much as possible in terms of background. When I work on a story that is “outside my lane,” I am always thinking about what I could be missing.
What types of questions around inequity are you seeking to answer when you embark on a new project? What are you working on now?
I’m focused on projects that hold people and institutions accountable and stories that amplify the work and voices of marginalized communities—the people who have always been resisting but not always noticed by the media. History and context is key to doing that work. I think in order to be an anti-racist journalist in the U.S. or anywhere in the world, you have to bring history and context into stories.
But I don’t think I’m trying to answer questions about why inequity exists. I’m more interested in why inequity continues to exist. What are the structures and who are the people that perpetuate it today? How, as humans, are we so complacent in the face of poverty and suffering?
As a white American, I feel particularly pulled to pay attention to the criminal justice system. I think it’s way too easy for large swaths of America to ignore the impact of that system on communities of color. People in this country get locked up out of sight by design. And part of my work is to bring stories from that system back in view so you can’t miss them.
In the short term, I’m still reporting on the juvenile justice system in Louisiana but I am plotting my next project as we speak. So if anyone has ideas… always open to hear them!
We will be waiting and watching. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today, Megan, and also for your important work more generally. We are looking forward to seeing what comes next.